Search and rescue workers at the site after a Boeing 737 plane belonging to a Ukrainian airline was shot down near Imam Khomeini Airport in Iran just after takeoff with 180 passengers on board on January 8, 2020. Photo: AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency

Explaining what led Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force to launch two missiles at Ukraine Airlines FL-752, bringing the plane down and killing all on board, is not easy.

While it is now evident, after a stream of lies from Tehran, that two Russian Tor-M1 (SA-15) missiles were fired at the plane, we still don’t know why.

FL-752 took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12am on a standard flight path from the airport. It was equipped with a working radio transponder, and radar tracks generated by the transponder make clear that the transponder was working normally.

One of the two missiles – which one isn’t certain – struck the Boeing 737-800 while it was climbing at an altitude of 8,000 feet. While the actual rate of climb for Fl-752 is not available, a standard climb out suggests it was gaining altitude at about 2,000 feet per minute, meaning the plane was flying for about four minutes before it was hit, putting the time of missile impact at about 6:16am.

The Iranians fired two missiles about 23 seconds apart, suggesting either the first one hit and the second missed, or the first missed and the second missile hit. From the video, there is no suggestion both hit the Boeing.

Small targets

The Tor M-1 was designed primarily to go after small targets, particularly cruise missiles. At Khmeimim airbase in Syria, the Russians have been using the Tor M-1 to shoot down drone attacks.

The Russian Defense Ministry this week said that “3 small-sized air targets (UAVs) were approaching a Russian military facility from the north-east in the evening on January 19, 2020.” The targets were destroyed by Tor-M1 missiles.

Last year, the Russian military fought off several attacks directed at the Khmeimim airbase, destroying at least 58 drones and 27 rockets.

There have been reports the missiles were fired at what the Iranians believed was a cruise missile. The only cruise missile that could penetrate far into Iranian airspace is the Tomahawk, which is sea-launched.

When the Tomahawk cruise missile flies to a target it is designed to come in at low altitude to avoid radar intercept. The flight path over enemy territory could be between 50 and 100 feet. Its speed would be about 550mph (true airspeed).

The Boeing 737-800 on climb out would be flying much slower than at cruising altitude, but even at cruising altitude, it would not be at 550mph. On climb out the 737-800 would be doing about 287mph, or 250 knots.

In addition, unlike the cruise missile with a much, much smaller radar image, the radar image of the 737-800 would be many times bigger, even without the enhancement of its transponder that illuminates secondary tracking radars.

Mistaken identity?

Not much is known about the features of the radars and IFF system used by the Russian-made Tor-M1 system. But there are reasons to question Russian equipment, especially after a BUK missile shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

MH-17 was under positive control of en-route radar and had a working transponder, but the allegedly Russian operators shot it down anyway, apparently believing it was a Ukrainian IL-76 transport plane.

On June 14, 2014, a little more than a month before MH-17 was destroyed, two Igla shoulder-fired missiles destroyed an IL-76 coming in for landing at Luhansk International Airport, killing all on board.  The Igla’s targets are visually acquired – there is no radar.

One feature of the Tor-M1 is it also has optical tracking, meaning that the missile defense operator can potentially see the object he is aiming at.

Unless the Russian equipment was in bad shape or malfunctioning, or the operators incredibly incompetent, the shooting down of FL-752 can’t be reasonably explained as a mistake or accident.

Nothing on radar

Could the Tor-1 operators have been aiming for something else, trying to create a provocation? FL-752 was originally scheduled to take off at 5:15am, but did not get underway until 6:12am. The two nearest flights taking off from Tehran was a Qatar Boeing 777 heading for Hong Kong, carrying cargo, and a Turkish Airliner heading to Istanbul.

The cargo flight was originally scheduled for 5:30am, but took off at 5:48. The Turkish Airlines flight was scheduled to depart at 6:20. It is hard to see how these flights could be confused by the operators, but since planes were not taking off on time, the possibility can’t be entirely eliminated.

What we don’t know is whether the Iranian Air Force had drones or other aircraft flying about early in the morning on January 8. There are no radar tracks showing that, and in fact, the only radar tracks so far available are from secondary radars tracking transponder-equipped commercial aircraft.

Thus there is every possibility that there were Iranian aircraft in the area, with nervous air defense operators waiting for a US attack.

The Tor-M1 is supposed to have an IFF (Identification Friend of Foe) system, but the older Russian IFF is prone to being hacked and not reliable. Could that have been what really happened in the early morning of January 8?

That would mean the air defense response team fired at an Iranian military plane and hit a civilian airline instead. It is likely we will never know, but faulty IFF and poorly trained operators may be the reason FL-752 was shot down.

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