Multiple failures led to Iran's attack on a Ukrainian jetliner
By ALAN LEVIN | Bloomberg | Published: January 13, 2020
Details about why Iran air defense forces mistook a Ukrainian airliner for a cruise missile remain murky, but one thing is clear: Safeguards for operating surface-to-air missiles are supposed to prevent that kind of mistaken identity and all of them failed.
The error, which killed all 176 people aboard the plane on Wednesday, is probably the result of multiple layers of failure that extend into high levels of the government and military, said Steven Zaloga, senior analyst for missile systems at the Teal Group.
"There's any number of potential problems here," Zaloga said. "This incident strongly suggests that the methodology has failed and the technology has failed as well. There should have been a methodology worked out to prevent fratricide."
Iran has vowed to conduct a thorough investigation of what happened, and bring the "culprits" to justice. Among the questions that remain is why authorities allowed civilian flights to operate during the tense hours after its attack on the Iraqi bases.
Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 was flying in a very different manner than the cruise missile it was supposedly mistaken for. It was following the normal departure path from Tehran's airport and was clearly transmitting its identity when it was taken down.
While a highly effective weapon against short-range threats, the SA-15 Tor missiles used in the strike early Wednesday have a guidance system that's designed for use in war zones and can't by itself easily distinguish between airliners, cruise missiles and other military aircraft.
As a result, nations that deploy the Tor typically link them into a broader air-defense command system capable of tracking civilian planes, Zaloga said. In those circumstances, soldiers operating missile batteries aren't supposed to fire them without approval from higher authorities.
Flight 752, a Boeing 737-800, was transmitting its position for civilian radars and the newest flight tracking system that uses global-positioning data, according to data posted by FlightRadar24.
While the Tor's radars might not have been been able to discern between civilian and military targets, other systems in Iran were tracking the plane and that information should be available to missile battery commanders, he said.
Iran has offered changing explanations for why it shot down the jet in the pre-dawn darkness.
A statement released early Saturday said that the plane had turned toward a military base.
FlightRadar24's track for the Boeing 737-800 showed it flying a normal profile. About two minutes after becoming airborne, it made a slight turn to the right, which is typical for departures from that runway. When it climbed to about 7,900 feet (2,408 meters) altitude, it suddenly stopped transmitting its position, most likely as it suffered damage from the missile.
At least two other planes that departed that morning followed nearly identical paths and several others flew nearby, according to the company's data.
"Even without having been made directly aware of this flight, a SAM operator crew should have easily been able to identify that this flight pattern and radar profile was completely at odds with any suspected U.S. missile or combat aircraft strike package," Justin Bronk, a specialist in military technology at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, wrote in a post on the think tank's website.
A later statement by Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Iran's Aerospace Force, said the jet was identified as a cruise missile.
The U.S. versions of those self-guided drones are designed to hug the ground to avoid detection, often flying within 100 feet of the surface, Zaloga said. The Ukrainian plane was rapidly climbing and was several thousand feet higher.
The missile operator was supposed to obtain approval before commanding a strike, but communications were disrupted and he only had 10 seconds to decide, Hajizadeh said.
Despite criticism of Iran's explanations of the missile attack, the regime was praised by some for not attempting a broader cover-up.
"Not withstanding two days of denials, this is an admirably frank admission of guilt," Bronk said in a tweet. "Will help avoid further escalation with the West, help the victim's families grieve, and prevent years of conspiracy rubbish. Well done."
The apparently mistaken missile firing came just hours after Iran launched several ballistic missile barrages on bases in Iraq at which U.S. troops were stationed and Iran's air-defense system was on high alert. An earlier U.S. attack in Iraq that killed Iran's top general also heightened tensions.
"We accept full responsibility for this action and we will obey any decision taken by the authorities," Hajizadeh said.
Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, which had initially adamantly denied a missile was involved, said it hadn't received any information on the plane being shot down despite repeated requests for information from military authorities.
In spite of those factors, the failure points to broader issues with Iran's air-defense system, Zaloga said. Even though the country has had some successes, such as when it shot down a U.S. drone last June, it's generally seen as antiquated and ineffective, he said.
"The source of the problem may be that they thought they were better than they were," he said.
Among the questions that also remain is why authorities allowed civilian flights to operate during the tense hours after its attack on the Iraqi bases.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which had imposed several flight restrictions on U.S. carriers in the region in recent months as tensions rose, reissued those warnings prior to the Tehran crash. The FAA became more aggressive in issuing such warnings in the wake of the 2014 loss of a Malaysian Airlines plane.
There are relatively few surface-to-air missile systems operating around the world that are sophisticated enough to take down a jetliner and they typically aren't activated unless there's an imminent threat, Zaloga said. But last week's incident shows better controls are needed.
"That is something that needs to be discussed at an international level," Zaloga said.
It wasn't the first such case of tragic mistaken identity. In 1988, an Iran Air Airbus A300 was shot down by the U.S. Navy over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people. Its crew mistook the jet for an Iranian fighter jet. In 2014, a Russian-made Buk missile downed Malaysia Airlines flight as it flew over eastern Ukraine, where fighting was occurring between rebels and that country's forces.
Iranian officials may have allowed flights to continue because they didn't want to signal to the U.S. that it was involved in the missile attack against the Iraqi bases, Zaloga said.
The result put those planes as risk, Simon Petersen, a director of missile defense issues at Terma A/S, said in a tweet. "So basically every passenger on every civil plane was used as human shields," he said.
Bloomberg's Yasna Haghdoost, Arsalan Shahla and Aoyon Ashraf contributed to this report.