Why have global leaders from the 5 eyes countries started to blame Iran for shooting down Ukrainian airline flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800 from Tehran on Thursday? How would they know not having access to the on the ground investigation? Philip Ingram MBE a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence explains the science behind the intelligence, MASINT.
Talking about the crash, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, said in a news conference in Ottawa in Canada on Thursday “We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”
Before that, CBS News in the US said, “U.S. intelligence picked up signals of a radar being turned on, sources told CBS News.”
The UK’s Daily Mail said, “US intelligence says the Boeing 737 was tracked by satellite data which showed the plane airborne for two minutes before detecting the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles.
That was quickly followed by an explosion, officials say, before infrared emissions from the plane showed it burning as it crashed to the ground.”
US President Donald Trump said, ‘It was flying in a pretty rough neighbourhood. Somebody could have made a mistake,’ and went on to tell reporters at the White House on Thursday. ‘I have a feeling that something very terrible happened, very devastating.’
The official Iranian line remains the aircraft suffered mechanical failure, so what is the truth and how can we believe reports from unnamed ‘intelligence sources’ that to the nay-sayers will smack of what the Russians love to call – маскировка (maskirovka) or masking. This is “Fake News” in Donald Trump’s vocabulary, at a time when accurately apportioning blame is critical in the international powerplay and need to de-escalate an unfolding crisis.
It was fascinating that CBS first quoted the unnamed intelligence source describing what had been seen from satellites, most of the intelligence derived from satellites is classified at a level of above TOP SECRET simply because the US doesn’t want the world to know what it sees.
The quotes in the press allow me to introduce the little-known world of what is called MASINT, or Measurement and Signature Intelligence, again a discipline where little is released because of the sensitivities of capabilities. However, the science around what has been mentioned is relatively straight forward and it is that science that gives a degree of certainty as to what has happened.
According to US intelligence publications, “Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) is technically derived intelligence (excluding traditional imagery (IMINT) and signal intelligence (SIGINT) which when collected, processed, and analysed, results in intelligence that detects, tracks, identifies, or describes the signatures (distinctive characteristics) of fixed or dynamic target sources. MASINT includes the advanced processing and exploitation of data derived from IMINT and SIGINT collection sources. MASINT sensors include, but are not limited to, radar, optical, infrared, acoustic, nuclear, radiation detection, spetroradiometric, and seismic systems as well as gas, liquid, and solid material sampling systems.”
From the reporting we have 2 signatures that have been analysed. The first is the “signals of a radar being turned on.” There is no one radar signature that does everything for everyone, different radars are designed to carry out different task, for example a long-range air traffic control radar will use a particular frequency to look out long distances, will rotate relatively slowly looking for objects a long way away and all around it. Radar uses a radio wave frequency and then analyses how that bounces off a particular object as it moves, using what is called the doppler shift, to work out how that object is moving and where it is relative to the Radar.
There are 3 signatures that are examined with Radars to identify their purpose and unique signature, every type of radar has a unique fingerprint of signals. These are the frequency of the signal it transmits and the way that transmission is coded, what is called the PRF, or pulse repetition frequency, and the rotation (including speed of rotation, if any) of the radar transmitter, some Radars are fixed and some, like those you see at airports, rotate. Putting all 3 together you can easily classify a radar as “Air Defence, fire control associated with TOR M-1 (SA15),” and rule in or out what the radar is usually used for, i.e. If it is a search radar or a fire control radar.
The second signature is more interesting. The quote that, “satellite data which showed the plane airborne for two minutes before detecting the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles. That was quickly followed by an explosion, officials say, before infrared emissions from the plane showed it burning as it crashed to the ground.” This tells us a lot.
It mentions heat signatures and infra-red signatures, simplifying the science behind these terms they are effectively the same but hide the detail within those phrases. It is widely reported in scientific journals how astronomers can tell the make-up of a star or the atmosphere around a planet by looking at the different light signatures received by the Hubble, other space or ground based optical or wide spectrum telescopes. That is looking billions of miles into space and examining the minutest electro magnetic signatures received. Infra-Red, is merely an electromagnetic signature.
When you burn coal on a home fire it gives off a different heat signature to burning wood or when the fire brigade is using their thermal cameras, through temperature differentials they can see the seat of a fire and in some cases if there are accelerants feeding it.
It is the same with a missile launch, compared to a rocket launch, compared with an explosion. The spectrum of visible and infra-red radiation detected is different for a solid rocket motor, liquid propelled rocket or an explosive substance going off and these are vastly different to a fuel or oil fire in an engine. For the geeks amongst you the energy released with the breaking of molecular bonds in the fuel or explosive compounds is different depending on the way the molecule breaks down and the excitement of different elections in atoms as they move between different valence levels. Apologies, my degree was in Applied Science from the Royal Military College of Science, and apologies to my old professors for the inaccuracy caused by oversimplification.
