On Jan. 15, 2024, the Armed Forces of Ukraine shot down a Russian Beriev A-50U (NATO: Mainstay) airborne early warning and control system (AEW&CS) aircraft over the Sea of Azov. The incident created much speculation as to how they had done it.

At first, it was thought to be a case of “friendly fire” – a Russian air defense unit misidentifying the A-50 as an enemy aircraft. Soon, however, the finger of suspicion was pointed at the US-supplied MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. But how? Even its 160-kilometer (100-mile) maximum range meant it would have had to be fired extremely close to Russian positions.

Last month a presentation at the US Army’s Air Defense Artillery Association’s Fires Symposium suggested that was exactly what happened. US Army Col. Rosanna Clemente, Deputy Chief of Staff of the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command told the story of how it was done.

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Clemente said that Ukraine held about the equivalent of a Patriot battalion with some of the Patriot launchers being used as its manufacturers and US military doctrine foresaw – providing air defense cover from fixed positions “to protect static sites and critical national infrastructure.”

She went on that Ukraine was “doing some really historic things that I haven’t seen in 22 years of being an air defender – one of them is the ‘SAMbush.’”

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Clemente said that Ukraine had created “wandering” Patriots using them as extremely mobile systems using German-donated launchers that were mounted on trucks.

She added that this this was a very risky operation, as Ukrainian troops had to deploy the launchers extremely close to the front line, but which stretches the Patriot’s ability to engage targets to the very edge of Ukrainian-controlled areas.

Kyiv Post’s sources said at the time of the January attack that some US and German politicians and military staff were concerned that the risks associated with the use of the Patriot in this way outmatched the gains made. The Ukrainian military disagreed.

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Kyiv feels that the shooting down of a second A-50 in March – this time said to have used the Patriots target acquisition system to guide a Soviet-era S-200 missile onto the aircraft – and the downing of other Russian aircraft justifies any risks its wandering Patriots are taking.

The A-50 AEW&CS aircraft has the Russian nickname Bumblebee and is codenamed Mainstay by NATO. It is produced by the Beriev enterprise based in the city of Taganrog on the northern shore of the Sea of Azov, which was the subject of a large-scale Ukrainian drone attack in March this year.

The A-50 first entered service in the mid-1980s but has seen its electronic surveillance suite and airframe having since been upgraded several times.

The latest version, including the two shot down by Ukraine this year, is the A-50U which can monitor up to 40 air targets at a range of around 650 kilometers (400 miles) and 300 ground targets at about 300 kilometers (180 miles), according to the US-based defense issues site the National Interest.

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The aircraft is said to cost more than $300 million.

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