Gen. William Shelton, commander of the US Air Force Space Command in 2013. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian statements expressing skepticism that the U.S. can produce satellite images showing a surface-to-air missile shooting down the Malaysia Airlines jet on July 17 shows “desperation” on Russia's part, the top Air Force space official said today.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, would not confirm that the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared Systems constellation of satellites was involved in detecting the surface-to-air missile launch that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. He said, however, that the system is made up of “very good satellites. They are very sensitive, and they are very accurate.”
SBIRS is a constellation of four geosynchronous-orbit satellites, two highly elliptical Earth-orbit payloads and ground control stations that provide global infrared surveillance. Shelton would only confirm that Air Force Space Command can track strategic missiles. He said the Air Force has the capability to see smaller missiles and test activity from space, “but beyond that we can’t talk about.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kiev released a statement Saturday stating that the U.S. had detected a surface-to-air missile launch from a separatist-controlled area in southeastern Ukraine, believed to be a Russian-made SA-11. Shelton said there were several sources, in addition to the publicly released images of contrails that made the rounds on social media, that support the contention that a separatist missile brought down the airliner.
Russian military leaders on Monday pointed to the alleged presence of a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet in the proximity of the civilian aircraft, and alleged Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile systems in the area, as possible causes. U.S. officials have dismissed the claims as propaganda.
Russian officials called on the U.S. to release any satellite images from the incident.
“We also have some questions for our U.S. partners,” Russian Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartopolov said, according to Reuters. “According to the U.S. declarations, they have satellite images that confirm the missile was launched by the rebels. But nobody has seen these images. If the American side has pictures from this satellite, then they should show the international community.”
Shelton said Kartopolov‘s dubiousness over the U.S. capability sounded “like an act of desperation to me.”
“What I found somewhat humorous in that quote is the thought that we wouldn’t have global coverage,” Shelton said. “We do have global coverage, 24/7.”