If scientists can use these techniques to work out what is happening billions of miles away, it is reasonable to believe that satellites a few hundred miles into space can detect the same and the intelligence analysts make the same conclusions that scientists can. In addition, a rocket, propelling a warhead to a target will ‘burn’, give an Infra-Red signature for a lot longer than an explosive incident that lasts a fraction of a second and then burning debris will have yet another different Infra-Red signature. Again, this is all part of MASINT. The Lockheed Martin Space Based Infra-Red Surveillance programme (SBIRS) provides the US with such a capability.
Putting all of this together is not a rapid task when it comes to properly identifying a system, putting it together in a way you can release information outside the classifications used with the systems deployed is a challenge. The science is in the public domain, the claims are in the public domain, putting both together is a naturally logical process and this is how I can be confident that the claims made by Justin Trudeau, reinforced by Boris Johnson, initially reported by CBS and now others, are probably true.
This can easily be reinforced by the suspicions raised when the pilots didn’t transmit a MAYDAY, they were probably incapacitated or killed in the missile explosion, the aircraft was new and had been inspected 2 days beforehand reducing the probability of mechanical failure, the crew were experienced and the Iranians have cleared the crash site before international inspectors could get there. Additional intelligence from SIGINT transmission around the time of the incident will probably tell more if, as is likely, Western intelligence can and has intercepted them. I am more certain than not by a large degree that this was a shoot down and almost certainly accidental. The only positive is that it could cause Iran to rethink the need a spectacular event as a revenge for the killing of Soleimani, at the very least in the short term.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and has studied the science behind many different systems at The Royal Military College of Science bot at degree and masters level. He remains available for comment.
The West’s relationship with General Soleimani and the Iranian Quds force has been chequered and been going on for many years. There is no doubt he and his organisation, has been responsible for the death and injury of hundreds of British, American and other allied military personnel and civilians over the years.
The excellent BBC documentary released last year, Shadow Commander: Iran’s Military Mastermind, quotes General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, as saying, “We saw Soleimani as a very capable, charismatic, skilled, professionally competent, diabolically evil human being.” The programme describes how components for the devastatingly efficient killing devices used by the Iranian backed, Sadarist Militias in Iraq, that killed so many – the EFP IED (Explosively formed Projectile, Improvised Explosive Device, the roadside bomb that devastated so many convoys), came from or through Iran and through Quds force networks controlled by Soleimani.
Yet during the same time we read reports of US intelligence operations buying chemical weapons, according to Bush and Blair that eventually never existed, from an unnamed individual in the Amara region of Iraq (under British control) to ensure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands. The operation was called Operation Averice. The BBC documentary was very clear, nothing moved without Soleimani’s Quds force knowledge, none of the commentary has identified the ‘seller’ or where the US taxpayer’s money, used to buy these chemical weapons, went? It is highly probable it found its way to Soleimani’s Quds force and additional investigations throw doubt on the numbers reported in the New York times. It is believed the actual number of chemical weapons purchased was significantly higher.
There has been little commentary or analysis of the second ‘commander’ killed in the US drone strike, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who commanded the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah group. That group was hated by many across Iraq, was a designated terror organisation by the US and had been founded by Soleimani’s Quds and used to support the fight against ISIS in Iraq and support Bashar Al Assad’s fight against ISIS in Syria, but only in battles where US supported organisations were not engaged. Complex is an understatement. However, one has to ask over the years, what is the relationship the US and the West has had in any form with Soleimani and his Quds? We can safely assess US taxpayers’ dollars possibly went to them.
Soleimani’s influence, in keeping areas of the Middle East in a less than stable position with the proxy war in Yemen, where his proxy forces are the Houthi’s and are fighting a Saudi led coalition. Additionally, his proxy insurgency keeping Israel occupied with Hezbollah, a long-standing terror exporter and Hezbollah backed militias, is clear. What remains unclear is, charismatic that he was, ruthless and evil that he was, he was one man and will have groomed successors in his own image, to his own thinking, following his own doctrine. He is and was replaceable and has been replaced. We wait to see the cut of the cloth of his successor, but his first task will be planning revenge for the death of his old boss.
So, what will that revenge look like? There has been much speculation and increasing sabre rattling rhetoric with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, warning of “severe revenge” for the attack and referring to Soleimani as having been “martyred;” Khamenei had a close personal relationship with Soleimani. The US Presidents response on twitter was that the US will strike 52 Iranian sites “very fast and very hard” if Tehran follows through with its vow of revenge.
The first thing to recognise about the revenge planning is timescales. The Iranian culture is such that planning is looked at in multigenerational timescales, not the timescale a Fox News headline or Twitter post, lasts in people memories. That makes potential Iranian responses all the more concerning; they will carefully choose the time and the place, or times and places for their revenge.
The second thing to recognise is that this isn’t a diplomatic issue that can be talked away, this isn’t something that will be forgotten because it was one evil man in the Wests eyes, this isn’t something that a solution could be bought through easing of sanctions or the like. This is a matter of honour, and national honour for Iran. This is a matter of honour for the Shi’a people and the military and paramilitary forces of the Houthi’s and Hezbollah. The conflicts and instability across the Middle East is as much a wider Sunni, Shi’a historical civil war as they are for power in different countries, hence the Quds force involvement supporting the Shi’a fight. The role of the Quds force is the extension of Iranian influence outside Iran.
The hoisting of a red flag on Jamkaran Mosque, one of the one of the most significant mosques in the city of Qom in Iran, is a significant symbol of this. Red flags, to the Shiite population are traditionally used to symbolise both blood spilled unjustly and serve as a call to avenge a person who is slain. Tradition has it that they can only be lowered when that death has been avenged.
The third thing to recognise is that the Iranians will do very careful consequence management when it comes to revenge attacks. It is highly unlikely that regular Iranian forces will attack US or UK interests at sea or in the air. It is highly likely that Iranian cyber capabilities will target the west, but that will not be seen as sufficient ‘revenge.’ It is highly likely that Iran will covertly encourage, enable, facilitate terror attacks across the globe using proxy organisations and often without them knowing who is ‘encouraging and enabling them. None of this will point directly back to Iran but everyone will know who is behind it; I doubt it will cross the threshold for Trumps 52 targets.
The fourth thing to recognise is President Trump has a re-election campaign to run this year and that, with the impeachment trial going ahead, will split his thinking – Iran will be aware of that and will exploit it.
The final thing to recognise is that Iran has proxies with Hezbollah and the Houthis that it can use to carry out a spectacular or several spectacular revenge attacks and Hezbollah have a global reach! Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone strikes on Saudi Aramco facilities, saying 10 drones had been deployed in the attack in September last year. Would similar or more spectacular attacks from them or Hezbollah cross Trumps 52 target threshold?
The Iranians will have noted the Wests response to the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, the Russian ‘rebel’ downing of MH17 in 2014, the US response, or lack thereof in real terms, to the shooting down of a US RQ-4A Global Hawk in international airspace over the Gulf in June last year and more, and will carefully weave this into their revenge planning and who executes the inevitable spectacular ensuring sufficient plausible deniability to reduce the probability of crossing Trumps 52 target threshold.
Two things come out of this. The first is the revenge, when, not if, will have consequences for non-Americans and possibly civilians even though Americans will be targeted. The second is, the increased chaos and instability, especially in Iraq, compounded by the Iraqi parliament asking for US forces to leave Iraq, is now being exploited by the rump of ISIS and they are regrouping and growing in influence again.
Has the killing of Soleimani in this way made the world safer in any way, evil that was, the answer is no. Could it have been done differently and the same message of ‘we can’t let you continue to destabilise the region’ be sent to Iran, definitely.
This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE, who experienced 13 service personnel killed by Solemani’s IEDs and other weapons when he was in Iraq, a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence. He is available for further analysis or comment.
Soleimani attack – an oh S**t moment for the world?
***Updated 03 1930Z Jan 20***
The US Secretary of Defense, Dr Mark T. Esper prepared a statement on 02 Jan 2020 outlining the concerns the US had for Iranian backed activities across the region in recent months. Citing concerns with actions in November and through December, the statement was released just after the US carried out an air attack on a convoy leaving Baghdad Airport in Iraq, killing General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds force and an Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Iranian backed Popular Mobilization Forces, amongst others.
The Iranian Quds force is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), set up approximately 40 years ago, answering to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and separate from Iran’s conventional military who answer to the political government under Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. The Quds force themselves are a secretive organisation responsible for irregular and overseas operations and Soleimani will have reported directly to the Supreme Leader, without consultation with the President. In essence, Soleimani is more important than Iran’s President.
So, what do we know? We know that the US and allied countries have been interested in Soleimani for some time and will have declared him as a ‘High Value Target’ and as such will have a constantly updated targeting pack against him, updated with new intelligence as it came in. That targeting pack does not automatically mean it is there to kill or capture him, but is continuously refined so any action, could be expedited in a timely manner.
Mark Esper’s pre-prepared statement cites a number of what in military parlance are tactical incidents, puts them into an operational framework and used that to explain a grand strategic action. That is the equivalent of using a Trident D5 missile to crack a nut – the nut will be vapourised, Soleimani was, however, there will be fallout from the immediate blast and shock wave, immediate damage from the radiation and then longer-term implications from the radioactive fallout!
