Phenomena or Just a ‘Bad Karma’
In our cutting-edge technological era - Why we are still witnessing incidents in which a civilian aircrafts are gunned down by “mistake”? Should we be worried?
We are living in a super advanced era in which monitoring, control and identification systems allow us accuracy rates never seen before; controlling satellites in space, high resolution navigation systems (GPS) and sophisticated communication systems are at the grasp of almost every country and airline.
So, why do we encounter events, from time to time, in which civilian passenger’s aircrafts are being shot-down by ‘Surface to Air’ (SA) missiles? Is it always a matter of purely “bad luck” or maybe our answers lye in other fields? Should we, as costumers of the ever-growing** travel industry, be more concerned about that?
This review focuses on airlines’ aircrafts that where identified mistakenly or negligently as “enemy” military aircraft or as an offensive cruise missile, and due to that, where targeted by “Defence Forces” of some nature. Within the article I will review several past incidents, include my personal perspective, and offer some action alternatives for decision makers to consider.
There was no preliminary sign that morning of October 4th, 2001. It was just another routine day at Ben-Gurion Int’l Airport (TLV) with passengers en-route their destinations while airport staff are doing their best to check them in properly. Around 12:45pm airport’s directors started to receive phone calls informing us about info that flight SBI18212 Siberian Airlines (today identified as S7) destined to Novosibirsk, that departed the airport earlier around 10:00am – had vanished from radar screens at some point along its route. I can still remember the chill running down my spine from the sound of those words that no aviation industry professional is ready to hear someday.
Considering the fact that it occurred less than a month after 9/11 mega terror attack, and while civil aviation is still in a state of shock and slowly recovering from the consequences of that event – the pace and reaction here in the airport were both obviously influenced. Being a manager within the ranks of the airport’s security division team (and especially in Israel) – my colleagues and I immediately assumed it was a terror related event, but silently hoping it was “just” a malfunction of the aircraft…
Within few hectic hours, in which we’ve run our most thorough pre-planned security emergency protocols, assessing the situation, diving into every aspect of the flight preparations and procedures. We needed to conduct a deep debrief with our horrified employees (especially security team and ground handling agents were directly involved in the processes; some still remember the faces of the passengers on-deck). Some employees already finished their shift and went home to sleep, so we were forced to call them back to the airport for personal and collective debriefs and reconstructing line of events. Joining hands with all airport’s relevant stakeholders, with law enforcement community and governmental authorities, and with everyone that might have some information regarding the plane, the crew, the passengers, its cargo and mail, and many more angles in no-time – it became a grueling task. Piece by piece we’ve managed to assemble information, data and evidences to create almost a complete puzzle that enabled us to assess possible weaknesses that may have contributed to a disastrous result.
Obviously, we’ve shut down all aviation activity at the airport (with the immense operational “headache’ it involves) and consider specific decision making for every inbound flights or recent departures (that were still airborne). We had to deal with worried passenger’s families, mass media attention and requests for ‘responsible’ information from different entities, etc. Therefore, part of the team was needed to be reinforced by additional manpower summand from home.
In some point, an Armenian Airlines pilot reported that he saw an aircraft flying high above him, exploding and dropping into the Black-Sea beneath, while he was en-route at the area. That kind eye-witness testimony description can indicate a technical malfunction, a terror event and more scenarios (weather was reported as fair).
After eliminating all prospects of ill mechanical treatment on ground stop-over, or an airport staff failure, failing to conclude what was the reason for the catastrophe – we got a word through some diplomatic channels that an American satellite images analysts managed to spot two flame signatures (one looks to be on ground and the other might be in mid-air). That could match or indicate that a ‘surface to air’ missile had been shot and hit the aircraft mid-flight.
To be honest - a momentary sigh of relief went briefly between us and then we became (until today) simultaneously sad and enraged about the pointless unnecessary loss of human lives. Those 5 hours of uncertainty are forever engraved into my professional consciousness.
