Don't Blame the Frontline Operator
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
The accidental shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 is a classic 'Shoot, Don't Shoot' situation. At the critical point, the missile battery operator had just 10 seconds to make his decision. His superiors could not be reached by radio. Earlier he had been informed of an incoming cruise missile attack. He did not have up to date information about civilian aircraft movements. What was he to do ?
The operator was clearly in error, he made the wrong call. It is also clear that he was in an impossible situation. The real question, therefore, is WHY, how did he come to be in such a position where whatever decision he took was likely to end badly.
Our main source of information on the accident is the statement by Brigadier General Hajizadeh of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (see here) This sheds some important light on how the accident could occur. Among the key points are -
Iran's Air Defences were on the highest level of alert that night, they fully expected retaliation from the United States following their own strikes on the Ain Al Assad air base in Iraq.
Reports of cruise missile launches had already come in. Several false alarms took place in the hours leading up to the incident.
The missile battery had been added to Tehran's air defence ring as an additional security measure. This meant they may well have been positioned somewhere unfamiliar to the crew, without a clear sense of orientation in relation to the civilian airport.
The crew received two warnings from their command centre of an imminent attack, and were told to be ready to fire at a moment's notice.
The target was identified at 19km range. The operator believed it was a cruise missile. The procedure was for him to get authorisation before firing, however radio communications went down at that precise point in time.
From this account it is obvious that the operator lacked a vital piece of information - the fact that Flight PS752 had just taken off from Tehran Airport and was on a course that would lead it into the battery's area of operations. Had he known this...
It is at this point that a parallel can be found with the earlier tragedy of Iran Air Flight 655, shot down in 1988 by the USS Vincennes. Here the Anti Air Warfare (AAW) team on board had four minutes to determine the identity of the aircraft flying directly towards them, whether it was an F-14 on an attack run, or a civilian airliner. This task proved to be impossible given the information available to them, and their Captain decided the security of the ship took priority and gave the command to fire. This was in line with US Navy Commander's intent following the incident with the USS Stark the previous year, which was struck by two Exocet missiles from an Iraqi aircraft with a loss of life of 37 on board.
Where the two accidents overlap lies in the inability of either crew to listen in to civilian radio traffic, and from this get an idea of civilian aircraft movements. On the Vincennes, there was just one VHF radio on hand, and this was being used to send out warnings on the emergency distress channel, rather than listen to Bander Abbas tower. If the AAW team had been listening in, they would have heard IR 655 push off from the gate a full twelve minutes before it took off and made the task of identifying it correctly much easier.
In the case of our missile battery, even with only a basic understanding of English, the operator could have gained the knowledge that a civilian departure had just taken place. This might have given him enough time to check in with his chain of command. At the same time, his command centre, which should have had this information, could have sent out an alert to all crews. They could also have prioritised those units along the airliner's flightpath as this was where the risk of error would be highest.
Why this wasn't done is not clear. Presumably, the situation was not anticipated and the danger was overlooked. This is a common problem, not only in military operations. It arises out of a tendency to focus on 'success', the task at hand, rather than 'failure', in this example a successful defence of the city against cruise missile strikes, rather than an accidental shootdown of a civilian aircraft.
The High Consequence Decision Making (HCD) training program run by Avoiding Catastrophe addresses this problem directly. Our opening session takes a real scenario and asks participants, 'how can this go horribly wrong ?'. A later session puts them in the same position as the AAW team on board the Vincennes, with the same information to work with and just four minutes to identify the incoming aircraft. In that case, as with the missile battery, the team were SET UP TO FAIL. In the training we then shift our focus to look at how this happened, and how it could have been avoided.
A version of this training is now available online. Check it out here
The shooting down of IR 655 is examined at length in the book, 'Shoot, Don't Shoot', still available for free download from the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre website. (Go here)
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