An ‘accidental’ shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner doesn’t really make sense … but OK

An ‘accidental’ shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner doesn’t really make sense … but OK
Fireball from Ukraine Flight PS752 crashing near Tehran. Social media; Twitter via @HeshmatAlavi

The strongest characteristics of the recent series of untoward events in Iraq and Iran are the following:

1. Trump brought off an outcome (for the moment) that confounded everyone’s complacent preconceptions, and vindicated no one’s doctrinal certainties about security policy and the use of force.

2. The “information” environment for the events has been remarkable for its incoherence – not because of the administration in the White House, but because it’s so obvious that the other contributors to the information stream (the news media, general and specialty pundits, politicians from outside the administration) don’t have a common view of what’s going on.  Indeed, it’s more than that: they insist on diverging views.

These two features of the whole episode are far too big as topics to try and treat in one sitting.  But they make important context for looking briefly at one of the events in question: the shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner during the Iranian missile attack on 7 February.

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A very abbreviated survey of the two prominent features would consider, first of all, the point that a whole lot of people are satisfied with what Trump did and how things have come out so far, even though Trump hasn’t done what various factions see as indispensable: e.g., attacking Iran’s nuclear-related facilities; withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq; affirming that the U.S. thinks regime change would be just what the doctor ordered for Iran.

The president didn’t go with anyone’s systematic prescription for integrating force and diplomacy.  It’s as inaccurate to say he satisfied “neocons” as it would be to say he pulled his punches, acted weakly, wisely favored “diplomacy” at the expense of “force,” took the “isolationist” road, or engaged in dangerous brinkmanship.

But Soleimani is gone, and his role in Iran’s career of regional adventurism cannot be easily replicated.  An extremely significant geopolitical condition has changed, and in effect, has changed permanently.  Soleimani won’t be back.  Whatever Iran does from here, it won’t be a continuation of the last two decades.

That’s partly because Soleimani is gone, but also partly because with Trump in the White House, Iran is on notice that there will be no more hiding behind proxies.

A number of pundits have seen these basic points clearly.  It’s as if we can easily discern what the outcome has been when we just focus on what Trump did.  But trying to relate that set of perceptions to our systematic viewpoints has the vast rest of the information environment in a state of meandering chaos.

One group, the mainstream media, is leading an unflagging charge to depict everything as a negative reflection on Trump (as opposed to just doing their best in good faith to convey it as news).  In ways big and small, this produces a lot of misleading reportage.

Just one example would be the Washington Post article about the U.S. having advance warning that Iran was preparing to launch missiles into Iraq.  Our LU editorial comment on this sums it up: the article reports this “almost” as if it’s a bad thing.  I would go further and say, Don’t kid yourself about the “almost” part.

The WaPo report appears to have come from someone who knew there was prior U.S. intelligence about the Iranian missile movements, and may have had legitimate information that a foreign government gave us a heads-up as well.  The purpose of feeding it to WaPo seems to have been to suggest something questionable about our having that intelligence and then doing what we did.  Which – according to multiple other indicators as well as the WaPo account – was to pluck people and equipment out of harm’s way in advance, and prepare defensive systems to the extent possible on short notice.

Leaving a vaguely negative impression looks like the goal here, since it’s not clear what else we should have done.  Preemptively attack Iran’s missile systems as they were setting up in Iran?  Beg Iran, out of quivering terror, to sit down for a parley instead?

But there’s an important informational point we mustn’t miss.  It’s this: deploying the “leak” about prior intelligence, as WaPo’s source did, packages the “intelligence” itself in a way that is likely to mislead us.  It associates having prior “warning” with a negative feeling about the event – and with an implication of surprise and indignation for the public.  It’s as if it was a policy failure that everybody wasn’t told about the intelligence in the first place, five minutes after the watch chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff was notified.

