Espreso. Global

There is speculation that downing of Russian planes is work of so-called roving Patriot SAM. Column by Serhiy Zgurets

16 January, 2024 Tuesday

Shooting down the Russian A-50 and hitting the IL-22 is extremely important given the cascading effect from losing aircraft on Russia's combat capability. This is incredible and unprecedented for combat operations

Downing of Russian aircraft over the Sea of Azov

The top news is that the Ukrainian Air Force destroyed an A-50U long-range radar detection aircraft and critically damaged an Il-22M air control center of the Russian occupation forces. This was officially announced by the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, as well as the Air Force Commander.

It happened on January 14, around 9 p.m. over the Sea of Azov. This was a well-thought-out and complex operation, as Ukraine's Armed Forces shot down a long-range radar detection aircraft for the first time in the history of combat operations. They try to keep such aircraft as far away from the front line as possible, they do not enter the enemy's air defense system. They are even being covered by their own fighters.

What happened is incredible and unprecedented for combat operations. Although this is something Ukrainian Armed Forces traditionally do. Let me remind you how it was with the destruction of the Black Sea Fleet flagship, the cruiser Moskva, by Ukrainian Neptune missile and the destruction of the Russian submarine Rostov-na-Donu by a Storm Shadow cruise missile in Sevastopol.

Shooting down Russia's A-50 and hitting the IL-22 is extremely important, given the cascading effect from losing these aircraft on Russia's combat capability. Why is this so? The A-50s have the ability to detect Ukrainian aircraft, cruise missiles, and drones at a fairly long range. They can also detect the basing of Ukrainian air defense systems and radars when the radars are active. And there was a time when three such aircraft were on constant duty near Ukraine's borders. One of them operated in Belarus, then the second from the Sea of Azov and the third from somewhere in Kursk, Russia. These three aircraft could actually control Ukraine's entire airspace.

The loss of such a machine for Russia is very serious, because its army, until yesterday, had only 9 such aircraft in service. Three of these were  A-50s in old versions and six modernized A-50Us. As for the estimated cost of the modernized aircraft, everyone is currently talking about $330 million, but this is a floating figure. In my opinion, the price does not matter, because Russia has critically few of them, and it is extremely difficult to restore them.

Last year, another such A-50U suffered damage to its locator after a drone attack in Machulishchi, Belarus (an air force and air defense base of the Republic of Belarus). Russia then took these rare aircraft from there to Russian territory. But the downed A-50U also means the loss of a trained crew, because each aircraft has five crew members and eleven operators, all of whom are highly experienced. And Russia had no more than a hundred such trained operators for all the aircraft.

The same applies to the destruction of the Il-22 command post. Russia had up to ten of them. By the way, the Ukrainian Air Force has already destroyed such aircraft. In April 2022 was the first case. Then an Il-22 was destroyed by the Wagner mercenaries during the Wagner PMC mutiny last June. This is now the third Il-22M to be critically damaged. It landed in Anapa with significant keel damage. In the radio intercept, it was heard that ambulances had to be prepared. 

The Air Force Command said that it would be difficult to restore the plane. At the same time, it is not announced what attacked these aircraft. There are assumptions that it was the work of a so-called roving Patriot SAM. There have been cases where Russian aircraft were destroyed at a considerable distance and in an unexpected place, as was the case in December in the Kherson region.

The Patriot system can use GEM-T missiles, which are designed to fight aeroballistic targets such as airplanes. These missiles, with a range of 160 kilometers, do have a warhead designed to destroy aircraft and cruise missiles. This means that this system was used from the frontline zone, which is a rather risky step. And we can see that the operation was quite successful. Although other versions are possible, let this unpredictability be another additional strength of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Russia cannot predict what exactly was used against these aircraft.

We understand that the loss of these unique machines in terms of functionality and number in Russia's arsenal means more than significant losses for the Russian Federation and the emergence of a significant gap in its air defense system. We look forward to a good continuation of this story.

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