What happened in the night that Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 was shot down over Tehran? A look at what had to go wrong for the Iranian military to shoot down a civilian airliner just after takeoff from a local airport.
Your Host: Fabian A. Scherschel
After having guessed at the end of the previous episode that Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 might have been shot down in Tehran, we now have confirmation that this was indeed the case. I was researching this story live on Twitter as it developed and will present to you in this episode what we know about this terrible incident.
“I have been listening to your podcasts since the early Linux Outlaws days. Great stuff and really excited about you starting a more politically themed podcast since I am not really into painting Warhammer miniatures and also really enjoy NA. Thanks for all the time you put into this, it is really, really appreciated. Keep it up!”
“Hi Fabian, nice to hear you on RadioNW. I heard your donation on No Agenda and had to check you out. I miss the Linux Outlaws. Keep up the good work you are a clear thinker.”
Fadi comments on Broadcast 5:
“First of all, thank you for the deep and balanced exposition on this topic. But I would like to comment on a statement you made regarding the start of the American trauma in Iran when the Shah was deposed. I think it would also be relevant to note the Iranian trauma with the American regime (I totally share you point of view regarding this term regime).”
“The Shah was regarded as an American backed dictator, so there’s definitively ‘bad blood’ between Iran and the United States, and I’m not sure how many iterations someone would have to look back to say who started it first. Anyway, on the other hand, please understand, I’m in no way a fan of the current theocracy in Iran, and yes, under the Shah the country seemed more modernized, but it’s a dilemma, which one is better: local theocracy or a dictator supported by a foreign power? Let’s say not an easy and clear choice.”
“Another topic that I wanted to mention, is a technicality regarding Al-Qaeda and Iran. I can’t remember your exact words but I got the feeling that you somehow linked Al-Qaeda and Iran. But there’s a catch here: You probably hear of the two major sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia. Shia Islam is the major religion in Iran, while Al-Qaeda follows an extreme version of Sunni Islam. But on the other hand, Iran is surely linked to Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization, especially from Israel point of view.”
“Thank you again, and looking forward to you next episode!”
Bazzawill sends me an idea for a future episode:
@radionw podcast idea to do a deep dive into how internet shutdowns work, and how they can be circumvented. I started back down this rabbit hole from flash forward, reading Infinite Detail some narrativium may have been used. I have found limited tech stories mostly politics …— bazzawill (@bazzawil) January 11, 2020
How the Shootdown Happened
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 [Wikipedia]
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) was a scheduled international passenger flight from Tehran to Kiev operated by Ukraine International Airlines (UIA). On 8 January 2020, the Boeing 737-800 operating the route was shot down shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. All 176 passengers and crew were killed; it was the first fatal air accident for Ukraine International Airlines.
The aircraft was a Boeing 737-8KV, serial number 38124, registration UR-PSR. It was three and a half years old at the time of it being shot down, having first flown on 21 June 2016. It was delivered to the airline on 19 July 2016 and was the first 737 Next Generation aircraft purchased by the airline. The airline defended the airplane’s maintenance record, saying it had been inspected just two days before the crash.
The crash came about four hours after Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. positions in Iraq for the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani. Iran was on the highest state of defensive alert and, according to Commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Amir Ali Hajizadeh, was “totally prepared for a full-fledged war”.
Flight 752 was scheduled to take off at 05:15 local time (UTC+3:30), but was delayed. It departed Stand 116 and took off from Runway 29R at 06:12:47 local time and was expected to land in Kiev at 08:00 local time (UTC+2:00). The final ADS-B data received was at 06:14:45, less than two minutes after departure. Between 06:14:20 and 06:14:45 the airplane turned right 24° (from the take-off heading of 289° to 313°), according to flight data.
