KYIV, Ukraine—U.S. officials say Iran likely shot down a Ukrainian airliner by accident Wednesday morning, just hours after the Islamist regime launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops.
>>> Update: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani admitted Saturday morning local time that Iranian forces unintentionally shot down the airliner. “The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” Rouhani said on Twitter.
In an earlier tweet, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to blame the “human error” on what he called “U.S. adventurism.”
According to news reports, American intelligence suggests that Iran fired two Cold War-era, Tor surface-to-air missiles at Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, a Boeing 737-800 jet, about two minutes after takeoff from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.
U.S. satellites reportedly detected launch of the Iranian missiles, as well as their track toward the Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 passengers and crew.
According to GPS flight data, Flight 752 climbed normally after takeoff—demonstrating no signs of mechanical trouble—up to an altitude of about 8,000 feet before it abruptly plunged to the ground. All onboard died in the crash.
“From a professional point of view, as a former military aviator, it looked suspicious from the very first moment the incident was reported,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Soviet air force fighter pilot and Ukrainian air force commander who is now co-director of foreign relations and international security programs at Razumkov Center, a Ukrainian think tank.
“The situation was really catastrophic. No technical malfunction, or bird strike, or collision with a small drone could create such a rapid and fatal descent,” Melnyk told The Daily Signal in an interview. “We should not rush to judgment, but we know, more and more, that this wasn’t a technical malfunction. A missile probably shot the plane down.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that intelligence indicates Iranian missiles brought down Flight 752.
According to a Ukrainian International Airlines manifest, 63 Canadians were aboard the doomed jet. The flight also carried passengers from Iran, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. No U.S. citizens were listed on board.
For its part, Tehran denied that its missiles brought down the airliner, calling the U.S. and Canadian conclusion a “big lie.”
However, The New York Times published a video Thursday that appears to show at least one missile hitting the plane.
“The Iranian regime must be held to account for this careless act of violence,” James Jay Carafano, vice president for The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, said Friday in a written statement.
Hours before Flight 752 went down Wednesday, Iran launched 15 ballistic missiles against bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No Americans were injured or killed in the attack, U.S. officials say.
Iranian officials immediately said the Ukrainian jet went down due to a mechanical failure, although such a determination typically takes months or even years to determine, and usually requires an evaluation of an aircraft’s black boxes—the devices used to record an aircraft’s flight and voice data.
Speculation mounted after the Ukrainian Embassy in Iran retracted a statement on its website Wednesday attributing the crash to a likely mechanical failure. A subsequent statement by the embassy said the cause was still undetermined and under investigation.
A Ukrainian accident investigation reportedly is in Iran. However, Ukrainian news reports Friday said that Iranian workers were scooping up the aircraft’s debris in a bulldozer.
Ukrainian media reports also say the crash site is overrun with “hundreds” of people who are carrying away debris without supervision.
Under those circumstances, experts say, it’s unlikely that a full and accurate investigation can be carried out.
“The Iranians are in a very tricky situation,” Melnyk said. “For them, it’s better at this point to be as open and cooperative as possible. They should take responsibility.”
Iranian officials said they have found Flight 752’s black boxes, but initially refused to hand them over to Boeing or allow U.S. investigators to examine the crash site.
Amid mounting international pressure for a full investigation into the cause of the crash, Iranian officials reportedly said Friday that they had invited Boeing to analyze the black boxes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday that he had received “important data” on the crash of Flight 752 from U.S. investigators. Zelenskyy was scheduled to speak Friday afternoon with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Tor missile—also known by its NATO designation, the SA-15 Gauntlet—is a mobile air defense system that dates back to the 1970s. It has a range of about 8 miles up to an altitude of roughly 20,000 feet, which put Flight 752 smack in the Russian-made missile’s optimum engagement envelope.
In December 2005, Iran agreed to buy 29 Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia at a price tag of about $700 million. The Tor-M1 is an updated model of the original Tor missile.
“The SA-15 has a relatively short-range radar, meaning there is a very short reaction time for operators to interpret data,” said Chris Harmer, a weapons expert who is a retired U.S. Navy commander and former congressional staffer.
“The Iranians have a lot of anti-air equipment … but they clearly are not very proficient in its use,” Harmer told The Daily Signal. “So it is possible that this SA-15 crew detected a commercial aircraft, and only having a very short window of time to react to it, incorrectly interpreted the data and assumed it was a threat and engaged it.”
