By analogy it’s like an angry child finding daddy’s gun and taking it to school. Or perhaps as if daddy gave him the gun to take to school. Thing to remember is military equipment is designed to be easy to use at least in a relative sense.
The training required to properly operate the system can take weeks or months, which may explain why the Malaysia plane was destroyed in the first place. The problem with the SA-11 is that it’s difficult to properly identify and track targets, but easy to fire missiles. “The skill comes in knowing what you want to shoot at,” says Cordes. That’s because the SA-11’s radar system shows the same “blip” for all different targets. The operator sees an aircraft’s altitude, air speed, and vector, but not it’s size or type, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Airliners broadcast a four-digit transponder known as an IFF code that identifies them as civilian aircraft, and the SA-11 system is capable of picking up that information. But the training that goes into properly identifying aircraft takes months, especially since the window for acquiring and firing on targets is just a few minutes.
“You can’t take a crew, stick ‘em inside the cabin, and say here’s the on switch, and here’s the button you hit,” and expect them to operate it properly, says Wesley Paul, a former intelligence research analyst for the Air Force.
“Ready” and “aim” are difficult. “Fire” is easy.
But say someone dropped off the SA-11 and did all the basic work of getting it up and running, another complicated task. And say you decided on a target that popped up on your radar, whether or not you knew what it was. In that case, destruction comes easy. It would take three to four days at most to teach someone to use the system well enough to shoot down a 777, Cordesman says. That’s partly because passenger planes fly at steady speeds and altitudes, and have no defense systems. They cruise higher than fighter jets do, at heights where they’re more easily picked up by radar.