According to the data, the last recorded altitude was at 2,416 metres (7,925 ft) above mean sea level with a ground speed of 275 knots (509 km/h). The airport is 1,007 metres (3,305 ft) above mean sea level, which gives an altitude of 1,410 metres (4,620 ft) above ground level. The flight was climbing at just under 3000 ft/min when the flight data record abruptly ended over the open ground near the northern end of Enqelab Eslami Boulevard in Parand, after the airplane was hit by two short-range missiles launched thirty seconds apart by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The aircraft crashed on a park and fields on the edge of the village of Khalajabad 15 kilometres (9.3 mi; 8.1 nmi) north-west of the airport, but did not cause any casualties on the ground. Shortly after the crash, emergency responders arrived with 22 ambulances, four bus ambulances, and a helicopter, but intense fires prevented a rescue attempt. The wreckage was strewn over a wide area, with no survivors found at the crash site. The aircraft was destroyed on impact.
Area of Flight PS752’s Last Reported Position — Google Maps
On 9 January, U.S. intelligence and defence officials said they believed the aircraft had been shot down by an Iranian Tor missile (NATO reporting name SA-15 “Gauntlet”), based on evidence from reconnaissance satellite imagery and radar data. Ukrainian authorities said a shootdown was one of the “main working theories”, while Iranian authorities denied this, stating that allegations of a missile hit were “psychological warfare”. British defence officials agreed with the American assessment of a shootdown. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau said evidence from multiple sources, including Canadian intelligence, suggest the aircraft was shot down by an Iranian missile.
After three days of describing it as “an American lie”, “a wrongful scenario by CIA and the Pentagon”, and “an attempt to prevent Boeing stock from a free fall”, on 11 January, the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran admitted they had shot down the airplane, having erroneously identified it as a hostile target.
The flight had been delayed by over an hour because the captain had decided to offload some luggage because the aircraft was over its certified takeoff weight. According to an early IRGC statement, when the airplane seemed to head toward a “sensitive military centre” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, controllers mistook it for a “hostile target” and shot it down. Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization disputed this timeline, arguing that the airplane was on the correct course all the time and that there was no proven flight deviation. The Iranian CAO’s viewpoint was also supported by a Radio Canada International article that used public ADS-B flight tracking data.
Iranian Brigadier general Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the IRGC Aerospace Defense said a missile operator in Bidganeh had acted independently, mistook the airplane for a U.S. cruise missile and shot it down. Hajizadeh’s published statement also states that the airplane was on a normal course and “made no mistake”. Western experts had previously noted that Flight 752 was flying near several sensitive Iranian ballistic missile facilities, including the Shahid Modarres missile base at Bidganeh near Malard, which the Iranians could have believed would be targets of retaliation for their attack a few hours earlier.
Military Bases in the Area — Google Maps
On 9 January, a controversial Instagram account called Rich Kids of Tehran started posting images and videos showing an apparent missile exploding in mid-air. The New York Times contacted Rich Kids of Tehran and received the videos in high resolution, later confirming their authenticity. Additional footage released by the group shows CCTV camera footage of large amounts of flaming debris being thrown clear of the impact, then strewn down a road between two buildings near a football pitch at the centre of the impact zone. An investigation team from open-source intelligence (OSINT) organization Bellingcat carried out an analysis of the footage and concluded that they have geolocated the videos to a residential area in Parand (coordinates 35.489414, 50.906917), a suburb west of the airport.
The Tor missile’s warhead is located in its midsection, meaning its nose may not be destroyed in an explosion. USA Today reported that the firm IHS Markit reviewed photographs showing the guidance section of a missile and “assesses them to be credible”.
On 14 January, the Instagram account of the Rich Kids of Tehran published a new video, showing two missiles hitting the aircraft. The security camera footage, verified by The New York Times, shows two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart.
Video of Missile Impacts and Crash [The Rich Kids of Tehran]
Overview Satellite Image — Google Maps
On Jan 9th 2020 Iran’s AIB released a brief first report in both Persian and English stating the aircraft began taxi for departure at 06:05L, commenced takeoff at 06:12L and in contact with Imam Khomeini Tower was cleared to climb to FL260. At 06:18L the aircraft climbed through 8000 feet MSL, when the aircraft disappeared from radar, no radio message was received from the aircraft afterwards. Until that point the aircraft had been heading westwards, subsequently it made a right turn as if turning back to the airport due to a technical problem, but impacted ground on that way. A huge explosion occurred as result of impact with the ground. Initial contact with the ground was in a park area, several more collisions with the ground occurred as the aircraft broke up and spread along its trajectory. The ELT activated, however, its antenna separated from the device.
