By Stephen Bryen – ASIA TIMES 14 Jan 2020 – Iran continues to tell false and deliberately misleading stories about the downing of Ukrainian Airline’s Flight PS-752, including the story that a nervous missile operator “with only six seconds” to decide, mistakenly shot down the jet. Tehran says the operator thought he was shooting at a cruise missile.
Every modern air defense system consists of at least three parts: the missile firing unit that contains the air defense missiles; an acquisition radar that searches a broad area to provide early warning of threats; and, an engagement radar that acquires the target and helps guide the missile.
The Russian-made Tor, which is the system that US intelligence thinks was used to blow up PS-752, uses both types of radars. The system has a modern digital command and control system and an IFF (identification friend or foe) system all sitting on a tracked vehicle. The complete package is known as a TLAR, transporter, launcher and radar. Iran bought 21 Tor systems in 2007.
A radar operator cannot just push a button and launch a missile. It takes at least a full minute, sometimes a minute and a half or more, to ready the missile for firing. At a minimum, the target information has to be connected to one or more air defense missiles and the gyros of the missiles have to be spun up. The story that the operator had only six seconds is not credible. Even the more modern Pansir, S-300 and S-400 (all Russian built) require one to two minutes to get ready for launch.
Furthermore, a missile operator is not authorized to fire a missile unless he gets permission from his commander who usually is not physically located in the TLAR.
Iran claims there was no communication back to headquarters so they fired without authorization. No solider, no matter how dumb, would risk the possibility of being shot by firing squad for not getting authorization to launch a missile.
PS-752 took off at 6:11.54 from Tehran’s international airport. Three minutes later, at the last point of contact, the 737 was at 8,000 feet – nowhere near the normal operating altitude of a cruise missile. Any decent radar would have tracked it from shortly after takeoff until it was destroyed. A missile fired at the airplane would take around 10 seconds to hit it, so we can say its radar image would have been available to the Tor missile defense system for almost the entire three minutes.
The Tor acquisition radar has a range of about 25 kilometers, which means that if there really was a cruise missile on the way, it would have been identified as a target some distance away. The area to the west and south of Tehran is flat affording radar a good long-range view (to the west there are mountains, but Iran would never expect a US strike from that direction). The Tor is optimized against low flying threats such as cruise missiles, so the radar should have been good enough to give a warning of around five to 10 minutes.
The radar return of a cruise missile like the Tomahawk, the only cruise missile in the US arsenal capable of hitting Tehran, is small compared to that of a commercial jetliner. A jet’s radar blip would be five times bigger than a Tomahawk, which is not a stealth platform. It has a wingspan of less than nine feet compared with 112 feet for a 737-800.
PS-752 was climbing after takeoff. Modern radars can determine altitude, and the fact that PS-752 was climbing was prima facie evidence that it was not a Tomahawk, which flies at about 50 feet off the ground. The Tomahawk usually tries to “hide” in radar clutter and natural cover like hills and mountains, even tall buildings. The operator would have to be incredibly stupid to mistake the climbing flight path of a commercial jet with the level flight path of a cruise missile. The operator had minutes to figure out the difference.
The Ukrainian Airlines flight was equipped with a radar transponder that broadcasts an enhanced radar blip t0 identify the plane and provide other information for air traffic controllers. Why would a Russian-built air defense system with IFF not discriminate automatically between commercial and military jets, particularly if the TLAR was installed close to a large commercial airport? If it could not make that distinction, the IFF would be of poor quality and not trustworthy.
Russia has a profusion of air defense systems (including Tor) clustered around Moscow, which has three important international airports – Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Vnukovo. It is almost impossible to believe the Russians have not tuned their air defense systems to disregard commercial aviation operations. So why can’t the Iranians do that, or have the Russians sold them a degraded export version of Tor?
The Iranian arguments don’t pass muster and are misleading, intentionally so. By putting the blame on some low-level missile defense operator, the authorizing officials avoid responsibility. By blaming bad communications, they insulate themselves from even knowing what was taking place. By making up more stories based on purposefully misleading and wrong information, they prove they are not even clever enough to concoct something more convincing.
Now there are protests in Iran calling for Khameini’s resignation. The protesters understand false narratives and are angry that so many needlessly died, including 82 Iranians and 63 Canadian citizens of which at least 57 were of Iranian origin.
Unbelievably, the Iranians have arrested the British Ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, for allegedly directing “radical” actions in the protests. This has created a firestorm of complaints from the UK, and Macaire was released not long after he was arrested. The protests continue.
This attack on PS-752 was no accident. It was a criminal act that must have been authorized by the Revolutionary Guard force that runs Tehran’s missile defenses.
Dr Stephen Bryen has 40 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission.