WASHINGTON – Verifying whether the Ukrainian jetliner that plunged to the ground in flames near Tehran late Tuesday was hit with a missile should be far more straightforward than the heated rhetoric surrounding the event.
Surface-to-air missiles leave a distinctive trail of evidence after striking an aircraft, such as the pattern of pockmarks in the fuselage, shrapnel wounds in people who were on board — and the data left behind on flight recorders.
“It looks like a shotgun pattern wherever they hit,” said Robert Swaim, a retired U.S. crash investigator who has been involved in such cases. “There is a concentrated area of sharp little tears.”
The prime ministers of Canada, the U.K. and Australia all said Thursday that they had intelligence showing that the Ukrainian jet that crashed was probably brought down by an Iranian missile and called for an international investigation of the disaster.
They did not specify the nature of the intelligence, but a person familiar with the inquiry said a U.S. spy satellite detected two missiles being launched from an Iranian battery near where Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was passing overhead.
“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
Last week’s U.S. killing of Iranian Quds Force head Gen. Qassem Soleimani brought long-simmering tensions between the U.S. and Iran to a boil. Iran fired a barrage of missiles at two bases in Iraq that house hundreds of U.S. troops on Tuesday, just hours before the crash of the Ukrainian plane. But with no casualties, U.S. President Donald Trump said he had no plans to take further military action against Iran and would instead enact more sanctions.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday approved a resolution asserting that Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran.
Trump countered that he needs no one’s blessing to launch attacks, essentially scorning existing legal requirements for consulting with Congress.
Trump later insisted, without providing evidence, that Soleimani had been “actively planning new attacks,” including against U.S. embassies, “and we stopped him cold.”
Trump also said Thursday he would like to see more NATO troops in the Middle East because the problems there are international in scope. How receptive U.S. allies in Europe will be remains unclear, especially given that nations like France were dedicated to the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump has abandoned.
Iran has strongly denied that a missile was involved in Tuesday’s crash, but the tell-tale signs should be obvious to experts who have examined previous such instances, such as the Dutch team that issued findings after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, Swaim said.
The Ukrainian government said it was investigating reports of debris from a Russian-made SA-15 missile, which also is known as a Tor-M1 missile.
The Tor is a short-range “point defense” system that integrates the missile launcher and radar into a single tracked vehicle. It is designed to destroy military aircraft and cruise missiles. It has a small warhead and is designed to spray fragments of shredded metal into a target upon detonation.
To attack a target, the Tor operator must identify it on the radar screen and direct the missile to launch.
The Tor is among the most modern air defense systems Iran has. When Iran purchased Tors from Russia in the mid-2000s, “the capability was such that at the time the U.S. was concerned about the sale,” said Michael Duitsman, a research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
A former European air defense officer said that ideally, flight plans and transponder codes of all scheduled civilian flights would be shared with military units stationed near an airport. That allows the missile battery operator to correlate each object on radar with a flight plan and transponder code.
“Shooting down a hostile aircraft is easy,” said the officer. “It’s identifying the aircraft and not shooting down friendlies that are the challenges.”
Iranian authorities have given Ukrainian investigators access to the fragments of the plane and they were examined late Thursday, according to a statement by the Ukrainian president’s office.
Iran also has invited Boeing to take part in the investigation into the crash, which killed all 176 people on board, state media reported Friday.
In some past crashes similar to Tuesday’s, the cause was obvious within hours. In others, it took months or even years to document what happened.
A DHL cargo jet in 2003 was struck by a surface-fired missile shortly after taking off from Baghdad during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing. No one was hurt.
In 1988, a U.S. Navy missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, downed an Iran Air Airbus A300 over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 passengers and crew members. The U.S. military said it had mistaken the airliner for an Iranian fighter jet, an account disputed by Iran.
A Ukrainian air-defense station accidentally shot down a Siberian Airlines jet over the Black Sea in 2001, killing the 78 passengers and crew members on board. Russian investigators concluded that the Ukrainian forces had fired two missiles at a drone as part of a military exercise, and one of them flew 150 miles (about 240 km) past its target and detonated near the airliner, causing it to plunge into the sea, The New York Times reported at the time.
The July 2014 episode involving the Malaysian Airlines plane has been one of the most well-documented cases. The Boeing Co. 777, carrying 298 people, was shot down by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The region is the site of a conflict between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian military forces, and two military aircraft had been downed just days earlier, an international team concluded.
Three Russians and a Ukrainian were charged with murder over the attack. A trial in the Netherlands is scheduled for March.
The final report by Dutch investigators into the crash was able to rule out actions by the pilots and other possible sources, such as a lightning strike.
The evidence of a missile was overwhelming, the investigation concluded.
An analysis of sound waves captured by the jet’s crash-proof cockpit recorder showed a powerful sound wave consistent with an explosion had occurred milliseconds before the recording stopped as the plane broke apart.
Measuring the minute differences in when the sound wave hit different microphones in the cockpit, investigators concluded it was centered just to the left of the nose of the aircraft.
That corresponded to an analysis of puncture marks centered around the left side of the cockpit, investigators concluded.
Investigators found distinctively shaped pieces of shrapnel in three crew members’ bodies and linked them to the Buk missile system used in the attack, the report said.
In the latest case in Iran, the outlines of what happened should emerge soon, particularly if there is the shotgun pattern of shrapnel, Swaim said.
“If there is some physical evidence in the wreckage like this, you’ll see it pretty quick,” he said, “within the first day or two.”