During the night from Jan 8th to Jan 9th 2020 somebody on Twitter released a photo of a Tor 9K331 warhead presumably found at the crash site (and temporarily even the reader comments below flooded over referencing that photo). The location as well as the authenticity of the photo were not verifyable. The Aviation Herald therefore sent an inquiry to Iran’s AIB with the photo, the supposed location at the crash site and relevant links in support and contradicting the authenticity of that photo and asked, whether the accident investigation had found such a part (expressing the hope that these issues wouldn’t add too much to the stresses of the AIB). Iran’s AIB Chairman responded stating: “We save evidence and wreckage of the aircraft and never found this part. All wreckage parts were transferred to the special hanger in order to investigate with cooperation of NTSB, Ukraine NBAI and other interest parties which has been invited officially.” The chairman continued: “Due to special political condition of my country, we instituted a special group more than technical accident investigation groups to assess the condition of Laser attack or dangerous good- electromagnetic (radioactive threat) and unlawful action. The initial conclusion of this group confirmed that there was not found any evidence of mentioned actions on the accident site. Also we will trace all other evidences of the accident by gathering all information of the accident.”
On Jan 9th 2020 in response to the claims Iran’s CAO (Civil Aviation Authority) stated that a missile attack on the aircraft was scientifically impossible, such rumours make no sense.
On Jan 11th 2020 Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation confirmed the aircraft was unintentionally and accidentally shot down. The CAO wrote quoting Iran’s armed forces: “In the hours after the missile strikes, US terrorist forces’ warplanes around the country increased, and some reports of air strikes targeting strategic centers in the country were reported to numerous defense units and targets on some radar plates. It has caused more sensitivity in air defense units. In such critical and critical conditions, the flight of the Ukrainian Airlines departs from Imam Khomeini Airport and, while in rotation, is in close proximity to a sensitive military center of the IRGC and is in the height and shape of a hostile aircraft. In these circumstances, the plane was accidentally hit by human error, which unfortunately results in the martyrdom of dear compatriots and the death of a number of foreign nationals.”
On Jan 20th 2020 Iran’s AIB released an updated preliminary report in Persian only reporting that following departure from Imam Khomeini Airport at 06:12L the aircraft was handed off to Tehran Mehrabad Radar who cleared the flight to climb to FL260. After climbing through 6000 feet Mehrabad radar instructed the flight to turn right straight to a waypoint (not decipherable, translates to Mehrabad but does not make any sense). At 06:18L the controller observed the tag had disappeared from his radar screen and called the aircraft without received a response. Radar data show the last altitude recorded was 8100 feet MSL. Radar data further revealed that the last secondary radar signal (Mode-S) was received at about 06:15L, based on observations by Mehrabad Airport’s primary radar the aircraft turned right probably in an attempt to return to the airport. At 06:18L the primary signal disappeared, too.
The AIB has been informed that two TOR-M1 missiles have been fired onto the aircraft as result of missile defense operations while the aircraft was in flight. The investigation is continuing.
The Tor SAM System
Tor missile system [Wikipedia]
The Tor missile system (Russian: “Тор”; English: torus) is an all-weather low to medium altitude, short-range surface-to-air missile system designed for destroying airplanes, helicopters, cruise missiles, precision guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles and short-range ballistic threats (anti-munitions). Originally developed by the Soviet Union under the GRAU designation 9K330 Tor, the system is commonly known by its NATO reporting name, SA-15 “Gauntlet”. The closest foreign equivalent to the Tor, in function and operation, are systems like the British Rapier missile and French Crotale missile systems, which some consider to have somewhat less performance than Tor (the other two systems being based on somewhat older equipment). All three systems are mobile and self-propelled, Tor using the 9A330 combat vehicle, which carries a crew of four (one driver, three operators), and acts as an autonomous Transporter, Launcher, And Radar unit, or TLAR (similar to but not a TELAR, as it does not erect the missile to a launch position). Mobility time is 3 minutes and it can be transported by any transport means (including aerial). The reaction time of the original Tor is 7–8 (standard) / 7–10 (if it is in motion) seconds.
