The unmarked police car which came under attack on Thursday night was raked with accurate gunfire from up to about 330ft away, the PSNI has said.
Up to eight rounds hit the unmarked vehicle, puncturing the passenger door and shattering the closed window which an officer had been looking out of at the time, but more shots may have been fired, the PSNI said.
Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said the armoured plating and bulletproof glass saved the lives of the two officers who were inside the vehicle when it was ambushed.
He said the range of the attack was roughly 50 to 100 metres (164ft to 328ft). He would not be drawn on whether an assault rifle was used.
He said: “What is very clear is that it was significant weaponry to bring into what is a very residential area, lots of housing, people trying to go about their business trying to prepare for Christmas.
“Anything could have happened; not just police officers injured or killed but children walking about the street.
“Had a round gone through a window anything could have happened.”
The finger of suspicion has been pointed towards dissident republican extremists who are opposed to the peace process and have killed two soldiers, two police officers and a prison guard in recent years.
Mr Grimshaw added: “It bears the hallmarks of similar such attacks that we have seen in Belfast city and beyond so that is a major line of inquiry.”
Asked by the News Letter if there was any reason to believe there was any involvement of individuals linked to the PIRA – as is suspected to be the case with the Kevin McGuigan murder – he said: “I’m not going to get into that. It’s much too early for us to speculate about who did this.”
The male officers were inside the Vauxhall Insignia at Rossnareen Avenue in the Andersonstown area when they were targeted shortly before 7pm on Thursday.
They escaped uninjured but were left badly shaken.
Police are treating the incident as attempted murder.
Last week a member of the Travelling community was injured after he was shot in the head in the same area.
It is understood the officers who were targeted had been at Rossnareen Avenue for a number of days, and police believe the attack was “premeditated and planned”.
Mr Grimshaw said a review of procedures and tactics will be carried out but he insisted there are no so-called “no-go areas” for the PSNI.
Asked what his message was to those reponsible, he added: “We won’t be deterred in any way, shape or form.”
Detectives believe the gunman fled the scene in a Black BMW 3 Series which was waiting at Tullagh Park.
It was stolen and was thought to be carrying false number plates: 05 C 24774.
It was subsequently found burnt out at Cluain More Drive, also in west Belfast.
Northern Ireland’s outgoing First Minister Peter Robinson said on Twitter: “My thoughts are with the officers targeted in Belfast. A futile act which could have resulted in carnage for anyone in the vicinity.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers added her condemnation of the “shocking” shooting, while the region’s Justice Minister David Ford said it was “appalling”.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey said it was fortunate no-one was killed.
He said: “This attack happened in the early evening in a busy area and could have killed or seriously injured anyone in the area at the time.
“Thankfully, no-one was injured, but it was a frightening experience for people in the area.
“Those responsible have nothing to offer the community, they do not speak for local people and need to end these reckless and futile actions immediately. We will not allow them to drag us back to the past.”
Debbie Watters, vice chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said she was also grateful no-one was hurt.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the PSNI on 101.
The Police Federation, which represents thousands of rank and file officers, has called for extra money to provide additional officers on the ground.
Chairman Mark Lindsay said: “There needs to be more investment and enough officers that we can do their job safely. We work in a unique environment, certainly within the UK and possibly Europe, that everything we do, is done with the caveat that a terrorist attack is highly likely.
“So, what was keeping a crime scene last night became officers being set up for murder.”
The PSNI is 700 officers short of the recommended 7,500 for peacetime policing, Mr Lindsay claimed.