The loss of an airliner over Tehran shows failings in Iranian IFF protocols and air defender training. Lessons must be learnt.
Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 departed Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport slightly later than planned at 06.12 local time on 8 January. Five minutes later, all 176 souls aboard were dead.
Their Boeing 737-800 airliner was shot out of the sky by two radio-commanded 9M330 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) fired by an Almaz-Antey 9K330 Tor (NATO reporting name SA-15 Gauntlet) short/medium range air defence system belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The loss occurred less than six years after a Russian Army Almaz-Antey 9K37 Buk (NATO reporting name SA-11 Grizzly/SA-17 Grumble) medium range air defence system downed a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200ER near the Ukraine-Russian border on 17 July 2014 killing 298 passengers and crew.
However on this occasion, the Iranian government, unlike their Russian counterparts, admitted that the jet had been shot down in error albeit after two days of denial and obscurification.
What could have gone wrong?
What could have gone wrong in the decision-making cycle that triggered the fateful decision by Iranian air defenders to launch their missiles? Factors could include shortcomings in the air defender’s ability to adequately employ the aircraft’s Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) information that should have ensured the airliner was never at risk from being attacked. Training shortcomings and the so-called ‘Fog of War’ could have also played their role.
It is known that the airliner was transmitting its identity and flight information using its internationally-mandated Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcasting (ADS-B) transponder. This uses frequencies of 1.090 gigahertz and 978 megahertz to carry this information across standard SSR frequencies and using satellite communications.
The very fact that the jet’s flight could be followed using ADS-B shows that the air defenders perhaps had no access to ADS-B tracking software. This would have shown the aircraft’s identity and position.
Why they had no access to ADS-B information is unclear. Such data are easily available even via standard websites such as Flightradar24 which routinely presents ADS-B information for flights around the world. Not having the ability to easily see ADS-B information and correlating that with radar data at the 9K330 command post, or having such data at a higher echelon which could warn the battery of a potential target’s identity before the trigger is pulled, is a glaring failure.
IFF (Identification Friend or Foe)
Alternatively, the battery should have had access to the local air traffic control primary surveillance radar and SSR. Once again, receiving such radar imagery would have acted as a useful ‘second pair of eyes’ to potentially resolve anomalies or uncertainties being presented by the 9K330’s air surveillance and fire control radars, the former of which reportedly has an integrated IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) interrogator.
This latter system should have been capable of receiving the standard civilian transponder squawks transmitted by the airliner to SSRs within range which the ill-fated airliner would have been transmitting, along with ADS-B information.
Anecdotal evidence shared with Armada Analysis has noted that the 9K330’s IFF interrogator maybe basic at best, and only be tuned to receive IFF transmissions from friendly aircraft. By default, such a process potentially depicts all aircraft not squawking those IFF codes as hostile.
The potentially devastating consequences of such IFF protocols are clear. All the more reason why a back-up ADS-B system and/or local primary and SSR radar imagery from Iranian air traffic control should have been available to the 9K330 crew. Bearing in mind the potential limitations of the 9K330’s IFF interrogators, not having access to these addition information sources, or ignoring them is inviting disaster.
Shortcomings in IFF could have been compounded by inadequate training and the so-called ‘Fog or War’.
Much of an air defender’s work consists of noticing events out of the ordinary. An airliner following established departure procedures for a busy airport such as Tehran’s and flying the normal traffic pattern should not have alerted air defenders that anything is amiss. Even if they had no means of identifying the aircraft, they should have had ‘trained eyes’ that would have told them that the flight profile on their screen matched that of an airliner departing the nearby airport in a standard fashion.
Moreover, the 737-800 crew would have filed a flight plan, detailing departure times and routes. This should have been shared with the air defenders: Match the flight plan with the flight profile on your radar, and you should be able to determine that the jet is no threat.
The identity of the track on their radar was obviously a source of confusion for the air defenders. Why did they not seek to use standard radio communications channels to contact the jet to determine its identity? To make matters worse, sources close to the US signals intelligence community told Armada Analysis that the 9K330 crew had been unable to communicate with higher echelons to obtain additional advice on the target before they took the shot.
Tensions between Iran and the US
The IRGC argued that they mistook the aircraft for a cruise missile. Granted, tensions were running high in Iran. On 3 January the US had killed General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, an insurgent organisation. Gen. Soleimani met his fate following an attack by a US unmanned combat aerial vehicle which bombed his vehicle convoy as he left Baghdad International Airport.
The Iranian government retaliated earlier the same day the 737-800 was lost with Fateh-313 and Qiam short-range ballistic missiles hitting the US military presence at Al Assad Airbase in western Iraq and at an airbase near Erbil in northern Iraq, although with no US casualties. Iranian air defenders would have been on high alert for possible US retaliation in the aftermath of the missile attack. Yet those same air defenders should have been sufficiently trained to perform their craft under high stress conditions where normal air traffic is present. Clearly, they were not.
The celebrated Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz talked of the ‘Fog of War’; the lack of situational awareness during military operations and its consequences. The loss of the Ukrainian airliner was arguably a textbook example of the fog of war; uncertainties and stress undoubtedly contributed to its destruction. Yet the fact remains that Iran’s air defenders clearly did not have the basic protocols in place that would have significantly reduced the chances of such a horrifying incident occurring.