Arranged in a similar fashion to the previous 9K33 Osa and 9K22 Tunguska (Russian: Тунгуска) air defense systems, Tor’s TLAR features a turret with a top mounted target acquisition radar, and frontal tracking radar, with 8 ready to fire missiles stored vertically between the two radars. The target acquisition radar is a F band pulse doppler 3D radar, equipped with a truncated parabolic antenna, and a mechanically, later electronically, scanned in azimuth with a 32 degree sector view, and has an average power output of 1.5 kW, which provides a maximum detection range of 25 km/16 mi. For reference, a McDonnell Douglas F-15 at an altitude of 6 km has a detection probability of 0.8 at this range. The electronic “heart” of the system is a digital fire control system, which allows detection of up to 48 targets and the tracking of ten at any one time, and integrates IFF functionality; the IFF antenna being mounted above the search radar.
The target engagement radar is a G band/H band (later K band) pulse doppler radar with an (in azimuth) passive electronically scanned array antenna. The radar is classed as a thinned array (design using fewer elements) incorporating only 570 phase shifters and uses linear polarization. The radar has an average power output of 0.6 kW providing a maximum detection range of 20 km/12 mi. An F-15 type aircraft had a detection probability of 0.8 at this range. Originally Tor could only engage one target at a time, and with only two of its missiles. Later variants of the Tor system (Tor-M1 and M2E) incorporate additional fire control channels, as well as improved fire control computers, allowing the system to engage two (M1) and then four (M2E) targets, whilst simultaneously guiding up to four (M1) and then eight (M2E) missiles. There is also a small antenna on the top of the target engagement radar to communicate with missiles after launch.
The rockets were developed for the interception of small, aggressively maneuvering targets. Weighing 167 kilograms (368 lb), the 9M330 missile is 3 metres (9.8 ft) long, carries a 15 kilograms (33 lb) warhead and has a peak speed of around Mach 2.8. Using command guidance and radar controlled proximity fuzes, the missiles can maneuver at up to 30 g and engage targets flying at up to Mach 2. Cold launched, the missiles are propelled out of the vehicle before the solid fuel rocket motor fires and the gas-dynamic maneuvering system turns them toward their target. Missiles can also be fired against surface targets. Each missile is a sealed round, stored in two groups of four. Engagement range is up to 12 km (0.8–6.47 nm) with minimum range varying between 1,500–2,000 m (4,922–5,621 feet), depending upon version and an effective altitude of 6–10,000 m (20-33,000 ft). A new 9M338 missile has been developed by Almaz Antey offering improved range and precision. Its smaller size also enables the modified Tor-M2 to be equipped with 16 missiles as opposed to the original 8.
→ cf.: Buk missile system [Wikipedia] – involved in the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine
Tor M1 Showing Target Engagement Radar — Vitaly V. Kuzmin
A Tor System Firing a SAM — Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Kupol 9K330/9K331/9K332 Tor M/M1/M2 Self Propelled Air Defence System / SA-15 Gauntlet [Air Power Australia]
The time elapsed between target detection and missile firing instants should be at a minimum. This can be attained via high automation of the battle performance based on extensive employment of computers (multiprocessor systems), elements of robotization and artificial intellect for maximum reduction of the crew workload.
