MH17, Iran Air 655, and The GlobalHawk

We should be very, very careful about believing anything we are told regarding aircraft being shot down, and where they are shot down.

When the US aegis missile boat Vincennes shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, in Iranian air space, while it was in Iranian territorial waters, the first story we heard from the US government was a bunch of lies. The aegis boat, with the most expensive electronics complement in the world, mistook a commercial jet that was climbing on a course out of a major airport for an F-14 that was diving to attack. Yeah, right. The US also conjured up some absurd scenario that the Vincennes had reason to be concerned about Iranian F-14s because some of them might have been converted to drop old-school “hard bombs” – which would be absurd and suicidal, except that the US decided that the Vincennes’ commander had acted reasonably and it was the planeload of Iranian civilians’ fault they wound up dead. The fact that the Vincennes was in Iranian waters was also the Iranians’ fault because Iranian patrol boats had sailed out into international waters and the Vincennes said it was fired upon (an absurd and suicidal thing for the Iranian patrol boats to have done) and so it chased them when they fled. In other words, the Vincennes was in the middle of committing two acts of war when it committed another one that was also a crime against humanity. Well, you know how sneaky those Iranians are, they forced a dramatically superior ship to make a horrible mistake, which took a whole lot of whitewash to cover over. [wik]

The commander of the Vincennes was awarded a medal for courage, because, I don’t know why. Perhaps it was for not shitting his pants at the prospect of being attacked by a sole F-14 on an apparent suicide run. It just sucks when the first reaction out of the US is to take a deep breath and begin to lie its ass off. I’m not going to run through the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which bore a remarkable similarity to the Vincennes’ claimed patrol boat attack, or Korean Airlines 007, in which the Soviets claimed that a civilian jetliner looked like a spy-plane and its pilots could not tell the difference on visual approach (spy planes don’t wear Korean Airlines colors and logos!) – the lies started around the same time the bodies were hitting the water. The US was lying, too, trying to hide the fact that it had been sending spyplanes right along Soviet airspace

I hope the Russians/Ukrainians don’t troll the world back hard about the shoot-down of MH17. They’ll give the missile crew a medal of courage and everyone will be cleared of wrongdoing.

The drone? The drone is irrelevant. It’s just money; the US lost an expensive shiny thing. There are deeper implications in the shoot-down that I will get to, but other than some dick-waving drone pilot’s commander, nobody should have their career broken on the rack.

.. kinda was off course

This is the problem: people keep saying “all this dick-waving is going to get people killed” because a) killing people in this manner is a crime against humanity/war crime and b) stupid government asswipes have a track record of killing people in this manner and then lying about it. It means that people – the non-government, non-lying sort – can’t tell their governments “hang on, don’t do that, that’s why we have this whole idea of declaring a state of war, yadda-yadda. Back a few centuries ago, there might have been a declaration of war, which would have served to notify the civilians in the area to get the hell out. These incidents are cases in point for why governments are not supposed to do this kind of thing. It drives me absolutely livid when I see the US media talking about “increased tensions with Iran will maybe lead to a war” when, at the same time, they report that the US Navy has sent more dipshits loaded with weapons to sail around really really close to Iranian territorial waters because gosh, darn, those Iranians are sure as hell threatening Newport News and New York City. What? They’re not? Then maybe the Iranians aren’t ratcheting up the aggression. In fact, I’d be willing to buy that the Iranians were ratcheting up aggression if they started flying drone missions around US bases in Qatar. Not that that would be the US’ diplomatic problem, it’d be the Qatarese. The US gets to complain about Iranian aggression when the Iranians start sailing Arleigh Burke-class aegis missile boats around San Diego. Of course that’s an absurd scenario – if the Iranians had any of those, they’d keep them near their territorial waters to discourage American naval aggression. The whole scenario is ridiculous: that force that you don’t have, which can’t really threaten us, is so scary we are going to claim you are being aggressive because we imagine how aggressive you’d be if you came to attack us and we had to sink you all. Like that nonexistent F-14 that wasn’t carrying hard bombs, that made the commander of the Vincennes shit his pants so hard he killed 200+ people and got a medal for courage. You know what Putin would have given him? It comes in one size: 9mm.

