It is surprising but welcome news that Iran has admitted responsibility for the shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran, killing all 176 aboard including 57 Canadians and nearly as many Iranians with Canadian connections.
This admission may bring a little closure to those whose family and friends perished and who, like everyone else, have been wondering who was responsible for this horrific blunder.
In a stunning volte-face, Iran now says that the missile that struck the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737 had been fired accidentally and that the cause was human error. This is an encouraging beginning to a long process about what happened in Iranian airspace just before dawn on Wednesday.
“A soldier took the aircraft for a cruise missile” and had “10 seconds to decide … to shoot or not shoot and he took the wrong decision,” Brigadier General Amirali Hajizaheh, the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace commander, told Agence France Presse.
The general said his missile battery was prepared to engage U.S. cruise missiles and that when they tried to contact their superiors for direction their radio communications were jammed.
Lt.-Col. (ret.) Chris Kilford, a former commander of Canada’s 4th Air Defence Regiment, elaborated on the arcane but vitally important defensive role of missile battery crews.
“The radar system will alert the operators to potential high-priority targets such as high-speed targets and/or targets not pinging back a recognized identification code (IFF or identification friend of foe),” Kilford said in an email. The airspace is also strictly controlled (or should be).
“Air defence systems should have low level transit routes for friendly aircraft entered into the on-board fire control computer and/or exclusion zones where civilian aircraft are not permitted. If deployed around an airport, civilian flight corridors and so on should be entered into the fire control computers to prevent mistakes. All of this technology, if used correctly, prevents targeting errors,” he said.
“A civilian aircraft would glow brightly on a radar screen simply because of its size,” Lt.-Col. Kilford said in his email. “Its flight pattern would, I think, not give an air defence crew anything to worry about under normal circumstances. But I have to say, the air defence field is one of the most technologically dependent. You need highly qualified people in the fire units and command centre. If anything, this matter could reveal serious command and control/training issues in the Iranian air defence forces.”
To get a clear picture of what transpired, a lot more must be divulged by Iran and the U.S. beyond the current explanation that a jumpy Iranian missile battery crew made a lethal mistake. There are, alas, already hints about how wary the Iranians will be about discussing operational procedures that militaries consider to be top secret.
Liz Palmer, the venerable Canadian foreign correspondent for CBS News, reported with visual proof Friday that the Iranian regime had carted away all of the wreckage. As Palmer reported, hurriedly scrubbing a crash site of first-hand evidence is not illegal. However, it is highly unusual for a country to do so before trained international forensic experts can closely examine the accident scene. Doing so later makes it much harder to piece the puzzle together.
Global News hasn’t independently verified the report. Yet Iran’s purported cleanup begs a question: what would Iran’s motive be for doing so before outside investigators could scour the area to search for clues that might explain the tragic deaths of scores of Canadians, Iranians with Canadian connections, and other nationals, including, of course, the Ukrainian pilots and flight attendants?
In accepting responsibility for the crash, Iran’s hand may have been forced by the universal western intelligence assessment that two Iranian missiles were fired at the airline that crashed. The conclusions offered by Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson and others sounded very much the same because they probably all derive from a single source.
Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. may be the countries that form the Five Eyes intelligence group. But the reality is that as in so many military and intelligence matters the U.S. is by far the biggest Cyclops. Other countries heavily rely on what an alphabet soup of American security agencies tell them.
It is possible that human assets on the ground contributed information to this western assessment. But absent access to the crash site, most of what is known and will become known about the ill-fated Ukrainian aircraft will be based on Iranian testimony and, if the U.S. allows such information to become public, the signals traffic and infra-red missile launch flashes and missile telemetry that sensors and cameras on U.S. satellites, airborne surveillance aircraft or stealth fighter jets sensors would have heard, tracked or seen.
I have had a small glimpse into the information collection and assessment capabilities that the U.S. possesses during unclassified briefings at NORAD’s underground bunker in Colorado Springs, at a major U.S. naval base on the east coast, at U.S. bases in the Middle East, and aboard aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. What American forces know, often within seconds of missiles being launched, is astonishing. On a night that Iran was launching more than 20 ballistic missiles across the Gulf toward joint U.S./Iraqi air bases, every alert mechanism run by the U.S. military intelligence and wider intelligence community would have been intensely focused on Iran.
Iran has already been more forthcoming than Russia has been in similar circumstances.
The Kremlin continues to deny that one of its missiles struck a Malaysian Airlines jumbo jet bound from Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur in March 2014. The crash killed 298 people over eastern Ukraine. Russia stuck to this position even after an exhaustive examination of electronic evidence and wreckage examined at the scene by the Dutch concluded that it was not only a Russian missile fired by pro-Moscow proxies, but that it specifically belonged to the Russian Federation’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
Similarly, the Soviet Union initially denied that one of its fighter jets shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 off its Pacific coast in 1983, killing all 269 aboard. When it finally admitted what its fighter jet had done, the Kremlin justified the action by saying the commercial jet had been on a spy mission for the United States.
The U.S. also provided conflicting information about why one of its navy cruisers, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian Airlines Airbus 300 in 1984. Then president Ronald Reagan quickly expressed regret for the incident. But it was not until 12 years later that the U.S. formally acknowledged its culpability and paid out US$61 million in compensation to the families of those who died.
It is too early to say, but it is possible that there could be a wrangle between Iran and the Ukrainian airline company about how to apportion blame and dole out what will likely be hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate the families of the victims.
Among the hard questions that must still be answered:
- Why did Iran leave its commercial airspace open on a night when it fired ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. military targets in Iraq?
- Why did Ukrainian International Airlines and several other airline companies allow their aircraft to carry passengers into and out of Iranian airspace when U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft were almost certainly snooping about and jamming communications over territory that was bristling with surface-to-air missile systems that were turned on?
- What were the rules of engagement for Iranian missile battery crews, or had they switched their missiles to launch automatically if an intruder was suspected?
- Who gave what orders to the missile battery crews after the Iranians unleashed a salvo of missiles at Iraq and did they have access to the flight plans that pilots must file before taking off?
- How was it possible that a missile battery could confuse the radar profile of a U.S. cruise missile with the much larger profile of a Boeing 737?
- And how much of what they know will U.S. forces make publicly known? For example, were U.S. air assets jamming Iranian communications and if so did it make it harder for the Iranians to avoid the fatal mistake of firing at a civilian aircraft?
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas