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Ukraine’s shooting down of Russian IL-76 by Patriot system is an example of bad tactics

US officials say Ukraine’s use of a Patriot missile to shoot down an aircraft last month is an example that new tactics on the battlefield can be dangerous, The New York Times reports.

Patriot is a defence system that is typically used to defend terrain, not to shoot down aircraft. A European partner provided Ukraine with the Patriot interceptor that shot down the Russian Il-76 plane on 24 January, according to US officials with knowledge of the incident.

Russian officials immediately said the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war who were to be exchanged for Russian servicemen.

Earlier, US officials did not comment on what exactly shot down the plane, although those who spoke to them on condition of anonymity said reports of a Patriot missile were accurate.

US officials did not confirm the identities of the passengers, but they said at least some of them were Ukrainian prisoners. If there were prisoners on the plane, which seems likely, US officials said the loss of life was regrettable.

Ukraine appears to have acted on legitimate but imperfect intelligence. While the Patriot missile was fired from Ukraine, the cargo plane went down in Russia. Some US officials say they have urged Ukraine to strike far behind the front lines but only on Ukrainian territory, mindful of the risk of escalation if US-made equipment is used for attacks on Russian territory.

Nevertheless, US officials did not criticise Ukraine for using the Patriot system to target Russian aircraft in general. On the contrary, they said it was exactly the kind of innovation Ukraine should embrace.

A US State Department spokesman said on Wednesday that Washington denies the involvement of the US military in the Patriot surface-to-air missile system, which was used to shoot down the Il-76 aircraft in Belgorod on 24 January. A spokesperson said in a statement:

The claim that US forces are involved in the conflict corresponds to the Kremlin’s propaganda ideas, not reality.

Last month, US military planners met with Ukrainian counterparts in Wiesbaden, Germany, to discuss new tactics that could help change the dynamics of a war that has been stalled for the past year.

One question is whether operations with Patriots are sustainable, especially if Congress halts further military aid to Ukraine. The Congressional Research Service estimates the cost of each interceptor at $4 million. If US funding stops, air defence supplies are likely to be jeopardised.

Patriot was originally designed to target aircraft, but after the Gulf War was redesigned to primarily target tactical ballistic missiles as these weapons became more common and important on the battlefield.

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