A Boeing passenger jet crashed in Iran early on January 8, hours after Tehran had launched a barrage of missiles at bases housing American troops in Iraq, in retaliation for the killing of commander Qasem Soleimani in a US strike.
All 176 onboard the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight PS752 — mainly Iranian-Canadian dual nationals but also Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons, and Swedes — were killed.
Speculation immediately emerged that the juxtaposition of the timing of the Iranian reprisals against the United States and the plane crash was no coincidence.
The Boeing 737-800NG for UIA’s flight PS752 between Tehran and Kiev took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12 am local time.
There was no distress message from the pilot but it had begun to turn back for the airport, according to the Iranian Civil Aviation Organization, before crashing at 6:18 am.
The aircraft slammed into the ground near Sabashahr in the outskirts of Tehran, its report said.
The Iranian Civil Aviation Organization has released an initial report on the crash. According to the report the aircraft climbed to 8000 feet and turned right back toward the airport and crashed at 06:18 local time (02:48 UTC)—four minutes after the last ADS-B signal was received by the Flightradar24 network.
The report also states, ‘The rescue and search operation team found the Aircraft black boxes, including the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), and is currently held by the investigation team of Iran AAIB. Both devices have been damaged as a result of the accident and catching fire. The memory parts of both recorders are in good condition, though the physical damage to their main components is noticeable.’
According to the Flight Radar 24 monitoring site, there were 10 departures from the Tehran airport that day before the departure of PS752.
In this case, the alleged surface-to-air rocket launcher was quickly identified as the Russian-made Tor-M1, a mobile unit Iran has purchased from Russia. Tehran had received 29 such air defense systems from Moscow under a $700 million contract signed in 2005.
The Tor-M1, which NATO calls the SA-15 Gauntlet, is a short-range “point defense” system that integrates the missile launcher and radar in a single tracked vehicle, according to Reuters. The Tor is designed to be lethal against targets at altitudes up to 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and at ranges of 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). The Ukrainian airliner had ascended to 2,416 meters (7,925 feet) before it went down.
Ukrainian investigators intend “to look for the debris of a Russian Tor air defense missile.”
“The SA-15 air defense weapon that has been used has fragmentation devices, so it gets close to the target, then releases small objects, like shrapnel. That doesn’t destroy the whole plane, but takes part in the plane out.”
Suspicious wreckage found at Ukraine plane crash impact site appears to be the nose cone section and control fins of 9M331 surface-to-air missile. It is employed by the Russian-made Tor-M1 mobile air defense system and features a semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) guidance system. This system is currently in service of the Iranian military deployed at a military base near the crash site.
The Tor-M1, the modernized version of the weapons family, entered into service as early as 1991. Russia still produces and exports it. Tor-M1 is considerably more accurate and can engage two targets simultaneously thanks to its second fire control channel.
Tor-M1 is a fully-mobile, self-propelled system that includes a target locator, a control station, a computing center, and a launcher. It is operated by a 3-person crew. It carries up to eight 9М331 missiles that can gain a speed ranging from 2,500 to 2,900 kilometers per hour — more than twice the speed of sound.
The system is able to detect and hit moving aerial targets, including those concealed from radars via stealth, at altitudes of up to 12 kilometers.
The missile’s warhead detonates upon reaching its target, bombarding it with shrapnel fragments.
Most importantly, the Tor systems are designed to be operated either manually or in automatic mode. In the latter case, the system constantly scans the operational airspace and automatically targets all objects not recognized as friendly via a “friend or foe” radar-based identification system.
According to the Military Balance 2019 handbook by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British-based defense think tank, Iran currently has at least 29 Russian-produced Tor-M1 units. They are known to be operated exclusively by the air force component of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite standalone military branch driven by Islamist ideology.
In 2003, pilots were able to land an Airbus owned by the courier DHL after it was hit by a Russian-made SAM-7 surface-to-air missile at Baghdad airport. The rocket set fire to the plane’s left-wing. No one was injured.
In August 2010, an Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter mistakenly entered a 20-kilometer no-fly zone around the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which was being launched at the time and guarded by the Iranian Armed Forces on high alert.
Reportedly due to miscommunication between Iranian command and control components, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Tor-M1 units misinterpreted the friendly jet as a hostile target and effectively downed it. Iranian pilots managed to eject and survive the incident.
This precedent and the Tor-M1’s technical specifications offer a view of what may have happened in the sky over Tehran early on Jan. 8.
As in the Iranian fighter jet’s 2010 downing, a Tor-M1 unit could have mistakenly targeted the Ukrainian airliner after failing to identify it as a civilian flying object — particularly if the missile system was operating in automatic mode.
The flight took off from runway 29R at 02:41 UTC (06:11 LT), with a delay of about one hour. The aircraft’s ADS-B data as recorded by flight tracking websites Flightradar24 and FlightAware stop at 02:44 UTC at an altitude of about 7900 feet at a position about 20 km west-northwest of the airport. The aircraft is said to have crashed minutes later near Shahriar, 15 km north of the airport.
Iran is facing mounting pressure to explain the destruction of a civilian airliner near Tehran hours after Iranian forces launched missile strikes against US forces.
The crash came three and a half hours after Iran fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at US bases in Iraq in what it said was revenge for the assassination of general Qassim Soleimani.
According to the OSINT experts cataloged and mapped some of the debris of the Ukrainian passenger jet and claim that some debris from Boeing 737-800 shows signs of a missile strike.
Aviation monitoring group Opsgroup said that:
“We would recommend the starting assumption to be that this was a shootdown event, similar to MH17 – until there is clear evidence to the contrary” asserting that photographs “show obvious projectile holes in the fuselage and a wing section.”
Glen Grant, a retired British Army colonel who is currently a security expert with the Ukranian Institute for the Future think tank, suggests that numerous factors precipitated the disaster over Tehran.
“Air defense is the most technical and academic subject in defense by a long way,” he told the Kyiv Post. “Medium- and high-level air defense is rarely commanded by those who are (near the top of the) command chain for battle — and this brings multiple problems. They are often not completely up to date with the battle flow.”
Identification is also a serious issue, he says.
“To make (identification) work effectively, it has to be in radars, planes, missiles, drones, and launchers. This costs millions, and probably only the U.S. can afford to do it properly,” Grant says. “So if not done or the rules of exclusion are not followed properly, then everything becomes an enemy to the missile — unless you can identify it by sight and turn the missile off.”
At night, this is not possible. In those cases, one needs very strict command and control, he added.
Human nature can also cause problems.
“There is always a danger of (new) conscripts using air defense or any part of the system,” Grant says. “This is because it needs maturity, intelligence, technical skill, and battlefield knowledge. Only a professional army or volunteer reserves with ability can deliver that.
“Then any system that can work automatically is always a danger if the crew does not fully understand the merits and limitations of that ability. For example, they can turn it on whilst they go out for a smoke.”
How could this have played out in Iran?
“It could be the night shift taking over and still frightened after the missile attack — or just plain stupidity,” Grant says.