Su-35S and MiG-31BM ‘cannot see’ in the air without A-50 AEW&C

Russian media recently showcased a piece on the A-50 radar patrol aircraft employed by the Aerospace Forces [VKS], focusing primarily on the aircraft’s capabilities in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The rare publicity of Moscow’s ‘flying radars’, which frequently feature in military news, marks this as noteworthy.

Russian Beriev A-50 aircraft direct S-400 anti-aircraft missiles
Photo credit: Twitter

    The uncharacteristic openness about the A-50’s role in the Ukraine war and the performance attributes discussed in the piece make this subject significantly interesting. 

    As per the insights from Russian experts, the A-50 radar aircraft can reportedly identify a multitude of ground targets. The scope ranges from immobile structures and missile systems to tanks and self-propelled guns up to 300 kilometers away. Moreover, it can relay this information to the operators of missile systems like “Iskander-M” and “Tornado-S”

    These expert assessments suggest that such an ‘intelligence strike group’ could potentially track even the M142 HIMARS. 

    Further, the Russians have claimed their Su-35S and MiG-31BM fighter jets are capable of discharging long-range R-37M air-to-air missiles over a distance of 300 kilometers, guided solely by the A-50. This detail is critical, particularly when considering strategies to enhance our aviation capabilities. 

    Su-35 fired a BVR missile to shoot down the Mi-8 at the border
    Photo credit: Twitter

    News outlets have reported Ukraine’s intent to upgrade the F-16 to match technological levels with Russian Air Force fighters. Although official details of the envisaged upgrades haven’t been shared, it is plausible that the ‘modernization’ could mean improving the onboard radar’s target detection range and the range of air-to-air missiles. 

    However, from the preceding discussion, it is clear that in certain scenarios, the presence of radar surveillance aircraft can also bestow a technological advantage to fighters from the Air Force.

    A-50s in the war

    F-35s 'force' MiG-31s to intercept 'threats' in the stratosphere
    Photo credit: Russian MoD

    Ukrainian reports indicate that a total of nine A-50s and A-50Us are in operation for airspace control. They rotate duties over the territories of Kursk and Voronezh in Russia, the occupied lands of Crimea, and the Black Sea. As per the Military Balance, these aircraft represent the full repertoire of long-range radar detection and control planes currently in service with the Russian Federation. 

    Before this, it was common knowledge that the A-50 was utilized in Belarus’s airspace by the Russian Federation. However, as the forces, including aviation, have been withdrawn from Belarus, it appears that this strategy has been abandoned. 

    It’s important to note the inherent value of these airborne warning and control systems [AWACS] planes, which lies in their ability to detect airborne objects at low altitudes and against terrain from a significantly further distance. For the Russian A-50, this range extends to approximately 450 km. Thus, it’s reasonable to deduce that the aerial surveillance area of the Russian Federation, facilitated by the A-50 aircraft, could be delineated as follows: 

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

    In essence, it indicates that the Russians can establish control over the entire left-bank area of Ukraine as well as the entire Black Sea region. When A-50s patrolled the skies over Belarus, their visibility was extended to virtually encompass the entirety of Ukraine’s territory, exacerbating the situation. 

    It’s worth mentioning that these inspection zones’ positions are estimations, calculated based on the realistic distance of the A-50 aircraft from Ukraine’s border. This is to minimize the risk of jeopardizing their safety.


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