Later it was argued and reported that a Ukrainian Army units were in a military drill that day, and one of their air-defence S-200 missile batteries “accidently” identifies that aircraft as a ‘part of the drill targets’. Sadly, it was too late and didn’t matter for the misfortune casualties on-board.
Counting rundown of some past major events, locations and “reasons” include:
• A year ago, January 8th, 2020, we’ve horrifically witnessed Ukraine Int’l Airlines Flight PS752, B737-800 shot down (with 176 casualties) by 9K331 Tor-M1 (SA-15) missile, merely 6 minutes after takeoff from Iran’s Teheran Int’l Airport, due to a so called “Human Error”. Quite quickly this became evident to AVSEC professionals, and 3 days later it was admitted publically by local authorities as an event created by the hands of the hosting country armed forces (IRGC)!! Their argument of “we were in high alert anticipating armed retaliation after an Iranian attack on US bases in Iraq” – is not acceptable at all. Local authorities should conduct preventive steps to ensure safe passage for civil aviation or halt traffic.
It took several more months before an Iranian Civil Aviation Authority official came forward admitting that it was confirmed by reading recovered data from the aircraft “black boxes” (which are actually orange in true color – to ease the search after a crash) that the aircraft continued to fly additional 19 seconds at least after being hit by the first missile (people on-board where alive at this point!!) until it was hit and eliminated by the second lethal missile, leaving no chance for survivors.
• July 17th, 2014: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17, B777-200ER (299 casualties) – Intercepted by a 9K37 Buk (SA-11/17) missile shot by “mistake” by a “rebel Ukrainian vigilantes” (supporting Russia) over Crimea peninsula dispute.
• October 4th, 2001: Siberia Airlines Flight S7-1812, TU-154 (78 casualties) was hit by an S-200 Dubna (SA-5) missile, fired from the Crimea peninsula during a Ukrainian military exercise, by “mistake”. As I’ve mentioned earlier, that flight departed from my home-base airport TLV.
• July 3rd, 1988: Iran Air Flight IR655, Airbus A-300 (299 casualties) was “mistakenly” intercepted by a RIM-66 Standard surface-to-air missile from USS Vincennes Navy cruiser over Persian Gulf
• 1985 in Afghanistan, 1987 in Angola, Mozambique and again Afghanistan, 1988 in Pakistan, 1993 in Abkhazia and many more across recent decades involve gunning down civilian aircrafts over disputed conflict zones, mostly done in purpose and then “justified” as “mistakes”.
Ukraine Int’l Airlines Flight PS752 case study - Video footage (print screen) source: https://twitter.com/i/status/1217254454300479494
In my opinion, if you are an official ‘state empowered entity’ and responsible to hold and operate that kind of weapon systems - there’s only a thin line running between making an intentional ‘legitimate’ act of self-defense and a pure act of almost unruly terrorism – according to international laws and common values. Evidently, when the outcome is a civilian aircraft being shot-down (especially one that wasn’t servicing army/governmental duties) it applies to latter option. Technical faults may occur when systems are tuned to ‘Auto-Shoot’ for interception of potential threats. Yet, we haven’t heard much of such events so far. That itself indicates that even when Radar Auto-Detection is switched on – there is always some involvement / intervention of a human factor prior to ‘no-return point’ of shooting decision, which by nature is prone to suffer from ill judgment or mistakes (not to forget bad intentions).
One of the main reasons for these kinds of events is the widely spreading vector of para-military units/organizations that are gaining access and control over those types of weapon systems. Some of these semi-official groups or even rogue elements are claiming rights over “national defence” with backup of state administrations. It is very tempting to wave-off these events as ‘accidents’, rather than admitting the harsh true that these were avoidable errors. Having several organs playing armed defending role, specifically in rather small area, amplifies the risk and creates complex coordination environment allowing room for “Blame Game”.
