Let's Talk About How Iran Could Have Shot Down A 737 Full Of Innocent People

A lot had to of gone wrong to get us to this point and not just with a surface to air missile battery. 

The Tor-M1 anti-aircraft defense system
AFP via Getty Images—2009 AFP

The tragic loss of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800 with 176 souls on board, increasingly appears to have been a horrific mistake. Video of the airliner careening into the ground ablaze at around 6:12AM local time on January 8th, 2020 has permeated news headlines. It has also served as an unexpected and horrific aftershock to the unprecedented Iranian missile strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq that occurred just a few hours prior. Many are asking how an airliner taking off normally from a major international airport located on the outskirts of a capital city could simply be swatted out of the sky. Clearly, nobody has the complete answer to that question at this time, but there is certainly a lot to comprehend and ponder until we do. 

The Mindset Of Iranian Air Defenders

I don't think most people comprehend just how unique the situation was and had been for those tasked with defending Iranian airspace at the time of the supposed shootdown. For nearly a week, Iran's air defense network had been on high alert. Following the airstrikes on Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and the assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the biggest crisis between the U.S. and the country in decades was unfolding. The rhetoric between the two bitter foes had quickly reached new heights with direct threats from President Trump about striking 52 target sets, some of which could include cultural sites important to the Iranian people and regime. American military might, including heavy airpower, was pouring in the region. A spark could ignite a war at any time—even one caused by a relatively minor miscalculation. 

An aerial blitz, even a limited one, from the U.S. would look unlike anything Iranian air defenders had ever seen. The U.S. relies heavily on stealth technology, electronic warfare, and pointed cyber attacks that could make a familiar radar scope look alien in an instant. Stealthy aircraft and cruise missiles may appear fleetingly on those same scopes depending on the range, aspect, and type of sensor trying to track and engage them. Getting a shot off fast may be the only way of attempting to counter such a threat, if you are lucky enough to ever detect it at all. 

Iran's military forces are far from homogeneous in quality and readiness. It is hard to predict how proficient the individuals at the controls of any given Iranian surface-to-air missile battery truly are, especially during a crisis when reserve forces are activated. The system suspected of shooting down the airliner, the relatively short-range Tor-M1, is not a high-end weapon, it is used mainly for point defense and for accompanying ground forces on the move. The quality of operator is likely significantly lower than those found in Iran's long-range air-defense units that operate more capable and higher-end strategic air defenses, such as the S-300 and other indigenous systems. 

After a week of being on extreme alert already wearing down their effectiveness, and with their country having just launched a truly unprecedented ballistic missile strike on U.S. forces in Iraq, even though the American president swore vengeance if such a strike were to occur, the stress and fatigue levels were likely very palpable. In fact, the ballistic missiles flew into Iraq at roughly 3AM local time and dawn was coming soon when the 737 went down three hours later. That makes for a long, very tense night after a long tense week, and if the U.S. were to retaliate, those weapons would arrive before sunrise. For the Iranian air defenders, the window of vulnerability was closing, but as a result, the risk of such a strike was also being compressed into that shrinking timeframe and magnified. 

For the personnel sitting in that cramped road-mobile air defense system on the western approaches to Iran's capital city, which is rife with relevant targets, it would be an immeasurably nerve-racking situation that they would found themselves in around 6AM on January 8th, 2020. Their SAM system was radiating gobs of RF emissions and positioned in the likely flight path of incoming American combat aircraft and missiles, making them a certain target for combat jets tasked with clearing an avenue for other attacks. Their radar, blazing like a bright flashlight in a dark room, was literally telling hostile forces where their location is, what they are, and that they need to be destroyed. Under those circumstances, death would likely come by a Mach 2 flying AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) launched off an F-16CJ or more likely via a slower, but highly accurate GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb launched from the weapons bay of a stealthy F-35. 

It was one horrible place to be and the worst time to be in it. It was also a breeding ground of circumstances that invites a hair-trigger and potentially devastating miscalculation. 

Technical Unknowns

Beyond the human factors involved, there are major technological unknowns that could have contributed to such a disaster. Iran imported just over a couple of dozen Tor-M1 air defense systems from Russia in 2007. So, these aren't ancient SAM systems necessarily, but just how modern they were when they got delivered and what upgrades or tinkering they have been through, isn't widely known, nor is their overall mechanical condition. The tinkering part is key as Iran has a fairly remarkable albeit at times puzzling organic weapons development industry that has been known to clone foreign systems into local production. They also modify foreign weapon systems to better suit their needs and sustainability demands. How much modification work had occurred on these systems in the 12 years since they have been delivered or how such work has modified their effectiveness, one way or another, is another unanswered question.