It has to be said at the outset, that the Quds force have been responsible for many atrocities across the region resulting in the deaths of many Americans and innocent people. They are ruthless, capable and operate outside any legal or moral compass we would recognise in the West and have infiltrated many organisations across the Middle East and further. They are the main element enabling a proxy conflict with the Saudis in Yemen. Their wider destabilising influence has regional (operational) and global (strategic) implications that have been going on for too long. The Quds force are seen by many as a state-owned terror organisation, but they are so much more. They are a mixture between the Russian GRU, the CIA of the 1970’s, Mossad and a global terror organisation and have an influence and autonomy far beyond their size an Iran’s political and military needs.
It seems that Soleimani was tracked on a flight from Damascus in Syria to Baghdad whilst Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was tracked in a convoy going to meet his flight and pick him up. It is probable that they both were being tracked using human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) with a degree of fidelity that gave their exact movements and planned movements to the US intelligence machinery allowing the targeting pack to be updated. Given the actions against the US embassy in Baghdad over the proceeding days, coordinated by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis militias, that targeting pack, and any options, would have been discussed at least daily.
The US will not have reacted without thinking through the implications and briefing those to the executive decision maker. The response to the downing of a US RQ-4A Global Hawk in international airspace by IRGC forces in June 2019 was measured and proportionate, designed to minimise any potential escalation. The response was a cyber-attack on Iranian air defence assets. The equivalent of a slap on the wrists.
However, given what was going on with the US Embassy, the deployment of troops from Kuwait to protect the Embassy, the deployment of additional troops from 82nd Airborne Division into the region to reconstitute a reserve the decision making process and review process will have been at the forefront of President Trumps mind. It is widely reported that President Trump gave the order personally and given the profile of the target that is what would be expected.
However, that does not necessarily mean it was the preferred option of the US military of diplomatic corps. President Trump is known for having premade up his mind before he speaks to his advisors, he has stopped listening to regional specialists and has ensured his inner circle of advisors are what can only be described as sycophants. He will have been running an emotional high from his concerns about the US embassy in Baghdad.
I am reminded of a UK General, just back from Afghanistan who I briefed weekly on Afghanistan intelligence matters. One brief indicated that the Taliban were changing their tactics from conventional military type attacks to more IED based attacks as they couldn’t sustain their casualty rate. The General ‘blew his top’ in public with me accusing me of inventing “defeatist intelligence reporting” and ordering me never to say such things again as he had been there, and he knew that would never happen. I do hope he has the moral courage to look the families of all those who died to IEDs and admit he was wrong, he never said it to me, and I didn’t stop my assessments from my intelligence enabled perspective, bollockings or not.
At this stage we do not know if President Trump properly listened to and took heed of wider fall out, or if he shot from the hip! A statement from the UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said “We have always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani. Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
This is a clear indication that the UK knew nothing of the attack beforehand, wants to show support to its ally the US and then run for the bunkers! Iran cannot and will not let this go. In a statement appointing Soleimani’s successor the supreme leader describes his death as “martyrdom of the glorious general,” in a previous statement announcing three days of mourning he said “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack.
It is probable that there will be several layers of retaliation; the immediate, a decisive act and then long-term actions, just like the Trident analogy I mentioned. The immediate will be to show strength and will probably happen just after the 3 days of mourning. It will be decisive act will be to send a clear message to the US that Iran will not stand back and do nothing and is likely to be spectacular in nature. Then we will possibly see a massive increase in proxy terror using AQ, ISIS and other organisations, often without their direct knowledge, as plausibly deniable outlets targeting terror at the US and its allies across the globe. Alongside we will likely see greater cooperation’s with the Russians and increasing activity in the proxy wars across the region including in Yemen.
A key question is, is the killing of this commander, evil that he is, going to make things safer for US troops, diplomats or other personnel within the Gulf region? To answer that it is worth asking if the threat comes from one man, and the answer clearly is no? The Quds force is approx 15,000 strong and as an organisation it is bigger than one personality. Soleimani has been replaced already, so the Quds Force activity will continue but now with greater murderous intent and a cause to seek revenge for. So, the killing of one man and his entourage in reality, has made the region and the world a more dangerous place for US interests and the interests of their allies. Mike Pompeo’s assertion that the US airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani was to disrupt an “imminent attack” could be true in the very short term however, his statement that Americans “are safer in the region” after the strike and demise of Soleimani is definitely not true.
Two things are certain, we don’t have the full picture and the world has suddenly become a less safe place.
This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence who has served in and studied the Middle East from a wider intelligence perspective. It will be updated as new information emerges.