Next up, some shitbird from Washington is going to try to claim that Iran is an “existential threat” or something like that. An “existential threat” means they could destroy us. And by “us” they probably mean Israel, except Iran isn’t stupid and suicidal enough to try that, either. Remember, Iran has not started a war since back in the Ottoman days, and the US has done nothing but start wars since World War II ended. It’d be as if an over-armed white supremacist drove a tank through the wall of your house and then shot you when you complained, because you “scared him” the way you jumped up from your breakfast table, which did have a butter-knife on it. Iran has a military, of course, but it’s not configured for force-projection, i.e.: it’s defensive.

Trump tried to grab the laurels of a peace-maker for calling back the US outbound air-strikes that were going to be an act of war in retaliation for the Iranians destroying America’s expensive toy. I wonder why? Here’s my prediction: the Iranians said “it was in our air space!” and the US said “no, it was not!” – that was the US pentagon’s knee-jerk instinct to lie. My bet is that Trump asked Bolton and Pompeo “was it really in international air space?” and they said, “uh, well, that’s what we’re telling everyone.” I bet that the war pigs in the administration were trying to manipulate the president into starting a war, and they knew perfectly well that it was a Gulf of Tonkin scenario: once they got the shooting started it would escalate from there under its own logic. But Trump’s lizard brain is nothing if not suspicious, he ought to be feeling pretty paranoid right about now, since everyone (including me!) wants to see him thrown under a bus.

Now, if Zarif is telling the truth, it looks like someone was tracking the US drone for quite a while, and has pretty darned accurate positional information. Zarif is the foreign minister of Iran, so we should assume he may also be a lying politician. But it poses an interesting problem for the US because now they have to explain why that chart is wrong. It is wrong, isn’t it? I can imagine Trump asking Bolton and Pompeo, “is this accurate?” and them saying, “well, a bit.” Trump may have called back the bombers because he realized that he was looking at the underside of a bus.

Of course, there’s the other question, which is that the US was prepared to start an act of war over a drone that may have actually already been committing an act of war. Gosh, I wonder if that drone pilot is going to get a medal for courage, too?

What scares me about all of this is that it sounds like the US military machine is completely off the hook, and probably queued up the air strikes without even bothering to tell Trump. Then, when the whole thing went down, they yelled “WOO HOO!” and puffed their chests out and told Fox News that someone was gonna get their ass kicked. It sounds like Trump may have been the grown-up in the room. And that scares me a lot. If we see shake-up in the national security council, we’ll know I’m right, and that Zarif was right, too: the drone was shot down while it was in Iranian air space where it had no business being; it was planning an attack.

I have to hand it to Zarif, whose trolling skills dwarf Putin and Macron’s:

I am happy that the international community’s response to this non-incident has been skepticism. “Well, where was the drone?” same as when Obama started talking about “red lines” and whatnot. The rest of the world has long ago caught on that the US’ foreign policy is irresponsible and dishonest. Now, if only the American people would catch on to a little bit of that. Sadly, both political parties that control the US are dishonest and irresponsible. Does anyone here doubt that John Kerry, Madeleine Allbright, or Hillary Clinton would have handled this situation peacefully?

But, wait: there are two possible scenarios.

  1. Donald Trump sensed a trap and skipped out of it
  2. The US defense establishment collectively gasped, “WAIT! They were tracking our stealth drone!? And they shot it down? What if we attacked these guys and their missiles turned it into The Charge of The Light Brigade?”

If interpretation #2 is correct then that means the Iranians are being pretty moderate; they could have said, “Sorry about your drone; we thought it was a B-2” (sound of the entire DoD collectively sucking in its breath) – but it’s still really bad that the Iranians a) tracked a stealth drone, b) knew it was a drone c) shot it down.

Some of this stuff is stupid and obvious: we should assume that the Iranians have ground ‘resources’ watching for what appear to be outbound strikes. I am genuinely afraid that the US is so foolhardy and arrogant that they would be so disrespectful of a slightly lower-tech foe that is willing to defend itself. You know where I’d position a couple guys with cell phones (or internet messaging)? Al Dhafra air base in UAE. Because that’s where the F-35s are. [air force times] The B-1s are at Al Udeid in Qatar. A wire-guided anti-tank missile would make a mess of very expensive wreckage. The Vietcong used mortars for that sort of thing – all they had to do was get within a couple miles and they could have several rounds in the air before the first one hit.