What an informational mess, of oddly framed facts and straw man expectations.  The clean truth is best expressed very simply.  Of course we had prior intelligence.  Du-uh.  We have a vast, very expensive national and theater intelligence apparatus to ensure that we’ll have prior intelligence on such activities by an opponent like Iran.  It’s perfectly normal for it to perform as described.  That’s what it’s supposed to do.  Having done this for a living for years, I don’t just accept that we had prior intelligence; I assume we did.  The taxpayers are getting value for our dollar.

There are quite a few other examples of informational goose-chasing.  It’s really getting to where the public dialogue doesn’t even make any sense; it’s just a lot of talking points running in fake camos through the woods trying to paintball each other.  It’s no wonder none of the shaky-fisted declaiming makes any informational headway against the simple outcomes Trump produces, where you can tell the difference between the before and the after.

The Ukrainian airliner

That brings us to the title topic: the airliner shootdown.  I want to emphasize at the outset that the point here is not to root around for discrepancies to get excited about or dark theories to explain them.  Our best course is to wait and see what happens.  At some point, we can hope to get a more definitive update from U.S. authorities.

But the bottom line about what we know is that nothing reconstructed in the public sphere at this point is evidence that the shootdown was accidental, nor is it likely that it was accidental.  The latter assertion is based on the specific circumstances in which the event occurred.

The circumstances include the target being a commercial airliner taking off from Tehran International airport, something that nothing else is realistically going to look like to a radar operator.  According to U.S. officials, the plane was probably shot down by an interceptor missile from a former-Soviet SA-15 (or Tor-M1) short-range anti-air missile system.

The Tor-M1 uses positive-control command guidance for target engagement by the interceptor.  That means an operator has deliberately selected the target and controls the missile by radio command all the way to engagement.  Even if the missile is somehow launched by mistake, it can be rendered “stupid,” when such an error is recognized (i.e., immediately), by terminating its radio-command link.  Since the target was engaged by the missile, that apparently didn’t happen.

For this incident to truly be the “accident” people think they’re hearing about, there would have had to be some scenario in which multiple layers of Iranian air defense command thought the aircraft they were seeing on their displays was something other than an innocent commercial airliner, on a takeoff profile from the international airport.

That’s one thing if we’re talking about, say, a cruise missile showing up on their displays out of nowhere, popping up from a low-altitude approach with nothing to say for itself and being suspiciously unknown to the civil air traffic controller.

But we’re not talking about that.  We’re talking about an airliner squawking as required to satisfy the Tehran controller, having just been cleared for takeoff, and presenting on the display systems exactly consonant with those qualities.  (This is one of the key profile differences between the Ukrainian airliner and the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine in 2014.  The Malaysian Flight 17 shootdown occurred at high altitude as the plane was passing through Ukrainian airspace.  That flight didn’t have the extra identifying advantage of a plane taking off locally.)

If the Iranians are really so unreasonably incompetent that every system check failed them and they shot down an airliner “by mistake,” they would have done it before now.  But they’ve been operating point-defense anti-air missile batteries in the Tehran metro for decades, including during periods of crisis, without shooting down airliners from the international airport.  (They’ve had the Tor-M1 operational there since the 1990s, with significant upgrades acquired in the years since.)

It’s a tribute to the decisive sense created by Trump’s handling of the recent crisis that people aren’t more worried about the airliner shootdown.  The vibe I’m detecting is that the larger crisis episode, as a series of events, has been tucked down for the time being, and there’s no need to doubt what Trump’s officials are doing or saying about the stray ends.

Even Trump’s Democratic and media detractors aren’t really interested in what happened with the airliner shootdown.  They’re more concerned with depicting it as Trump’s fault.

If I were to speculate at all as to why U.S. officials might have told media outlets the shootdown could have been “accidental,” I’d throw this out: that it’s politically easier to backtrack from “accidental” to “intentional” – if that becomes necessary – than to do it the other way around.  We may be certain right now that Iran shot the plane down, but not certain of the full circumstances.  Better to leave the gravest allegation until we know more.

In the meantime, it does look advisable for the U.S. administration to clarify that we think the plane was shot down, if that’s what we think.  That shouldn’t be hidden from the public, even if we don’t have all the answers yet.  And again, the thing to do now is wait and see what kind of forensic story there is to tell.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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