One year ago, we witnessed a human tragedy with the shootdown of a civilian airliner by Iranian forces killing 176 people on board. It was a tragedy born from the dangers of use of Russian air defense systems, a series of tragic mistakes, misjudgments, and hastily deployed and poorly trained Iranian forces. On this one-year anniversary of that tragic day, MDAA provides the following recap of the events of that day with lessons-learned to continue our mission of education and advocacy for the best and most effective air and missile defenses for the United States and our allies.
In the early morning of January 8th, 2020, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards air defense unit fired upon and intercepted a civilian passenger aircraft taking off from Tehran International Airport killing all the passengers and crew on the plane that included a majority of Canadians. Two, Iranian TORM1 missiles from a Russian-made SA-15 “Gauntlet” surface-to-air missile battery shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 at 6:12 AM at low-altitude on it’s normal ascending cleared flight path.
Five days earlier, on January 3rd, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone launched multiple missiles at a convoy targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces Commander, Qasem Solemani who had led attacks on U.S. allies and forces in the region that resulted in the deaths of over 600 U.S. soldiers. The U.S. strike on the convoy resulted in the deaths of 10 Iranian officials. Immediately after the attack, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, publicly stated that retaliation was imminent. At the highest level of tension, Iran launched a ballistic missile attack at 1:34 A.M. on January 8th, 2020. The missile attack targeted Ayn al-Asad Air Base, which houses U.S. Soldiers and Airmen, as well as Erbil International Airport. Iran’s January 8th ballistic missile attack consisted of 11 Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missiles, 2 Fateh-313 short-range ballistic missiles, and 4 additional unidentified missiles that failed in flight. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Commander was ordered to prepare for war and postured Iranian Air Defenses to the highest level of alert.
As part of Iran’s planning for the missile attack on U.S. forces, on January 8th, 2020, Iranian forces were placed on high alert, positioned, and postured for an expected retaliatory strike on Tehran. All air defense crews were ordered to “Alert Level 3,” the highest state of alert since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This heightened state of alert resulted in the deployment of Iranian Air Defense assets to temporary positions around critical infrastructures in Tehran. Ultimately, Iran placed SA-15 batteries in close proximity to the Tehran International Airport in order to defend infrastructure for generating forces. This is a clear display in the lack of whole government understanding with deliberate decisions up and down the Iranian chain of command. Tehran International Airport served as a new, complex, and unfamiliar environment for Iranian Air Defense operators. This unfamiliar problem set combined with Iranian operators on a Russian system greatly contributed to this shoot down. Establishing this new position required operators to quickly configure the SA-15 system to maximize its capabilities. The initial system configuration of the SA-15 “Gauntlet” is key to differentiating between military or civilian aircraft and is a no-fail procedure. The operators of the SA-15 “Gauntlet” are required to establish a myriad of redundant communications with their higher authority to provide situational awareness of airspace.
In order to avoid miscalculation, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Commander decided to retain centralized control of all engagement decisions; however, he and his battery commanders struggled to implement critical command and control (C2). This design created a single point of failure. Iran’s sole engagement decision-maker split his attention between Iran’s ballistic missile strike and air defense across the country to include Tehran International Airport. The IRGC Aerospace commander was located far from the Flight 752 shoot down and was at the offensive ballistic missile launch area in Southwest Iran. The unintended consequence was the Iranian commander degraded his own ability to make engagement decisions, while located hundreds of miles away.
Iran’s Aviation Organization (AO), the Iranian equivalent to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), was unaware of the SA-15 battery’s location near the Tehran airport. Similar to the Iranian SA-15 deployment to Tehran International Airport, the U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Air and Missile Defense Batteries have defended airspace in close proximity to multiple international airports for decades. GCC countries partnered with U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Patriot Batteries have protected and continue to protect international airports in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. GCC and U.S. Air Defense Artillery Batteries possess strong C2 networks and have gone decades with no errant shoot down of civilian aircraft near airports in the Middle East. This integration begins with our robust foreign military sales program, built-upon the total package approach. This mindset ensures that countries receiving systems such as PATRIOT and THAAD receive support and service over the life of the system in order to maintain equipment and operator proficiency in the long-term. In many cases, our allies and partners complete training alongside U.S. personnel. This enables partners and allies to introduce, sustain, and operate air defense systems in a responsible and effective manner consistent with U.S. intent. That is the protection of human life, minimization of collateral damage, and effective defense of national critical infrastructure. Strong C2; joint and allied information sharing; integrated training; and continued material support enable success.