When Trump, et al, talk about how there’s going to be hell to pay if Iran or any of its regional allies do anything, they’re basically replaying the events of Millenium Challenge 2000 – [stderr] – they’re going “holy shit we have a lot of assets exposed here! What if we were dealing with someone who was not helpless and foolish?” I actually believe that’s what’s going on: the US Navy drone that was shot down was sent in lieu of a ship – a ship which could be overwhelmed and sent to the bottom with a couple of spreads of ballistic and cruise missiles. Iran obviously does not want a war. But they’ve only got one strategy if the US attacks, and that’s to do something shocking and damaging.

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Most commercial aircraft are steering very clear of US forces in the area.

Unrelated: I saw a rather amusing point regarding the photo of alleged Iranians allegedly putting a mine on an alleged oil tanker. “When removing a mine, you all tend to stand in a cluster around it, like the guys on this ship do.”


  1. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for this excellent post!

    Has the US government given out any information with as much detail as Javad Zarif has, at least to try and counter his narrative? You can be sure that his tweets have gone to the governments of most countries.

  2. Owlmirror says

    Do drones have black boxes hardened flight data recorders like other aircraft? Or is such data considered a military intelligence asset, and therefore the drones are deliberately designed with no such recorders?

  3. says

    Update: Apparently globalhawks are not stealth drones; they’re capable of flying very high (65,000feet) (a bit lower than a U2) and that’s their protection. It appears that this one was flying rather low, though the Iranian ground-to-air missile is capable of reaching that altitude.

  4. says

    Or is such data considered a military intelligence asset, and therefore the drones are deliberately designed with no such recorders?

    I believe that the drones are constantly uplinking a data-stream to their controller. That’d include a full sensor assay, position, flight attitude, etc. Basically, it’s just a giant radio-controlled airplane. with a mind-bending price-tag.

    A drone like this would almost certainly carry a military GPS, which is more accurate, but has classified crypto-keys that allow it to participate in the GPS array. The Iranians got one of those a few years ago, when a US Predator drone “went off course” and wound up in Iran. There has been speculation about whether or not the Iranians may have figured out how to jigger US drone communications, which seems fanciful to me.

    The US knows exactly where it was, down to a couple of feet, when it went down. That it wasn’t immediately recovered makes me think it was inside Iranian airspace.

    There’s another interesting angle to the whole drone communications question. A number of years ago, it was revealed that US drones and military aircraft use a tactical communications system that is not encrypted. There was an enterprising Romanian hacker who used to sell laptops configured with software-defined radios that would allow anyone who wanted to to listen in on communications between troops on the ground and air assets including predator drones. During the Kosovo intervention, there were journalists listening in on the F-16 pilots during their strike runs. The same held true early in Afghanistan – in order to preserve the illusion of a coalition it was necessary to run some comms in the clear because the alternative was to give encryption keys to Italians; things like that. That problem was, apparently present in DoD drones but not CIA, for very stupid reasons to do with NSA’s regulatory authority over encryption in military applications (as opposed to intelligence, and the CIA does whatever it wants anyway) Has it been fixed? I’ve got no idea. I’d like to imagine it has been. But there is no bottom to how bad computer security gets in the government (remember, the USAF’s drone control systems were overrun with off the shelf malware, and it took them years to clean it up) It could be one of those “its worse than you think” scenarios.

    You can also bet there’s a lot of scrambling and finger-pointing and laughing at the navy. Hahahaa what a bunch of yutzes; they probably blew half of the budget for their drone program in that one flight. The Air Force really wants to absorb and kill off all non-CIA drone programs because that’s money that can be spent on F-35s and did we mention F-35s are stealthy?

  5. jrkrideau says

    1. Donald Trump sensed a trap and skipped out of it
    2. The US defense establishment collectively gasped, “WAIT! They were tracking our stealth drone!? And they shot it down? What if we attacked these guys and their missiles turned it into The Charge of The Light Brigade?”

    My guess is both.

    1. I do not have a really high opinion of Trump’s intelligence but he is not really that dumb. Much of the idiocy is his personality as much as anything else. Oh and his profound ignorance.

    He probably realized that getting into a real shooting war with Iran was not going to help his re-election chances among his base. I think he truly does not want a war on general principles. He is not the blood-thirsty cold warrior that Clinton is. Plus it would be bad for business.

