Defence Notes

Iran in the dock over potential Ukrainian airliner downing

10th January 2020 - 12:04 GMT | by Tim Martin in London


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Firm conclusions about how Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed, killing all 176 passengers on board, finally emerged on 9 January after US and allied officials confirmed to media sources that intelligence is pointing to the Russian-made, Iranian-operated Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) system being used, following radar-based verification. 

Before then, video footage purporting to be of the incident in question had been circulating and corresponds with the version of events put forward by the Trump administration, while throwing doubt on the initial and since consistent official position of Iran that a technical error forced the Boeing 737 to crash.

In order for an event of this magnitude to take place, a wide variety of operational procedures have to go wrong and on that basis various analysts and social media users had originally been reluctant to accept the theory that Iran had indeed shot the aircraft down.

The country has as many as 29 of the Tor-M1 within its arsenal, according to Defence InsightIt is best understood as a self-propelled air defence system set up to track and attack all manner of airborne platforms and cruise missiles at medium, low and extremely low altitudes.

That kind of profile and capability set matches up to evidence of flight PS752 having been hit during an initial climb from Tehran airport, while the strength and role of Five Eyes intelligence to verify an incident of this kind is indisputable.

‘The US has the ability to detect Iranian radar emissions and the plume of a SAM launch,’ explained Andy Netherwood, air and space power editor for the Wavell Room. ‘They are also likely to have additional intelligence which they are not disclosing such as communication intercepts or human intelligence. It’s also difficult to see what they would gain from fabricating a shoot-down which has the potential to further inflame a situation they are trying to de-escalate.’

Determining how Iranian air defence personnel managed airspace in and around Tehran before then mislabelling the aircraft as a threat and shooting it down has still to be comprehensively evaluated, but one feasible, if extraordinary idea, is that flight PS752 had made a manoeuvre towards an F-14 base on the outskirts of Tehran, though even then a clearance for such a turn would have been routinely cleared by air traffic control, according to Justin Bronk, research fellow for air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute. 

He added that even if defensive systems like a radar warning receiver, which are not found on commercial airliners, had been installed and alerted aircrew to the missile, the ‘single second’ period between launch and impact could not have averted the hit.

Bronk puts the event down to ‘procedural incompetence’ not least because those responsible will have been in possession of flight path data for outbound aircraft from Tehran airport and ‘should have seen a large contact [aircraft]’ and been able to identify it as non-threatening.

That assessment is one of particular note given the extreme circumstances of the situation, while Netherwood suggested that an SA-15 transponder could have failed or ‘an event elsewhere’ might have prompted operators to think that an attack was imminent. 

The heat-seeking capabilities of a Man-Portable Air Defence System (MANPADS) are known to be able to target aircraft engines but have been ruled out of bearing responsibility for the Ukrainian airliner attack. (Photo: US DoD)

What is most certainly clear is that the shoot-down was not in line with rules of engagement and falls well short of being explained through exhaustion or the anxiety of air defence operators being on high alert alone.

‘It is likely that those potentially implicated did not follow due procedure and rule book-based guidance that sets out a precedent to only engage with threats that have been confirmed as adversarial or have been confirmed as opening fire,’ Ilker Aktasoglu, senior air analyst at Defence Insight explained.

‘Video evidence indicates that a higher-end air defence system, not MANPADS [Man-Portable Air Defence System], was used for the shoot-down, as the latter would have been launched with a heat-tracking capability that picks up the heat of the target's engine, and that doesn't seem to be the site of the initial explosion.’ 

For balance, a 9 January report from the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) of the Civil Aviation Organization of the Islamic Republic of Iran makes no mention of a missile striking the Ukrainian airliner, claiming that it reached an altitude of 8,000ft before making a turn 'to the right, when it disappeared off the approach radar scope' and subsequently returned back towards Tehran airport, due to a technical error. The document goes on to suggest that amid the wreckage a number of critical recording devices have been salvaged. 

'The rescue and search operation team found the aircraft black boxes, including the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), and is currently held by the investigation team of Iran AAIB,' the report finds. 'Both devices have been damaged as a result of the accident and catching fire. The memory parts of both recorders are in good conditions, though the physical damage to their main components is noticeable.'

Amid strained relations between Iran and the US, as well as widely different accounts of the airliner crash itself, further investigation looks highly unlikely to bring about a full, comprehensive and credible picture of how flight PS752 found its end.

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