A-50 and A-50U: The Russian Aerospace Forces’ Lost ‘Eyes’

A-50 and A-50U: The Russian Aerospace Forces’ Lost ‘Eyes’

Володимир Б. Володимир Б.
Aviation Occupants elimination Russia War with Russia

The Ukrainian Air Force made history by being the first to shoot down an airborne early warning and control aircraft in the 21st century — a Russian A-50U. Prior to this, a similar type of aircraft was downed in 1969 when a North Korean MiG-21 shot down an American EC-121.

The loss of such an aircraft is very painful for the defense capability of any country.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the Russian defense industry will be able to compensate for this loss in the foreseeable future by either restoring irreparable metal wreckage or manufacturing a viable replacement, such as the promising A-100 aircraft.

‘Sergey Atayants’: an А-50U that was shot down

The jet that was shot down over the Sea of Azov turned out to be the А-50U ‘Sergey Atayants’ with tail number 93966, which belonged to the Russian 610th Center for Combat Use and Retraining of Flight Personnel stationed in Ivanovo town. An aviation and technical base and the 308th Aviation Repair Plant are also located in this town.

Ivanovo also hosts Severny Air Base, where A-50 and Il-22 aircraft are stationed. Satellite images reveal the presence of seven hunks of junk A-50s, a significant quantity of Il-76 military transport aircraft, and an undisclosed number of operational A-50 and Il-22 aircraft at the airbase.

‘Sergey Atayants’ was used in the Russian-Ukrainian war from the very beginning. It was deployed at the airfield in the village of Machulishchy, Belarus. In the summer of 2022, the aircraft actively operated in the Belarusian sky and conducted target designations for Russian aviation.

The aircraft left Belarus periodically and returned again. Evidently, during these intervals, maintenance work was being conducted on either the equipment or the aircraft itself.

The plane finally left Machulishchy after drone attacks began in February 2023.

The Belarusian initiative BYPOL representatives stated that Belorusian resistance movement members used drones to damage equipment at the airport. Damage to the front and center parts of the aircraft was claimed.

On January 14, at 20:25, the plane took off from the Russian airfield in Akhtubinsk town, after which it headed for the Sea of Azov. In Akhtubinsk, for reference, there are deployed a variety of aircraft, including MiG-29, MiG-31, Su-24, Su-25, Su-27, Su-30, the latest Su-57 and military transport aircraft, helicopters, etc.

Judging by the video published by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the aircraft was patrolling in the Obytichna Spit area. According to experts who are closely monitoring Russian strategic aviation, the А-50U ‘Sergey Atayants’ fell right in this area.

The aircraft was positioned at an approximate distance of 100-150 kilometers from the front line, making it challenging for anti-aircraft systems available in the Ukrainian arsenal to target it, but not entirely ruled out.

It should be noted that in the same area during the day, there was another aircraft of an unknown type. This was evidenced by inversion traces on satellite images.

In theory, А-50U may have been hit by S-300PMU, S-200V, or Patriot long-range SAMs. The range of these systems allows them to intercept aerial targets at such a distance, but in the case of the S-300PMU and Patriot, it would be necessary to bring them almost to the front line.

Another likely scenario is friendly fire from the Russian air defense: the Identification Friend or Foe system may not have operated, there may have been an error in the operators of the air defense system, or there is the unlikely possibility of a failure to lock-on the target of the semi-active anti-aircraft missile homing.

А-50 AEW&C

А-50 is an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft based on the Il-76 military transport aircraft that made its maiden flight on December 19, 1978.

It was developed by the Taganrog Aviation Scientific-Technical Complex and the Vega Scientific and Production Association to replace the already outdated Tu-126. The operation of prototypes began in 1985, and the aircraft was adopted by the Soviet army in 1988.

In Soviet times, industry managed to produce about 31 aircraft, until nowadays there were not many ‘alive’ aircraft, only about 12 in various modifications: 10 in service with the Russian Air Force in modifications of А-50 and А-50U (3 and 7, respectively), the rest in service with the Armed Forces of India. The number of aircraft in storage is unknown.

Active А-50U of the Russian Aerospace Forces:

  • 47, RF-92957, 1984.
  • 33, RF-50602, 1984, ‘Vladimir Ivanov.’
  • 37, RF-93966, 1988, ‘Sergey Atayants’ (destroyed).
  • 41, RF-94268, 1988, ‘Taganrog’
  • 45, RF-93952, 1989.
  • 42, RF-50610, 1990.
  • Unknown aircraft.

Possible active А-50 of the Russian Aerospace Forces:

  • 43, tail number unknown, 1987.
  • 51, tail number unknown, 1988.
  • 46, tail number unknown, 1983 (most likely ‘old crate’).
  • 50, tail number unknown, 1987.