    2. Here I think we may be seeing American exceptionalism in action. “Obviously, the USA has the best equipment in the world so we can do what we want. Those stupid turban heads don’t know anything and are probably still driving Model T Fords.”

    I think the problem is that the US military has not faced a foe with equivalent equipment and technical skills since WWII or arguably the Korean War. The shock must have been immense. These are not the “straw–sandeled insurgents” that the US military is used to dealing with.

    Iraq was a bad learning experience for taking on Iran. Iraq really had no army in 2003. Iraq had a bunch of men and some almost derelict, rusted-out, 20 or 30 year old Soviet equipment in a country that had been under punitive sanctions for 10 years or so.

    I suspect that Washington and the Pentagon drew the wrong conclusions here WRT Iran. “Iraq was easy to defeat, Iran will be the same or maybe just a little bit harder”.

    Iran, while it has been under various sanctions, managed to evade many/most of them for years. It has a modern and apparently well–equipped military for its size. It has its own armament industry with what appears to be some very sophisticated missile technology including what they claim is an upgraded version of the S-300.

    Overall, it is a highly sophisticated society with a lot of technical ability. It certainly does not have the resources or depth that the USA has but it is a very powerful country, militarily.

    Trump probably came to the conclusion that a strike made no sense politically and may very well have not wanted to kill people for no reason.

    The military may have suddenly sat up and said, “What happens if we carry out a strike and it fails or takes massive casualties?”

    The Iranians are getting seriously annoyed and may well have the capacity to sweep the skies of manned aircraft and sink a couple of ships or more. If the US is stupid enough to have a carrier in the Gulf, it could go “poof” even. Not good on the old résumé.

    Your suggestion of “The Charge of The Light Brigade” sounds very likely though if the Iranians are as annoyed as it seems it may be more like “The Battle of Isandlwana”.

    A recent statement by an Iranian admiral claimed that they had a ballistic ship–killer missile that could take out a carrier. Anyone want to bet that they don’t after that drone shoot–down?

    Iran also has a set of small submarines specifically designed to work in the shallow waters of the Gulf. First prize and the red ribbon goes to the first sub to hit the carrier. If hostilities really break out, I suspect the US Navy will driven from the Gulf almost immediately.

    I am genuinely afraid that the US is so foolhardy and arrogant that they would be so disrespectful of a slightly lower-tech foe that is willing to defend itself.

    In most of areas that Iran is concentrating, at least in military terms, it is not even obvious to me that they are slightly lower-tech Clearly they do not have the breadth but I think that is a different thing.

  6. jrkrideau says

    The commander of the Vincennes was awarded a medal for courage

    That is absolutely obscene. At best, he should have been court-martialed and dismissed the service.

    It was a regular, twice a week, flight from Bandar Abbas to the Emirates (Dubai?). They could have looked the damn thing up in an airline schedule.

  7. John Morales says


    Iraq really had no army in 2003. Iraq had a bunch of men and some almost derelict, rusted-out, 20 or 30 year old Soviet equipment in a country that had been under punitive sanctions for 10 years or so.

    With a claim like that, how am I supposed to take anything else seriously?


  8. says

    They could have looked the damn thing up in an airline schedule.

    I do not fully understand how the air controllers work with military pre-emption but apparently the US Navy had informed local ATC that there were military vessels out waving their dicks and that civilian aircraft needed to be squawking transponders on a certain channel. They then proceeded to warn the Iranian plane on a different channel, and got no reply. So they concluded that an ascending civilian jet was a diving F-14 and blew it away. It was a multi-mode fuckup.

    The commander of the Vincennes was a notoriously aggressive dick, and when his big moment came he fucked up as hard as it was possible at that time.

  9. dangerousbeans says


    “[Iran] has its own armament industry with what appears to be some very sophisticated missile technology”

    That would be the obvious way to go if you’re in their shoes. You can’t win, but missiles are a lot cheaper than planes, ships, and tanks, so you can at least embarrass them.

  10. lanir says

    There’s actually a third option. Trump is likely making up significant parts of his story out of wholecloth.

    Apparently the US military considers it part of their job to have plans ready to implement in case the president wanted to react to the most recent drone being downed by Iran*. The way Trump lies** the story may have been based on nothing more than hearing about a plan like that. I’m open to learning otherwise but right now that kind of sounds like the most likely scenario to me.