Stepping aside a bit from main focus of this article, I cannot ignore mentioning the numerous events in which Civilian/Cargo/Military aircrafts carrying civilians or soldiers on-board where targeted on purpose by rivals using SA or Manpads. Same goes for reviewing civil airliners being intercepted by Airforce fighter-jets. These threats are worthy of a separate analysis in other occasion. Just for the “taste” of it – there’s a couple of prominent events:
• November 22nd, 2003: DHL Express GmbH Cargo A300 owned by European Air Transport was targeted by surface-to-air missile short after departure from Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport, and managed to land safely.
• November 2002: Arkia Israeli Airlines Flight IZ582, B-757 was the subject of an attempted shoot down by two (2) SA-7 (“Strela”) surface-to-air missiles, missing its target by fractions of seconds/meters (Aircrew actually witnessed the missiles passing-by in close proximity to the aircraft during after departure climb!). This was one half of two simultaneous attacks carried out by Somali Al-Shabaab terror group operatives (affiliated Al-Qaeda), while the other was aimed to tourist hotel in town using a driven car-bomb.
• September 1st, 1983: Korean-Air flight KE007 was intercepted be a Russian Fighter-Jet ‘Air to Air’ missile for penetrating their prohibited airspace due to navigation error, and was suspected as an American espionage aircraft.
Getting back to the risk of being shot-down by nation-state forces (or ‘presumed to be’) and without jumping to conclusions, it is required to examine some common aspects, shared by these events:
• The origin of the involved weapon systems manufacturer? Should we dare to assume these weapons lack sufficient identification/safety mechanisms?
• The over-all geographical spread-out is an eye-catching alert as well. Twice at least: over Crimea Peninsula, over Iran, over Afghanistan…
• Is there a culture of an “easy trigger finger” by their actual field operators?
• Are some countries airspace is more prone to trouble? Is that to attribute a negligent approach towards human lives or is it some sense of ‘political immunity’ even in a case of severe results?
Now, who is responsible to determine which conflict has “matured enough” to the level to recommend no commercial overflights? There’s a never-ending debate whether airlines should independently stop flights to/from/across disputed territories and conflict zones or should it be national/International decision. Most countries usually follow US FAA recommendations as a benchmark to their airlines, not to fly in specific region or even ban them. But maybe others should step-in.
Summary – what can be done?
On the one hand, nation-states should work to reduce weapon distribution to “’bad actors’ (endangering civilian aircraft). They also must place more checks and balances for their own weapon systems usage – considering airports vicinity and/or airlines routes in use.
Aircraft manufacturers should also enhance efforts to produce even better identification codes and implement “Missile/Battery lock sensors” to notify pilots in time, so they might take mitigating actions, if they can. There are operational systems already installed on commercial aircrafts (not only for “Airforce 1”), but they are still not part of the regulations (cost related?), and may solve just part of the threat vectors.
Isn’t there something else that int’l civil aviation actors & regulators (e.g; ICAO, IATA, FAA, CAA, etc.) should pursue or promote? I argue that there is sufficient room for them to implement better risk assessments and binding “Golden Guidelines”.
Airline’s management (security directors) should play a profound role in calculating risk management vs. routes economic operational efficiency, balancing considerations (keeping in mind the small profit margins in the industry). Security professionals should cling to international regulators recommendations on one hand, but must also independently analyze world’s current threats and trends, assess what might bare considerable risk to normal service, and be able to react and influence routing due to non-recommended flight areas.
Preserving precious human lives should be everybody’s first priority. But other priorities are the enormous damage in direct cost such as lost aircraft, compensations, and insurance. And indirect costs (diplomatic disputes between effected nations and aggressor side, loss of routes etc.) such as the inevitably damage to the airlines brand.
By Roni Tidhar
Head - Int’l Consulting Services at IAA. Israel Airports Authority
** This article was initiated in pre-Covid-19 era