U.S. officials say Ukraine should continue to develop innovative ways to strike Russian forces as the war approaches its third year. But Ukraine’s use of a Patriot missile to shoot down a plane last month is an example of how new battlefield tactics can be fraught with both peril and promise.
Unbeknownst to the Ukrainian military, the targeted Russian plane may have been carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war, according to U.S. officials.
The Patriot is a defensive system, generally used to protect a location and not to shoot down aircraft. A European partner provided the Patriot interceptor that struck the Russian Ilyushin-76 cargo plane on Jan. 24, according to U.S. officials briefed on the incident.
Russian officials immediately claimed that the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of warwho were to be exchanged for Russian soldiers.
Publicly, U.S. officials will not comment on what brought down the plane, although officials who spoke privately on condition of anonymity said reports of the use of a Patriot missile were accurate .
The question of who was on the plane is less clear. U.S. officials did not confirm the identities of the passengers, but said it seemed likely that at least some of them were Ukrainian prisoners. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russia may have overestimated the death toll.
If there were prisoners aboard the plane, as seems likely, U.S. officials said the loss of life was regrettable.
Ukraine appears to have acted on legitimate but flawed intelligence. The plane had previously been used to transport missiles, making it a high-value target for kyiv, according to Western officials briefed on the intelligence.
As the Patriot was being fired from Ukraine, the cargo plane crashed in Russia. Some U.S. officials say they encouraged Ukraine to strike deep behind the front lines, but only on Ukrainian territory, aware of the risk of escalation if U.S.-made equipment was used in attacks on Russian territory.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials have not criticized Ukraine for using the Patriot system to target Russian aircraft in general. Instead, they said this was the kind of innovation Ukraine needed to embrace.
Last month, U.S. military planners met with their Ukrainian counterparts in Wiesbaden, Germany, to discuss new tactics that could help change the dynamics of the war, which has been at a stalemate for a year.
One question is whether operations with the Patriots will be sustainable, especially if Congress suspends all military aid to Ukraine. The Congressional Research Service estimates that each interceptor costs $4 million. If no U.S. funding is available, air defense supplies may be strained.
The Patriot was originally designed to strike aircraft, but was redesigned after the Gulf War to be used primarily to strike tactical ballistic missiles, as these weapons grew in prevalence and importance on the battlefield.
The Ukrainians took the Patriot back to its origins as an anti-aircraft weapon. In January, believing the Russian cargo plane was loaded with missiles, the Ukrainians ambushed it. They moved a Patriot launcher closer to the border, then fired an interceptor when the cargo plane was within range. U.S. officials say the tactic is creative but not revolutionary.
Ukrainian officials first hatched the plan to use the Patriots against aircraft last spring, in part to try to slow Russian aerial bombardments. On May 13, the Ukrainians introduced a Patriot launcher into an area near the Russian border and shot down five aircraft.
After this operation, Ukraine secretly moved a Patriot system south, where it was used to fell a Su-35, a Russian fighter jet, over the Black Sea.
A few months later, in November, Ukraine confirmed these operations, arguing that the use of the Patriot had, at least for a time, deterred Russian operations.
“They refrained from flying there for a while because they understood it was dangerous and they could be shot down,” Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said. to journalists in Ukraine. “The Patriot system provides such capabilities.”
Over the winter, the pace of operations seemed to pick up again. In December, the Ukrainians claimed to have shot down five Russian fighter jets.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said the operations created “the right atmosphere for the whole next year,” promising more to come. Although the Ukrainians did not give details of how they shot down the planes in December, military analysts said Patriot missiles were likely used.
The commander of a Patriot battery, speaking to The New York Times in December, said the deterrent effect of a Patriot battery was significant.
“When pilots know there is a Patriot somewhere in the area, they think ten times whether they should go there to work or not,” the commander said, insisting that only his first name, Volodymyr, be used. For safety reasons.
While declining to discuss specific operations, he said that “the Patriot has already shown its range, a very long range, which allows it to shoot down these aircraft.”
Michael Schwirtz At New York, Anton Troyanovsky in Berlin, Thomas Gibbons Neff in London and Eric Schmitt in Washington contributed to this report.