Russian A-50 AEW&C fleet faces dwindling 24/7 flight capacity

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During the recent “Ukraine. Year 2024” forum, Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence for the Ukraine Ministry of Defense, stepped aside to answer a few pressing questions from reporters. Among the topics discussed, he provided some intriguing details about the February 23 operation to eliminate the second A-50U long-range radar detection aircraft. 

Photo credit: Twitter

Elaborating on the operation, Budanov stressed that it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision but a result of two weeks of meticulous planning. By mentioning this, he not only highlighted the rarity and significance of such undertakings but also accentuated the tough challenges they pose. He gave credit to all those involved in the operation for their exceptional level of organization and skill set. 

When quizzed about the number of such aircraft still in Russia’s possession, Budanov confirmed that they had six. To put it into perspective, as of 2021, Russia officially listed nine aircraft of this type: three A-50s and six A-50Us. Two have been taken down – one on January 14th and the other on February 23rd, 2024. Another one suffered damage by a drone while stationed in Belarus in late February 2023.

Taking down the next A-50 is critical

It seems that the Russian Federation has yet to repair the aircraft that was impaired in Machulishti. Also, according to Kiril Budanov, without an additional A-50, the enemy won’t be able to maintain a 24/7 airborne presence. However, Budanov didn’t disclose what weapon downed the A-50U, thus leaving this matter open for debate. 

It’s worth noting that the Russian AEW&C aircraft was taken down 170 km away from the frontline, which surpasses the alleged aerial target destruction range of GEM-T missiles [150-160 km]. Whilst it might appear the exceedance is minor, bear in mind that the deployment of any air defense system can’t be perfectly zeroed in. A slight deviation is obligatory, at the very least equalling the range of enemy artillery. 

Photo credit: / Wikipedia

Speculative reports suggest that the A-50U was pulled down by the S-200. However, if this speculation holds, it would indicate that the air defense system had been modified or upgraded since its default form is archaic and rather cumbersome. 

Interestingly, the Russian Federation is proposing the idea that they were responsible for downing their own A-50U, occasionally supplementing the narrative with details of their attempted interception of an anti-aircraft missile from the S-200 air defense system which ironically resulted in their own AEW&C aircraft being hit by one of their anti-aircraft S-400 missiles.

A-50’s role

Back in the latter part of October of the previous year, an unusual deployment strategy involving A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft was shared by the Russian Federation’s state-run TASS news agency. This news came in the wake of Defense Minister Shoigu’s declaration stating the successful takedown of 24 aircraft in a short span of five days. 

Photo credit: Twitter

According to the claims made by TASS, the Soviet Beriev A-50 aircraft belonging to Russian early warning and control [AEW&C] sent out missiles from the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system targeting aircraft from Ukraine. 

In their report, TASS suggested the idea of taking into account the combined operation of both the A-50 and the S-400. They further held that the S-400 system was launching from farthest distances to engage aerial adversaries at approximately 1 km altitude, utilizing new anti-aircraft guided missile warheads.

Video screenshot

The ‘Mainstay’

The Beriev A-50 AEW&C, also known as the ‘Mainstay’ in NATO reporting, is a Russian airborne early warning and control [AEW&C] aircraft. It is based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft, with a large rotating radar dome affixed on its back. This aircraft is designed to detect and track a variety of airborne and surface targets, providing situational awareness for command and control purposes.

The radar capabilities of the Beriev A-50 are quite impressive. The aircraft is equipped with a ‘Shmel’ radar system [also known as ‘Vega-M’], which operates in the E-band and has a 360-degree coverage. This radar system is capable of tracking up to 150 targets simultaneously within a 230-kilometer range for airborne targets and 400 kilometers for surface targets. It can also detect low-flying targets with a minimum radar cross-section of 1 square meter at a distance of up to 215 kilometers.

Photo credit: YouTube

A-50’s wartime capabilities

The Beriev A-50’s wartime capabilities are substantial. The aircraft serves as a command and control center, capable of guiding fighter jets to their targets and coordinating air defense operations. It can also provide target data for ground and ship-based air defense systems. The A-50 is capable of staying airborne for extended periods, which allows it to provide continuous surveillance and command and control capabilities.

In addition to its radar and command capabilities, the Beriev A-50 also has electronic countermeasures [ECM] systems to protect itself in hostile environments. These ECM systems can jam enemy radar and communications, making it harder for the enemy to detect and track the aircraft. Furthermore, the A-50 has a self-defense capability with infrared countermeasures to protect against heat-seeking missiles.

Overall, the Beriev A-50 AEW&C aircraft is a critical asset for any air force, providing comprehensive situational awareness, command and control capabilities, and a robust self-defense system. Its advanced radar system and extensive wartime capabilities make it a formidable tool in modern warfare.


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