Email Ken Stallings   When an Accident Isn't Really an Accident

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During an Iranian ballistic missile attack on 10 January 2020, the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737 that took off from an international airport in Tehran.  For three days the Iranian government denied they shot down the passenger jet, instead claiming the jet crashed due to mechanical failure.  Only after international pressure and accurate evidence surfaced, and left with no further plausible basis for denial, did the Iranian regime admit what most everyone already knew -- their military shot down the civilian airliner.  The Iranian government now claims it was a horrible accident.

Gross negligence isn't an accident.  And when gross negligence results in people needlessly getting killed, it is normally considered at least negligent homicide in the eyes of the law.  The denials by the regime did nothing for the corrupt mullahs except increase domestic anger, and cause further international outrage.  Lost among the news articles, and most government statements, are the salient reasons why the Iranian regime is still lying to save face.  This was no mere accident.  This shoot down was gross negligence, and by many different Iranian agencies, and for many different reasons.  Let's list some of the important issues:

First, Iran chose to fire about 15 ballistic missiles at military installations in Iraq.  In choosing to do this, the Iranians had a moral obligation to do what responsible governments do -- immediately shut down its civilian airspace from both departing and inbound flights.  Such an action can be initiated at whatever time a government chooses and, with proper coordination with air traffic control, the action can be implemented within seconds.  If a government is about to turn its real estate into a battleground, then it has a duty to the public to keep civilian air traffic out of harm's way.  A responsible government does this, if for no other reason than to help its military air defense officers, in knowing that anything left flying is likely a hostile aircraft, and not a civilian aircraft in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One wonders if the Iranian military even bothered to notify its civilian air traffic control agency of the military operation it undertook.

Instead, the Iranian government allowed normal air travel before, during, and after they initiated these offensive military actions.  This Ukrainian jet obtained a normal instrument clearance from clearance delivery at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, blissfully unaware it was about to depart for flight into an active battlespace.  Part of that instrument clearance was a four digit transponder code that the crew entered into its Mode-C equipment.  That code was then broadcast before takeoff.  This transponder code is a critical reason for the second important issue.

That second issue is that professional Air Defense officers and military personnel are trained to interrogate all suspected aerial targets, and to determine if that aircraft is squawking a civilian code.  Moreover, air defense systems are supposed to work closely with their civilian air traffic control, so that they can quickly determine if the intercepted squawk code matches one issued to a civilian jet.

At this point, some people will recall the situation back in 1988, when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian jetliner.  There are some parallels, but also many critical differences, and perhaps most important of all, the Vincennes incident resulted in improved military protocols, designed to prevent a repeat.  At the time, the Vincennes really was exchanging fire with Iranian gunboats, who had earlier fired on one of the cruiser's helicopters operating in international waters.  The Vincennes crew made ten radio warnings to the approaching aircraft, the last three on civilian VHF guard frequency 121.5, that it was steering toward a US Navy ship engaged in hostile actions, warning it to steer away.  The Iranian pilots, perhaps because they did not think the radio warnings applied to them, chose to continue course and never acknowledged the radio calls made to them.  The Navy crew had no equipment to dial up the civilian frequency that the Iranian airliner was operating on, and moreover no information to even know what that frequency was.  This oversight was quickly rectified as a result of the incident, as future Navy ships were equipped with dialable VHF radios, as well as having its missile crews issued daily civilian frequency charts.

The Vincennes crew had no option to contact Iranian air traffic control to verify the nature of the approaching aircraft, and further no attempt was made by even Iranian ATC to respond to the Vincennes' warnings over the radio.  The Iranians likewise made no attempt to shut down civilian air traffic from entering the area where Iranian gunboats chose to initiate hostile actions against the US Navy helicopter operating in international waters.  That last part is a huge lesson, which it seems four decades later, the Iranian government still is choosing to ignore!

These new protocols, to make radio calls on known civilian ATC frequencies, and coordinate if possible with local ATC, have been in effect for all air defense missile crews since this 1988 incident.  All of these protocols were ignored by the Iranian missile crew in this latest tragedy.  There is no evidence that the IRGC missile crew made any attempt to interrogate the transponder code, work with their own nation's ATC to determine the nature of the aircraft it was targeting, and never issued any radio warnings over guard before firing two missiles to shoot down the Ukrainian passenger jet.

The truth is that the Iranians were in control of their own airspace, and yet took no action to keep civilian aircraft out of harm's way, and then initiated a military operation anyway.  Combined with failure of the Iranian missile crew to adhere to basic fire discipline, and the truth is this shoot down was no mere accident.  It was certainly not intentional, but it was gross negligence, for all the reasons provided.  That reality, perhaps more than any other part of this, is why so many Iranians are now actively protesting against their own government, as most of those killed were themselves Iranian citizens.  This latest example of gross negligence, and wanton disregard for the basic duty to protect people, has remained a pattern of bad behavior by the Iranian regime for a very long time.

-- Ken Stallings

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