Iran's Accidental Downing of Ukrainian Flight PS752
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Iran's Accidental Downing of Ukrainian Flight PS752

By Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon, Indian Air Force

Image Attribute: Crash site of Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 (Flight No: PS752), near Tehran International Airport

Image Attribute: Crash site of Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 (Flight No: PS752), near Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Iran’s admission that it had accidentally shot down a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 (Flight No: PS752) in the fog of war over Tehran International Airport, sad as it may be as an event, only shows the infallibility of modern military – human interface combine. Similar fiascos have occurred in the past as early as 1983 when a South Korean airliner servicing the flight was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor killing 269 passengers and crew. Later, in 1988 when an American warship shot down an Iranian passenger jet killing 290 passengers. And in most recent times, in 2014 a Russian missile brought down a Malaysian civil airliner over Ukraine killing 298 people. 

The admission of culpability by Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Commander may serve to deescalate the prevailing situation in the Middle East somewhat, and of course “off with their heads” situation for the Brigadier and his team… it is high time professional militaries took Air Defence seriously. It is unfortunate that the Indian Air Force (IAF) recently joined this dubious bandwagon of wrongdoers by its “blue on blue” downing of its own MI-17 chopper over Srinagar during the aerial standoff with Pakistan and this may not be the last such incident... unfortunately! Why so calls for some understanding of the dynamics of air defense “kill” for the uninitiated.

A weapon solution in "Air Defense (AD)" parlance is achieved through a combination of available defensive weapons over an intended target, such as shoulder-fired and surface to air missiles, anti-aircraft guns, and fighter-interceptor aircraft. These arrays of radar sensors, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems (normally integrated with the weapon platform) and even ground-based Combat Air Patrol controllers are then superimposed with some procedural methods such as Gun Fire Areas (GFAs -where friendly aircraft are banned from flying, for security considerations). 

Iran's Accidental Downing of Ukrainian Flight PS752

In the Tehran instance apparently, the GFA would have been the IRGC location (Parandak Garrison) in the vicinity of the Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, whose integral AD weapons, possibly a short-range surface to air missile (SAM), were free to engage any target deemed hostile. There has to be a well-trained AD commander to orchestrate all these sensors and weapons and procedures to ensure that no friendly fire instance takes place. This then is the weak link... as evident now in the Srinagar instance of the IAF too wherein the AD Spyder missile controller was blameworthy. Iranian AD commanders lack in operational on the job experience too given the heavy American sanctions on the country and consequently paucity in training fighter flying and other sensor integration effort which translates to availability of abundant spares for the entire Iranian Air Force.

So, in other words, this was an accident waiting to happen. In case of defensive organizations such as perhaps the IRGC AD network or the shooting down of the Malaysian plane over Ukraine in a war situation, the policy of  “what is not mine is enemy” also tends to hold sway - putting a poorly trained AD crew and trigger happy AD commander into the equation and you have the necessary heady mix for a miscalculated friendly fire incident. Fog of war situations does lead to some friendly fire incidents all over the world. But even in comparatively controlled situations, Peters’ Principle tends to operate (if something, somewhere has to go wrong, then it will!) and you have this kind of operational tragedies. Coming now to what could be a geo-strategic repercussion of this incident…. Iranians’ initial intransigence and blaming it on the American adventurism have already been proved wrong by the embarrassed admission of their own Iran’s supreme leader Ali offering to bring the guilty to book. The expected inquiry into the “accident”, comprising Canadians, Americans, and Ukranian agencies would only put a "quod erat demonstrandum" on the entire episode. But who can bring back the innocent lives lost?!

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India. 

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.