More importantly, we don't know exactly how deeply intertwined the Tor-M1 units are with Iran's greater integrated air defense system (IADS). In other words, the degree to which a Tor-M1 battery was operating independently of a greater aerial surveillance and command and control architecture is unknown, but it is a key factor that could have contributed to making such a mistake. I would bet that this system was operating without the benefit of any deep integration with a large IADS, which makes some sense when you think about its primary road-mobile, infantry-guarding mission set. Clearly, if indeed an Iranian SAM took the plane down, the crew's situational awareness was compromised, both in terms of the overall tactical picture and what was going on with normalized air traffic in the immediate vicinity of the battery. We know for a fact that multiple flights continued to depart in the hours following Iran's missile barrage and leading up to the shoot-down, so it's not like the 737 appeared following a lengthy pause in operations at the nearby airport. 

Then there is the question of technical issues with the battery itself. The doomed 737 was doing exactly what a 737 would when departing from that airport. The Tor operators would have seen that flight profile so many times that it would be burned into their consciousness—that is if the crew was familiar with the area. But even still, they watched the flights depart before the 737, and they didn't shoot those down. With all this in mind, it seems probable more than possible that some sort of mix of malfunctioning gear and/or a lack of networking, paired with glaring human factors, lowered the crew's ability to distinguish friend or foe and make quality decisions under complex circumstance to the point of catastrophe. 

Sad Precedent

The depressing truth is that these types of incidents are hardly unheard of. The shooting down of MH17 over Eastern Ukraine surely comes to mind first. There are some similarities with this incident and the SA-11 Buk system used in that engagement is more akin to the SA-15 Tor-M1 than not. If the battery was operating independently of a greater integrated air defense network, that would also be another parallel. 

But it isn't just about America's adversaries possessing potentially lower quality of gear, less well-trained personnel, and making blundering decisions under stress. Case in point, the American guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes infamously shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 during another highly tense situation. The ship was equipped with the most modern air defense system the world had ever seen and was staffed with a crew made up of sailors from world's preeminent Navy, yet still, a confluence of stress, timing, and confusion, often referred to as the "fog of war," resulted in the deaths of 290 innocent people. 

During a running gunfight with Iranian fast boats, the cruiser's crew mistook the Airbus A300, which was squawking properly and had been in English communication with air traffic control as normal just seconds before being shot down during its short flight between Bandar Abas and Dubai, for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat on a bombing run. The Airbus's low altitude route, maxing out at around 14,000 feet, for the short flight, was a contributing factor to the confusion, although the Airbus was not even descending at the time the SM-2 missile struck it. Bandar Abas was also a major operating point for Iranian Tomcats. There were a number of other contributing factors, as well, which you can read all about here, including communications issues and unanswered warnings from the Vincennes. Regardless, it was a terrible thing that neither side wanted to see happen. 

The loss of the Airbus A300 is still very visceral to the Iranian people and the regime uses the tragedy to stir-up anti-American sentiment to this very day. But above all else, the incident should work as a reminder that it isn't always just failed or dated technology and badly trained personnel that can cause such a disaster. A series of unfortunate factors and missed opportunities for recognizing major issues can truly create a deadly cocktail that gets stirred up and poured too fast to realize what was even drank. 

Beyond this especially relevant example, there are plenty of friendly fire incidents by various militaries, including the U.S. and its allies, where even the most advanced radar systems and military aircraft equipped with specialized identification friend or foe (IFF) gear couldn't stave off tragedy. Whether it be the loss of a RAF Tornado GR.4 to an American Patriot battery during the opening of Operation Iraqi Freedom or the shooting down of an Indian Mi-17 helicopter by an Indian surface-to-air missile during last year's flare-up of aerial violence with Pakistan near Kashmir, there is a well-documented and continuing history of these events. 

Harsh Reality

If indeed Iran shot the plane down as it is increasingly believed, they are directly responsible for such a terrible miscalculation, but it didn't happen on some random Tuesday morning. It happened during the highest point of tension between the two countries in decades. It may be quite inconvenient for some people to come to terms with the fact that this occurred, at least indirectly, because the U.S. and Iran cannot figure out a way forward that doesn't include being on the brink of war with one another periodically. 

The fact is that when the geopolitical situation is allowed to degrade to such a perilous point, the chances that major mistakes may occur skyrockets. And those mistakes can have huge impacts on countries and people who are not even involved with the ongoing crisis. The whole thing should serve as a powerful warning of the cost brinksmanship and how even limited conflict can spill into unintended areas, resulting in highly unfortunate consequences. 

Thankfully no Americans died in the ballistic missile attacks on U.S. occupied facilities in Iraq on January 8th, 2020, and neither did any Iranian soldiers. But 176 people that had nothing to do with any of it may very well have died as a result of those actions and the situation that proceeded it. It just takes the wrong people in a position of great responsibility at the wrong time to transform the great potential for a horrific loss into reality.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com