What did I tell you? It was all too obvious from the lack of distress call, the sudden loss of contact, and the size of the debris field that Ukrainian International flight PS-752 from Tehran to Kyiv had not just fallen out of the sky. The aircraft, Boeing 737-800 UR-PSR, was less than four years old and had been well maintained. The crash bore all the hallmarks of a shootdown. The only imponderable was Who Done It.
Almost at once, the people at Bellingcat, led by the determined Eliot Higgins, were on the case. And soon enough they had images of what appeared to be a Russian-built TOR missile; the problem was getting those images geolocated. The bad news for the Iranian authorities, who almost immediately denied any involvement, was that they had TOR missiles, and nobody else in the vicinity of Tehran Airport did.
There was a video apparently showing a missile hitting the aircraft. As Bellingcat told its readers, “The New York Times has contacted the person who filmed the video … and confirmed its authenticity”. Then the key finding. “We have geolocated this video to a residential area in Parand … a suburb to the west of Imam Khomeini International Airport, from which Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) departed to Kyiv”.
Thus the pressure on the Iranians increased. And it soon increased further: as the Guardian has reported, “US officials told US media that they had also identified the infrared signature from two suspected missile launches followed shortly afterwards by the infrared blip from the burning and fatally disabled aircraft”. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, whose country lost more than 60 of its citizens in the crash, endorsed that view.
There has been some confusion as to why the nose cone of the TOR missile was found intact, but that is not the part of the weapon that does the damage. As with the Russian BUK missile that downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, the device does not actually impact its target: its warhead, situated behind the nose cone in the TOR, detonates and fragments ahead of the target, with the shrapnel burst doing the real damage.
Ultimately, the Iranians ‘fessed up overnight, and as the BBC has reported, “Iran has admitted ‘unintentionally’ shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board. An investigation found that ‘missiles fired due to human error’, President Hassan Rouhani said. He described the crash as an ‘unforgivable mistake’”. Unforgivable in that the 737-800’s transponder identified it as a civilian airliner.
The operators of the TOR missile system would have had that information before they made the decision to loose off two missiles at it, in the false belief that it was a US warplane. But the flight had been delayed for almost an hour, meaning that its departure was, to them, an unexpected event. Also, the Iranian military was on a hair trigger as a result of heightened tensions between that country and the USA.
Even so, if it was unforgivable when the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iran Air flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz all those years ago, it was unforgivable for the Iranian military to take out Ukrainian International flight PS-752 last week.
Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. Sadly, that’s not just true in the UK.
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