Since the mid-1990s, U.S. Patriot Batteries have a record free of errant shoot downs. This record of success has extended a relationship of trust to GCC senior-level military commands and enabled allied success in the same environment for nearly 25 years. The takeaway is that strong C2, joint, and allied information sharing is critical to preventing an errant shoot down. The U.S. and GCC C2 network architecture has strong redundancy, is well-rehearsed, and securely provides safe missile defense readiness to the Middle East.
Flight 752 departed from Tehran International Airport, runway 29R, at 6:12 A.M. As Flight 752 climbed away from Tehran International to the Northwest, the SA-15 radar acquired an unidentified, low-flying track that was ambiguous in origin with a potential cruise missile flight profile. The operators errantly assessed that Flight 752 was a cruise missile and seemingly failed to validate published aircraft departure routes, associated flight profiles, and its hostile status with higher authority due to lack of training and effective C2.
The aircraft continued to climb away from Tehran International on its planned flight path, opposite the direction of the airport. The Iranian crew’s radar data showed that the track was flying away from it’s defended asset, which serves as another indicator that the crew misclassified the civilian aircraft as a cruise missile. Iranian operators should have recognized that the origin of a cruise missile with that flight pattern could not have possibly been launched from outside of Iranian borders by the United States or another military. Unable to establish communications with the IRGC’s central decision-maker, the SA-15 battery operators had 10 seconds to make a decision to fire. The Iranian SA-15 operators identified Flight 752 as a hostile cruise missile, based upon the crew’s limited situational awareness in the new location. Upon the Iranian crews’ cruise missile classification and hostile identification, two TORM1 missiles were fired at Flight 752, with the crew in-the-dark that the target contained 176 civilian passengers. At 0615, the missiles struck Flight 752 and crashed into a children’s playground on the outskirts of Tehran. In just a matter of moments, 176 passengers from Canada, Iran, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan, and the United Kingdom were dead.
In a public statement, Iranian Brigadier General Amar Ali Hajizadeh explained the situation as:
“This poor guy identifies it as a cruise missile. Well at such a situation, he was obliged to contact, get approval. This is where this operator makes the mistake; but at that moment, his communication system was apparently disrupted – whether because of jamming systems or the high traffic. For that reason, he fails to contact [his commanders]. He had 10 seconds to decide; he could hit or not hit [the target]. Under such circumstances, he decides to make that bad decision; he engages, the missile is fired, and the plane is hit at this place.”
Iran lacked proper C2 structure to relay information from the SA-15 crew to the IRGC Aerospace sole decision-maker for surface-to-air engagements. Iran was significantly deficient in inter-agency communication, culminating with Iran’s Aviation Organization having no awareness of the IRGC Aerospace force’s Alert Level 3.
Any nation that procures the Russian made SA-15 system accepts a burden that puts innocent lives at risk. Furthermore, many SA-15 systems in use around the world are employed in a similar way as the Iranians – in close proximity to large, heavily trafficked international airports. This fact brings relevance to the public, arming airline passengers with knowledge of the SA-15’s implications near civilian airports.
The lessons learned from the mistaken engagement of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 are applicable to all within our global missile defense community. As a community, we must evaluate this tragic event, be objective, and apply lessons learned to mitigate and prevent future, unnecessary shoot downs of commercial aircraft from Missile Defense Systems deployed close to airports around the globe. From Seoul’s Incheon Airport to Doha’s Hamad International Airport we remain vigilant, proactive, and diligent in safely defending the world’s airports and population centers.