Teamed: S-300 ‘launched’ Patriot’s PAC-3 at Russian aircraft

The global military sector is abuzz with discussions about how Ukrainian forces managed to down the Russian Beriev A-50 early warning aircraft. Several voices within Ukraine insist that the unexpected takedown resulted from a missile launched from a Patriot.

US is sending Ukraine its own Cold War-bought Soviet SAM systems
Photo credit: TASS

However, when considering the technical aspects and marvels of technology, the radar range of a Patriot battery simply can’t match the requirements to accomplish such a task. In layman’s terms, for the Patriot missile to be the cause, the Russian A-50 would have had to enter the theater of military operations—a space within the Patriot’s striking range. 

Enter defense research analyst Tom Cooper, who provides insight into the discussion. Tom’s expertise lies in his extensive knowledge of Russian defense systems, nurtured by the several books he has written on the subject. Applying his broad understanding of Russian systems to the recent event, Cooper suggests an innovative hypothesis about the sequence of events leading up to, and during, this dramatic incident.

Russian strategic A-50 AEW&C is targeted by UAVs in Belarus
Photo credit: / Wikipedia

The trap is set

The stage for the devastating strike on January 14th was set on the previous day, January 13th, when Ukraine’s Air Force, likely deploying Sukhoi Su-24 bombers, orchestrated a fierce attack on Russian Air Force installations throughout the Russian-occupied Crimea Peninsula. “Several radar systems suffered significant damage,” Cooper asserts. 

Following this, the Russians conducted a sortie with one of their A-50Us. Given that the aircraft was under-equipped for the task at hand, an Il-22M airborne command post had to accompany it. Furthermore, due to the A-50U’s limited radar range, it was required to fly close to the frontline – roughly 80 to 90 kilometers from it, to accurately detect any incoming Ukrainian aircraft and missiles. 

Kyiv: Moscow lost one IL-22 aircraft and one A-50 AEW&C aircraft
Photo credit: Wikipedia

On January 13, the day of the Ukrainian attack, the A-50U and Il-22M were directed closer to the frontline. As Cooper explains, “The two aircraft likely had the company of at least two Su-30SM interceptors. Simultaneously, Su-34s would have been deployed to deliver Kh-59 precision-guided munitions at targets inside Ukraine.” 

This orchestrated aerial movement presented an ideal opportunity for Ukraine to set a trap for the Russian aircraft. Cooper spoke of this tactic, noting “The Ukrainian airstrikes that targeted the Russian air defense systems on Crimea Peninsula on January 13, compelled the Russians to respond in a way that the Ukrainians had accurately predicted: a day later, on January 14, they ‘pushed’ their A-50U closer to the frontline, falling into a predictable pattern that made them easy to ambush – and eliminate.” 

Patriot destroyed missile using target designation provided by F-35
Photo by US Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Debbie Lockhart

On the fateful day of January 14, a Russian Su-34 reported that its electronic warfare systems had detected a radar emission from a Ukrainian S-300 [known by NATO as the SA-10 Grumble], a presence that was previously unknown.

Teamed Patriot with S-300

On the somewhat mysterious occurrence on January 14, Ukrainian forces reportedly launched a SAM system with the capability to strike two Russian aircraft from a long range. It is not entirely clear whether the S-300 or the Patriot PAC-2/3 system was used in this instance. 

In his analysis, Cooper suggests an alternative perspective. He speculates that the Ukrainians might have combined a launcher and radar [along with the necessary power-supply apparatus] from one of their three PAC-2/3 SAM systems. He proposes that this could have been used in ‘Assault Mode’, coordinated with one of their S-300 radars.

THAAD successfully fired Patriot's PAC-3 MSE missile using AN/TPY-2
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

In this carefully planned operation, the Ukrainians activated the S-300, deliberately revealing its location to the Russian fighter jets. Subsequently, the S-300 radar identified potential targets and transmitted the ‘azimuth and range’ details to the PAC-2/3 SAM system. For a brief moment – just long enough to collect vital target data but too short for the Russians to reliably interpret its emissions as a potential threat – the Patriot powered up its radar. 

Following this quick succession of events, the Ukrainians initiated their missile launch protocol. Prompt hits on the targets were followed by an immediate cessation of emissions from the Ukrainian S-300 and PAC-2/3 systems – all done to avoid possible retaliatory action by the Russians. 

Dramatic results were soon visible – the A-50U, with its serial number RF-50601, was struck by the SAMs at a distance of somewhere between 90 and 120 kilometers from take-off. This led to the aircraft catching fire and ultimately crashing into the marshes of Preslav. Simultaneously, the Il-22M was also hit, enduring shrapnel damage from a missile that had been proximity-fused to its target. 

Watch: Russian kamikaze drone hit Ukrainian S-300 air-defense system
Photo credit: Twitter

Rumors on Russian social media suggest a bleak outcome, allegedly resulting in at least two crew fatalities and injuring two more, one of whom is still in critical condition. Miraculously, however, the crew managed to steer the significantly damaged aircraft back to Anapa Airport and land it safely. 

In the lingering aftermath, the Russian Air Force is left with a mere two A-50Us, with four more still in the process of undergoing upgrades and overhauls. Considering the unfolding uncertainties, Russia may be hesitant to risk its remaining A-50s and thus compromise radar coverage over the entire Crimean Peninsula.

The S-300 has other advantages

Cooper’s assertions, although baffling, carry a substantial weight of sense behind them. It’s unexpected, but in this battlefield scenario, the S-300 has more advantages than disadvantages. Remember a particular incident that occurred near the Ukrainian borders, where an American F-35 pilot completely missed the S-300, despite having previous knowledge of its location. [Read full story here]

We reveal an intriguing narrative from a US Air Force colonel based in Germany, Craig Andrle, who is in charge of the 388th Fighter Wing. Nearly a year after the Russian incursion into Ukraine, Colonel Andrle interacted with the media. He explains that their F-35 was used for reconnaissance missions. War, in the Colonel’s words, is all about gathering valuable data. Although his missions have never ventured into Ukrainian airspace, they played a pivotal role. 

Interestingly, the Colonel narrates a specific incident that he refers to as a failure. The intelligence wing had alerted him about the location of the S-300PMU-1, a Russian Army’s air defense system. Yet, despite this information, Colonel Andrle and his aircraft failed to spot the S-300PMU-1. 

F-35 fighter jet by Lockheed Martin
Photo by Mikaela Maschmeier

According to Colonel Andrle’s professional evaluation, his F-35 didn’t detect the S-300PMU-1 because the air defense system was operating in a “war reserve mode.” This mode of operation was novel and unprecedented, as the Colonel pointed out. This incident captured substantial media attention and was fittingly headlined as “How the S-300 fooled the F-35”. We shouldn’t find such tactics surprising as war is all about utilizing technology to skew the balance in your favor.


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