To detect targets against the background of the earth’s underlaying surface, atmospheric perturbations or man-made passive jamming, the TAR is provided with the moving target indication (MTI) feature assuring detection of both high- and low-speed (up to 10 m/s) targets without “blind” speeds. The MTI system has two rejection zones allowing simultaneous suppression of both the clutter and moving passive interferences. After their first (coarse) cessing, the signals are fed to a computer where target track initiation is performed. The most dangerous threats are identified by their minimum approach flight time, altitude and crossover range. This information is then used to designate the targets for the TTR. The accuracy of target designation is 100 m in range, 20 min in azimuth and 2 deg in elevation.
The Tor-M1 SAM system uses a TV optical tracker, which autotracks target angular coordinates, as a backup tracking system.
The missile armament is used effectively by discriminating between target types. The TAR allows discrimination between four classes of targets: point targets (or PGM), airplanes, helicopters and unidentified targets. This results in increased probability of engagement of small-size targets, notably PGM.
It should be stressed that the high degree of battle performance automation, employment of artificial intellect and unique algorithms make it possible to perform all the operations, involving detection of targets and the switch to autotracking the two most dangerous ones, virtually without operator intervention.
The essence of target distribution resides in the automatic exchange of information on autotracked targets among the CVs via the BCP and automatic reassignment of priorities by the CVs with corrections made for received information. The target distribution system realizes the step-by-step principle of adaptation of the CVs to the current air situation in real time. When necessary, the battery commander may intervene into (correct) the target distribution process and execute other combat control tasks.
Fakel 9M330/9M331/9M332 Surface to Air Missile: The design of the missile round is similar conceptually to much earlier 9K33 / SA-8 Gecko, but with some important differences, both employing a simple tubular airframe design with a solid rocket powerplant. The airframe uses cruciform canard controls for pitch/yaw control, and a revolving sleeve mounts the cruciform tail surfaces. The missile is not roll stabilised. The controls are powered by compressed air. The most significant difference in the control system is the use of nose mounted thrust vectoring jets, used to pivot the missile to the desired azimuth and pitch angle after its vertical launch. Unlike its predecessor, this missile uses the vertical cold launch technique, with a charge ejecting the round vertically from the transport and launch canister. The proximity fuse transmit antenna is in the missile nose, which also contains the transmitter. The fuse receiver, command link receiver and autopilot are all clustered in the centresection of the missile. The warhead is situated between the guidance section and motor. A pair of command link and beacon antennas are mounted on the tail.
Production and Exports: During the 1990s the PLA procured the Russian 9K331M1 Tor-M1 / SA-15C Gauntlet system. Chinese sources put the SA-15 inventory at around 25 systems, deployed with the 31st and 38th Army Groups. The Russians have also exported this system to Greece/Cyprus, Libya, Venezuela, Yemen and Iran.
- Anti-Aircraft Missile Tor-M1 Complex – Training Manual [Baltic State Technical University, St. Petersburg ]
- How Not to Operate a Surface-to-Air Missile Battery [Defense One]
Identification friend or foe [Wikipedia]
Identification, friend or foe (IFF) is a radar-based identification system designed for command and control. It uses a transponder that listens for an interrogation signal and then sends a response that identifies the broadcaster. It enables military and civilian air traffic control interrogation systems to identify aircraft, vehicles or forces as friendly and to determine their bearing and range from the interrogator. IFF may be used by both military and civilian aircraft. Despite the name, IFF can only positively identify friendly targets, not hostile ones. If an IFF interrogation receives no reply or an invalid reply, the object cannot be identified as friendly, but is not positively identified as foe; it may, for instance, be a friendly aircraft with an inoperative or malfunctioning transponder. There are in addition many reasons that friendly aircraft may not properly reply to IFF.
Secondary surveillance radar [Wikipedia]
Secondary surveillance radar (SSR) is a radar system used in air traffic control (ATC), that not only detects and measures the position of aircraft, i.e. bearing and distance, but also requests additional information from the aircraft itself such as its identity and altitude. Unlike primary radar systems that measure the bearing and distance of targets using the detected reflections of radio signals, SSR relies on targets equipped with a radar transponder, that replies to each interrogation signal by transmitting a response containing encoded data. SSR is based on the military identification friend or foe (IFF) technology originally developed during World War II, therefore the two systems are still compatible.
