The doomed flight. A tale of lies and deceit, both of which are still continuing, over what really happened to the Ukrainian jetliner destroyed in Iran.10 January 2020
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada later said his country had intelligence that an Iranian surface-to-air missile brought down the jetliner. [It was carrying 63 Canadian-Iranians along with another 113 passengers and crew.]
“We recognise that this may have been done accidentally,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa. “The evidence suggests very clearly a possible and probable cause for the crash.”
American satellites, designed to track missile launches, detected the firing of the Iranian short-range interceptor. United States intelligence agencies later intercepted Iranian communications confirming that the SA-15 system brought down the Ukrainian airliner, US officials said.
The Iranians, it seems, failed to see the significance of pictures on the airport’s security camera and allowed them to be made pubic. The video captured the impact — a series of blinding bursts of light in the distance, followed by a storm of burning debris in the foreground. That showed the plane first exploded or was on fire in mid-air, not when it hit the ground.
Another reason the Iranians could not continue to claim mechanical failure is the expertise of the Ukrainian investigators, who could not be oprevented from flying in and reaching the crash site. The Ukranians had seen it before: the same SA-15 missile brought down a Dutch plane over war-torn eastern Ukraine, near Russia.
“American officials have been reluctant to publicly assign blame for the downing of the aircraft, apparently to keep from inflaming tensions with Iran, at a time both governments were taking steps to de-escalate the military confrontation that came to a head when an American drone killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani,” a very well-informed New York Times article correctly stated.
The US intelligence and its tracking satellites from the Space-Based Infrared System, found that the pane was hit by at least one and possibly two SA-15 missiles. These are designed to operate at medium to very low altitude and can hit aircraft or guided weapons. Their maximum range is just over 15 miles and smash into targets as high as 32,800 feet.
Sources: Flightradar24, OpenStreetMap, Google
Iran at first said it would not hand over the crucial black box recorder, despite finding it in the wreckage, but later said it would ask the pre-eminent investigative body, the US National Transportation Safety Board to help in the investigation.
This indicates the Iranians have now decided it will be impossible to maintain their initial falsehood, that the crash was caused by “mechanical failure”.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, Abolfazl Shekarchi, was quoted by the Iranian news media as saying that the crash was not a result of any military action.
On close examination, his denial was laced with a smidgen of concealed truth. “This is ridiculous,” Shekarchi was quoted as saying. “Most of the passengers on this flight were our valued young Iranian men and women. Whatever we do, we do it for the protection and defense of our country and our people.”
The SA-15 launch was detected by the American military’s Space-Based Infrared System, which relies on satellites in various orbits to track the launch and flight path of ballistic missiles. While American missile defense sensors are primarily meant to defend against long-range launches, the military has upgraded the infrared satellite network to track shorter-range ballistic missile launches as well. They also can often detect launches of air defense systems, including missile systems designed to work at low altitudes, officials have said.
The infrared system also detected the antiaircraft missile fired by Russian-supported separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine in 2014 that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, officials said at the time. All 298 people aboard were killed.
The satellite data is often combined with other sources of information. For example, American intelligence can also often detect when air defense radar are turned on or activated, giving clues to what systems have been used.
President Trump, speaking at the White House on Thursday after an event announcing new environmental regulations, was asked about the downed airliner.
“I have my suspicions,” he said. “I don’t want to say that because other people have their suspicions also. It’s a tragic thing when I see that. It’s a tragic thing.”
He added that the crash could have been an accident.
“But somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Mr. Trump said. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and somebody could have made a mistake. Some people say it was mechanical. I personally don’t think that’s even a question, personally. So we’ll see what happens.”
Oleksy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said that investigators were following up on unconfirmed reports that fragments of a Russian-made Tor surface-to-air missile — a system used by Iran — had been found near where the plane, a Boeing 737-800, came down.
Ukraine was negotiating with Iran to allow the investigators to search the crash site near Tehran for possible rocket fragments, he told Censor.net, a Ukrainian news outlet.
The possibilities of a terrorist act, a collision with an airborne object such as a drone, and an engine explosion were also being examined as possible causes of the crash, Danilov said on his Facebook page.
“Ukraine brings unique experience to bear on the case because of the 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight,” the New York Times pointed out. “The SA-15 is similar to the same type of missile system that caused that crash, meaning the passengers aboard the flight out of Tehran may have faced a similar fate: silence followed by a sudden explosion that sent shrapnel and debris spiraling through the fuselage before the aircraft’s uncontrolled descent toward the ground.”
What the missile strike evidence cannot prove – either way – is whether those who fired knew this was a civilian airliner, and if a hit had been predetermined. The Middle East is a murky place, and definitive answers very hard to come by.