“Taking the time to cross-reference or confirm the status of a radar contact under those circumstances takes a level of discipline uncommon to operators with no combat experience, and that no longer exists in the Iranian military,” John Venable, senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation, said.
Venable, a former U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot with 3,000 hours of fighter time, added:
The fact that Iran continued civilian air carrier operations as its military lobbed one ballistic missile after another at U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq was, at the very least, irresponsible. The extreme political tensions of the evening made the risk of misidentifying and inadvertently shooting down an airliner filled with innocents very real.
“I think the aircraft was shot down,” Andrii Ryzhenko, the Ukrainian navy’s deputy chief of staff for Euro-Atlantic integration, told The Daily Signal.
Ryzhenko is familiar with Russian-made surface-to-air missiles such as the Tor; he worked on air defense systems aboard Ukrainian navy ships during the 1990s.
“It’s easy to suppose that Iranian forces were in full readiness for a U.S. response [on Wednesday],” Ryzhenko said. “Obviously with their Soviet or Russian air defense systems, Tehran is a central place to protect. Ukrainian state authorities shouldn’t have allowed any flights in the area.”
The Daily Signal spoke with U.S. Air Force combat pilots about the circumstances surrounding the crash of Flight 752 as well as the capabilities of the Tor missile system. Those pilots spoke on condition of anonymity because of professional restrictions on speaking to the news media.
“Even though this is a somewhat antiquated system, the SA-15 is extremely capable against a civilian aircraft not equipped with any defense countermeasures, such as a flare system,” an Air Force special operations pilot with extensive combat experience told The Daily Signal. The pilot asked that his name not be published due to restrictions on speaking to the media.
The general consensus among the American pilots is that Flight 752 most likely was shot down by Iranian missiles in a case of mistaken identity by an improperly trained Iranian crew that was on edge due to the perceived threat of U.S. retaliatory airstrikes.
“If someone got nervous about a pop-up target, they might shoot first, ask questions later,” a former Air Force F-4 fighter pilot who now flies Boeing 757 passenger jets told The Daily Signal, speaking on condition of anonymity due to his status as a commercial airline pilot.
Iranian forces would have foreseen retaliatory U.S. airstrikes Wednesday morning as a “high probability event,” an Air Force F-15 pilot said.
“I’d say there was the equivalent of ‘go fever,’ thus leading toward an inadvertent shootdown,” the F-15 pilot told The Daily Signal, also speaking on condition of anonymity due to military rules about communication with the press.
Typically, fighter or bomber aircraft would perform an aggressive pullup and turn to change its flight path and get out of range of surface-to-air missiles after dropping a payload of bombs.
According to an A-10 “Warthog” pilot who now pilots Boeing 737s for a commercial American airline, a Boeing 737-800 at the point in its climb at which Flight 752 went down would have been flying at around 250 knots and maintaining a rate of ascent of about 2,500 feet per minute.
That speed and rate of climb would not resemble a warplane trying to avoid surface-to-air missiles after dropping its payload of bombs, this pilot said, requesting that his name be withheld due to his status as a commercial airline pilot.
However, the Ukrainian passenger jet was flying at night and at low altitude in what was essentially a war zone. That particular combination of variables invited disaster, U.S. military pilots told The Daily Signal.
“Civilian air traffic should have been grounded,” the F-15 pilot said. “Both due to the potential of being in the middle of an engagement, as well as the heightened likelihood of a surface-to-air shot at a perceived threat.”
Flight 752’s Ukrainian aircrew would have been in direct communication with Iranian ground controllers at the time of the incident. Those Iranian controllers in contact with Flight 752 would have been monitoring all aircraft in a much broader airspace than the immediate vicinity of Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iranian air traffic control presumably would have passed on information about outbound civilian air traffic to any military units in the area, especially given the heightened tensions Wednesday morning, to avoid a case of mistaken identity.
However, the Tor missile is what military experts call a “stand-alone” system, meaning it is mounted on the back of a vehicle and not typically plugged into a country’s broader air defense radar network. The Russian-made missile system is designed to track targets either by radar or optically—although visual targeting of Flight 752 was unlikely given that the Ukrainian airliner crashed before sunrise.
The Tor’s autonomous design means that Iranian operators would have had to make their own decisions in the heat of the moment, divorced from Iranian air traffic control data about the airliner’s identity.
“As it’s a mobile air defense weapon, I have no idea how long it was there or if it had moved there recently, but it strongly suggests Iran may need better training,” said Thomas Moore, a missile expert and former senior professional staff member for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
According to international aviation rules, Flight 752’s Ukrainian crew would have switched on their aircraft’s transponder—a radar beacon that transmits flight data and an aircraft’s identity back to ground controllers.
Before takeoff, air traffic controllers assign every aircraft a unique transponder code for in-flight identification.
When flying into combat, U.S. warplanes switch off their transponders to avoid detection.
Melnyk, the former Ukrainian fighter pilot, said the Iranians’ modern Tor missile systems should have been capable of detecting Flight 752’s transponder signal identifying it as a civilian aircraft.
However, experts say Russia sometimes downgrades the technological capabilities of exported weapons systems, and it’s not known whether the Tor-M1 missile systems Iran imported from Russia were equipped with components to detect civilian transponders.
Melnyk added, however, that even without the ability to detect Flight 752’s transponder signal, the Iranian missile ground crew should have been able to tell easily that the aircraft was a civilian airliner and not a U.S. warplane or cruise missile.
“Even without transponder information, the Iranians had a 100% possibility to identify the target as a civilian aircraft—because of its flight speed, altitude, and the fact that it was in a civilian flight corridor,” Melnyk told The Daily Signal.
“It’s simply crazy. It’s impossible to understand how you can make such a mistake. No matter how green the Iranian operators were, I have no idea how this could have happened,” he added, using a colloquial military term to indicate inexperience.
“The Iranians have been very capable at executing proxy warfare through their surrogates … what the Iranian military is not proficient at is conventional warfare,” said Harmer, the retired U.S. Navy commander.
“On paper, they have a significant air defense capability, but they are obviously not proficient in its use,” he said.
According to a weapons expert who spoke with The Daily Signal, the Tor is equipped with an automatic targeting function that could have led to an accidental launch by an inexperienced ground crew.
Also, Flight 752 was about an hour late in taking off, which could have added to confusion on the Iranians’ part.
However, the Ukrainian jet was not the only civilian airliner flying out of Tehran that morning, and it was flying through an air corridor typically used by civilian aircraft.
“You’d have to be a complete idiot not to expect air traffic there … in order to be this trigger-happy,” Moore said of the possibility of an Iranian missile crew accidentally shooting down Flight 752.
Many military pilots and experts also question why civilian air traffic was allowed to go on at all, given that Iran’s air defenses were on high alert in anticipation of retaliation of U.S. airstrikes or cruise missiles following the Iranian missile strike into neighboring Iraq.
“It’s crazy. It’s absolutely ridiculous that civilian aircraft were still flying,” said Melnyk, the former Soviet fighter pilot and Ukrainian air force commander.
There is no practical way for commercial airliners to avoid being shot down by surface-to-air missiles other than avoiding high-threat areas, say several U.S. military combat pilots and aviation experts familiar with surface-to-air missile threats and defensive measures.
Although military aircraft usually are equipped with sophisticated missile detection and countermeasure technology, and military pilots are trained to perform evasive maneuvers, these measures are impractical for civilian airliners and their pilots, underscoring the need for civilian air traffic to simply avoid areas where surface-to air threats exist.
“The best thing to do is not get into a situation where you can be mistaken for someone you’re not,” said Keith Mackey, an aviation safety consultant who has more than 30,000 hours of pilot flight time in aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A-300.
“It’s only common sense to not fly over a battlefield,” Mackey said.
Iran’s missile attack on U.S. facilities in Iraq marked the latest escalation of a monthslong, tit-for-tat military standoff between Iran and the U.S.
On Dec. 27, Iran’s proxy militants in Iraq attacked a U.S. military base in the country, killing an American contractor. Following a retaliatory U.S. airstrike, Iran-backed protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Responding to those acts of Iranian aggression, President Donald Trump authorized the targeted drone airstrike Jan. 3 that killed Qassim Suleimani, commander since 1998 of Iran’s Quds Force, the unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that conducts military and spy operations outside Iran.
Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq War, U.S. officials say. And, according to the Pentagon, the Iranian major general had plans for more attacks against U.S. diplomats, service members, and other American interests, both in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the Middle East.
“The evidence is incontrovertible,” Heritage’s Carafano said. “This regime is responsible for the deaths of thousands of American troops and innocent civilians in the past 40 years, a fact demonstrated again in the most tragic way possible.”
This report has been updated since publication to include Iran’s admission that it accidentally shot down the airliner.