    * Let’s not forget they’ve done this before. We basically already knew they could handle drones sent their way. At least this one they apparently had to shoot down rather than just find a fancy way to tell it to land so they could recover it. Progress!

    ** Other presidents would also lie freely around issues like this. Trump is just very bad at it and seems to be using the “practice makes perfect” methodology around lying.

  11. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#16:
    ProPublica has a very interesting report on recent US Navy Persian Gulf incompetence here.

    Holy mackerel, that’s one of the most “this is how messed up the navy is” stories I’d read since the British “special boat service” guys were helicoptered in to a mountaintop in Afghanistan just in time to be fired on by an A-10. Because using sailors as light infantry is such a good use of the troops…

    What’s the old grognard’s complaint? “Under Nelson we had wooden ships and iron men, now we have iron ships and wooden men.” Sounds like that trend has continued toward disposable plastics. It seems that the command structure is unimaginably incompetent and disrespectful of their people’s well-being and their mission.

    I remember that incident when it happened, and how Washington alternated between blustery and nonplussed. One of the things that stands out, to me, in that account is the highly tiered command structure; a similar degree of micro-management is described in Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and that’s really disturbing. The US military has puffed itself up for decades about how regimented the Soviets were, and how US command structure allows innovation up and down the chain. But telling people “make it work” is button-mashing and treating the enlisted as disposable resources. The description of how command learned that they had a fiasco in progress seems typical of the US’ over-tiered military. “Follow the leader.” The macho “over the top” reaction of command was horrifying: their first move was to deploy so many forces that they might have looked like an inbound offensive strike.

    These guys couldn’t run a bowling alley, let alone a navy.

  12. says

    Despite initial attempts to make Captain Rogers of the Vincennes look to be in the right many came to believe that he was an overly aggressive commander, that his crew wasn’t trained properly and lacked experience with the complicated AEGIS air defense system, and that the ship was being used in a place it shouldn’t be. This included officers on the frigate USS Sides, which was a direct participant in the events of that day. An example of this is the following article, published in the US Naval Institute magazine Proceedings in 1993.

    Someone tried to blow up Captain Rogers in March of 1989, putting a pipe bomb in his van. However it was his wife Sharon who was driving it at the time, and she escaped without injury when the van was destroyed. Of course the initial belief by many was that the dastardly Iranians were trying to do him in, but the FBI eventually decided it was more likely someone non-Iranian with a personal grudge against him. They’ve never figured out who.

    The Vincennes itself was decommissioned in 2005 and scrapped in 2010.

  13. jrkrideau says

    It took a minute to sink in but Rogers has written a book about how he managed to shoot down a civilian airliner and he gets on the Larry King show? This is insane.

    Just think if he managed to take out a kindergarten. Silver Star and a Pulitzer?

  14. says

    It took a minute to sink in but Rogers has written a book about how he managed to shoot down a civilian airliner and he gets on the Larry King show? This is insane.

    His publisher must have had a good publicist. That’s what it takes to get on Larry King.
    It sounds like the whole book was his “not mea culpa” – it was everyone’s fault but his, etc.

  15. Curt Sampson says

    Marcus @17: If you want the really messed-up story, try ProPublica’s “Years of Warnings, then Death and Disaster: How the Navy failed its sailors.”

    Unfortunately, it’s also an utterly common story seen in many organizations: a certain level of management ignores technical debt* and keeps saying everything is hunky-dory despite their underlings warning that it’s not, and then they blame and fire those very underlings when the disasters they’d been warned about inevitably show up. Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of the 7th Fleet, had for years been demonstrating the problem and requesting resources to fix it from his superior, Adm. Scott Swift, head of the Pacific Fleet. After the second destroyer collision, Swift came out to Japan personally to fire Aucoin, “stating that…if he hadn’t fired Aucoin, he’d have been the one under fire.”

    We’ve all seen this before (though usually not involving so many deaths) and no doubt all of us will see it again.

    * Actually, for those who understand what a call option is, Steve Freemen points out that technical debt can be compared to selling uncovered call options. There are certain things about this analogy that are missing (such as the lack of continuing outgoing cash flow to represent maintenance costs), but someone else mentioned the saddest and most emotionally resonant part of the analogy: you’re selling something pretty valuable and/or risky for fairly minimal returns. Once you’ve made your two bucks selling a call option, that’s all you’ll ever get from it, and what you end up with is not a trading book full of value, but one full of unhedged risk.

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