January 10, 2020

Iran’s Jan. 8 ballistic missile strikes against US military forces in Iraq, and the crash of Ukraine International Airlines (PS) flight PS-752 outside of Tehran several hours later, have brought significant scrutiny to the security of commercial airliners over the Persian Gulf region. While Iranian officials have not confirmed the cause of flight PS-752’s crash despite mounting evidence that the aircraft was shot down, the ongoing tensions in the region have posed an elevated threat to commercial aircraft for the past two and a half years, and these threats will likely continue in the foreseeable future.


Timeline of Jan. 8 Events

Boeing 737-800

At approximately 0145 Jan. 8, Iranian forces fired over a dozen ballistic missiles at US military forces in Iraq. The attacks were a retaliation for the US killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani Jan. 3 and did not cause any casualties.

Shortly after the ballistic missile attacks commenced, several major airlines re-routed flights to avoid flying over Iran and Iraq. Iranian air traffic controllers also ordered US-registered aircraft to leave Iranian airspace immediately.

Approximately two hours after the ballistic missile attacks, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued notices prohibiting the operation of US-registered airlines, aircraft, and pilots in the airspace over Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman. The prohibitions do not apply to US travelers on foreign airlines or flights to and from US destinations on foreign carriers. Most other countries have not issued similar prohibitions, with the exceptions of Ukraine, the UK, and France.

Approximately four hours after the ballistic missile attacks, a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 operating flight PS-752 from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) to Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport (KBP) crashed shortly after taking off from IKA, killing all 176 people onboard. A video verified by multiple credible news organizations strongly suggests that Iranian air defenses shot the aircraft down, but Iranian authorities have denied shooting the plane down.


Threats to Airliners

Regardless of the cause of flight PS-752’s crash, the ongoing tensions between Iran and the US and its allies pose an elevated threat to commercial aviation. This threat has existed since mid-2017, but the events of early January 2020 caused the threat level to increase briefly. 

Riyadh King Khalid Airport

While none of the actors in the region are likely to target commercial airliners deliberately, the high tensions increase the threat of an accidental shootdown. Saudi Arabia and Iran have both fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) near commercial airports or air corridors in the past year. While Iran’s Jan. 8 ballistic missile attacks did not trigger any SAM activity, any further attacks could do so. Any SAM activity near commercial airliners poses a threat; there have been multiple historical incidents in which SAMs mistakenly downed commercial airliners near conflict zones, either because the SAM operator misidentified the commercial airliner as a hostile military aircraft or because the missile itself locked on to the wrong target. One such event occurred over the Persian Gulf when a US warship misidentified and shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988.

Multiple events in the Middle East since mid-2017 have increased the threats facing commercial airliners in the region. In July 2017, Iranian-backed Shi’a Al-Houthi rebels in Yemen began firing ballistic missiles deep into Saudi territory. Saudi forces responded by firing SAMs at the incoming missiles. In November 2017, the Al-Houthis claim to have fired a missile at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport (RUH), causing Saudi forces to fire SAMs very close to one of the country’s main airports. In June 2019, Iran downed a US drone over the Persian Gulf close to airspace frequently used by commercial airliners. In September 2019, a drone attack significantly damaged oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia; authorities had not positioned Saudi Arabia’s air defenses to defend against the attack. The US also did not have air defenses available at the military bases in Iraq that Iran targeted for their missile strikes. The US and Saudi Arabia will likely reposition their air defense systems to enable them to fire SAMs at any future air attacks on these sites.

The US and Iranian governments have both indicated they intend to de-escalate their conflict following the Jan. 8 strike, which will reduce, but not eliminate, the threat to commercial aircraft in the region. WorldAware assesses that Iran is unlikely to carry out further direct military strikes against US forces in the region. While a repeat of the Jan. 8 events is unlikely, lower-intensity events similar to incidents of the past two and a half years in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf will likely continue in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, the threat of accidental shootdowns of commercial airliners in the region is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Learn more about the airliner crash in Tehran that spurred a threat to commercial aircraft in the region.


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