Presumably, mothballed А-50 aircraft, including ‘old crates’, can be identified by the following tail numbers: 10 (prototype), 15 (possibly prototype), 17, 20, 30, 46, 38, 34, 39, 48, 31, 32, 49, 35, 36, 40, and 51.

Some of the aircraft belong to the Taganrog Scientific and Technical Aviation Complex and are used by the enterprise at exhibitions and as test stands, so these aircraft could theoretically be reactivated for operational use in the future.

The aircraft is equipped with the Shmel system based on the Soviet Argon-50 airborne electronic computer.

The Shmel system includes:

  • 3-D radar with passive direction finding channel;
  • equipment for capturing and displaying the received information;
  • an active request-response system and transmission of commands or target designation information to interceptors;
  • digital computing complex for solving control tasks, pointing fighters at air targets;
  • radio control command line equipment;
  • communication system and telecode equipment;
  • documentation equipment;
  • state recognition system.

On the aircraft’s board, 10-11 operators work with the systems: commander, senior navigator, two navigators, senior escort operator, two escort operators, and radar and communication equipment flight engineers. Together with them, five flight crew members are on board.

The aircraft is capable of providing reconnaissance of aerial, ground, and surface targets. With the use of optical-electronic systems onboard, the aircraft can detect ballistic missile torches at a distance of up to 800 kilometers, and the radar station is able to find and track aircraft and cruise missiles at distances of up to 700 kilometers.

Targets by the type of air defense launchers, ballistic missiles – at a distance of 400 kilometers, and the concentration of armored vehicles – up to 450.

It is worth noting that for ground target detection, an aircraft must be at a sufficient altitude to compensate for the terrain.

А-50 can give external target designation to fighters and act as an air command post.

Upgraded А-50U

Upgraded А-50U have new Intel-based radio equipment with improved performance that can detect stealth targets at low altitudes and operate under active EW countermeasures.

Replacing analog equipment with digital equipment allowed the aircraft to reduce its weight and increase its fuel reserve, which in turn increased its operational range.

To increase the comfort of the crew, all electroluminescent displays were replaced with liquid crystal ones, and a toilet and a kitchen were placed on board.

А-100 Premier

‘Premier’ is the latest Russian AEW&C aircraft, which in the future should replace А-50 and А-50U. According to priority plans, the first production aircraft would have to be transferred to service in 2016, but the deadline was shifted until 2024.

The Russians do not disclose the technical characteristics of the А-100. Russian propaganda claims that its characteristics will surpass those of the American Boeing E-3 Sentry and will be able to simultaneously track up to 300 targets at a distance of 650 kilometers.

The estimated durability is 6 hours, and the flight range is up to 1000 kilometers.

As of today, there is only one A-50-based A-100LL flying laboratory in attempted operation.

Engagement of А-50 during a full-scale war

А-50 is one of the Russians’ main tools for monitoring the air, ground, and surface environments, as well as for targeting Russian aviation towards the Ukrainian civil and military infrastructure.

The aircraft conducted round-the-clock duty on Ukrainian borders and gave external target designation to Russian air defense equipment and tactical and strategic aviation. It is known that the А-50 and MiG-31К carrier of the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal aeroballistic missile, which were stationed at the airfield in the village of Machulishchy, operated as a pair.

That is, А-50 aircraft and their crews are directly involved in the massive combined shelling of Ukrainian critical infrastructure and cities.

Stricken Il-22

In addition to the destruction of the А-50U, the hit of the Il-22 airborne command post was declared, which, despite significant damage to the fuselage and tail, was able to reach the airfield in Russian city of Anapa.

The ‘monitor’ Telegram channel released interception communications from the airfield in Anapa, revealing that the crew has requested an emergency landing, an ambulance, and firefighters.

The aircraft’s tail number and owner are unknown, but based on photos of the tail, it can be concluded that the aircraft is not repairable.

The specific model of the aircraft is also not known. According to some reports, this is Il-22М11, but the specific tail part indicates that it may be the Il-22PP ‘Prorubshchik.’

The fate of the crew is also unknown. Russian propagandists claim injuries and deaths among crew members. Russian propaganda Telegram channels say that Russian air defense worked against aircraft.

This is not the first loss of this type of aircraft during the Russian-Ukrainian war. During the Prigozhin rebellion, on June 24, 2023, the Wagner PMC mercenaries shot down an airborne command post in the sky over the Voronezh region.

Previously, on September 17, 2018, a plane of this type was shot down by a S-200 air defense system of the Syrian Armed Forces. Then the Syrian air defense tried to repel the Israeli air attack and mistakenly shot down the Russian Il aircraft.

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