Both the civilian SSR and the military IFF have become much more complex than their war-time ancestors, but remain compatible with each other, not least to allow military aircraft to operate in civil airspace. Today’s SSR can provide much more detailed information, for example, the aircraft altitude, as well as enabling the direct exchange of data between aircraft for collision avoidance. Most SSR systems rely on Mode C transponders, which report the aircraft pressure altitude.
The purpose of SSR is to improve the ability to detect and identify aircraft while automatically providing the Flight Level (pressure altitude) of an aircraft. An SSR ground station transmits interrogation pulses on 1030 MHz (continuously in Modes A, C and selectively, in Mode S) as its antenna rotates, or is electronically scanned, in space. An aircraft transponder within line-of-sight range “listens” for the SSR interrogation signal and transmits a reply on 1090 MHz that provides aircraft information. The reply sent depends on the interrogation mode. The aircraft is displayed as a tagged icon on the controller’s radar screen at the measured bearing and range. An aircraft without an operating transponder still may be observed by primary radar, but would be displayed to the controller without the benefit of SSR derived data. It is typically a requirement to have a working transponder in order to fly in controlled air space and many aircraft have a back-up transponder to ensure that condition is met.
- Transponder (aeronautics) [Wikipedia]
Aftermath of the Crash
Iran has used bulldozers to move around pieces of debris from a crashed Ukrainian passenger jet, possibly destroying evidence that could help prove what happened to the doomed flight. Giancarlo Fiorella, a researcher for the investigative website Bellingcat, shared a thread of photos that he said showed heavy machinery at work. „I find these photos distressing because this could potentially be the scene of a crime,“ Fiorella told Channel 4 News. „If this was a shoot-down event, you don’t want to disturb the crash site before a thorough investigation can be conducted, and I’m not sure that one has been conducted.“
Hamid Baeidinejad also questioned the “validity” of footage appearing to show a missile hitting the Boeing jet. Asked about video of bulldozers said to show the crash site being cleared – obtained by US TV – he said such claims were “absolutely absurd”. He said: “Plane accidents are a very technical issue. I cannot judge, you cannot judge, reporters on the ground cannot judge. Nobody can judge. A foreign minister or a prime minister cannot judge on this issue.”
Thousands gathered outside the gates of Amir Kabir University, near the former US embassy in Tehran, to denounce the plane crash the government blamed on human error and “US adventurism.” In video posted on social media, protesters chanted for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down and for those responsible for downing the plane to be prosecuted. “Death to the dictator,” some chanted. A mass vigil commemorating the victims of the doomed flight escalated into an angry demonstration following the government admission, according to Iran’s semiofficial FARS News Agency. University graduates migrating to Canada were among those who perished in the crash.
Protests erupted across Iran for a second day on Sunday, increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic’s leadership after it admitted its military shot down a Ukrainian airliner by accident, despite days of denials that Iranian forces were to blame. “They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here,” one group of protesters chanted outside a university in Tehran, according to video posted on Twitter.
The semi-official ILNA news agency said police moved to disperse the protesters, who it said numbered as many as 3,000. Videos posted online showed demonstrators running from police who used batons and teargas.
Tehran Rallies Blocked, But Students Take Protests to 2nd Key Iran City [Voice of America]
Students in Iran have protested against their Islamist rulers for a fifth day, with dozens staging a sit-in at a central university as police surrounded other universities in Tehran to block more rallies at those sites. Photos obtained by VOA appeared to show at least 100 students staging Wednesday’s sit-in next to a campus restaurant at Isfahan University of Technology in the central city of Isfahan. The protest seemed to be a silent one, with many of those gathered wearing surgical white masks over their faces with black “X” marks to symbolize their voices being silenced.
- US-funded VPNs, Apps See Increased Usage In Iran [PYMNTS]
- US boosts funding of tech companies to help anti-Tehran protests [The Financial Times / archived]
- Iran plane downing: Five reasons why the US-Iran crisis is not over [BBC]
Your View on the Matter
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