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A-50 aircraft shot down over the Sea of Azov: what is it and why its destruction is so painful for Russia

16 January, 2024 Tuesday
16:00

The Armed Forces of Ukraine destroyed an A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft and an Il-22 air control center. This event is called unique primarily due to the destruction of the A-50

Espreso describes the uniqueness of this aircraft, its technical characteristics, price and features.

The A-50 aircraft and the history of its creation

The A-50 is a Soviet and later Russian long-range radar detection and control aircraft. It was created on the basis of the Il-76 transport aircraft to replace the Tu-126, which was outdated at the time. Together with the Shmel (Bumblebee) radio system installed on it, the aircraft forms the A-50 radar surveillance and guidance aircraft complex.

The A-50 was designed to detect and track air and surface targets and to provide air and surface situational awareness. An important mission is to control fighter and strike aircraft when they are guided to air, land, and sea targets. It also serves as an air command post.

The A-50 made its first flight on December 19, 1978. It was adopted by the USSR in 1989. Serial production was carried out in Tashkent at the Chkalov plant. During the Soviet era, the industry managed to produce about three dozen aircraft. Today, according to the Militarny portal, there are barely more than ten left.

Photo: Open source

The Eye of Sauron: How the A-50 works and why it is so important

According to Defense Express, by January 14, Russia had 9 A-50 aircraft in service - three basic modifications and six upgraded A-50Us. Given the small number, the loss of such a machine is a very serious blow to the Russian forces. In addition, one such aircraft costs approximately $330 million.

Long-range radar surveillance aircraft in the West are called AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System). According to ArmyInform, their advantage is that by raising the radar into the air, the range of target detection can be increased several times. AWACS is not just an airborne radar, but a coordination center. In the US and NATO air forces, the Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft performs this mission.

According to the developers, the A-50 can detect bombers at a distance of 650 kilometers, fighters at a distance of 300 kilometers, and cruise missiles at a distance of 215 kilometers. Such an aircraft is supposed to control the airspace in which aviation operates, detect targets, coordinate and direct its combat aircraft. It can track not only airborne but also ground targets, such as radars.

The Shmel complex, which is used in the A-50, includes a three-axis radar with a passive direction-finding channel, equipment for capturing and displaying the information received, a digital computer system for solving problems of controlling and guiding fighters to air targets, a communication system, telecoding equipment and other technical means. The total weight of the equipment is 20 tons, and 10-11 operators work with the complex.

In October 2023, Russia claimed that the A-50 aircraft could guide anti-aircraft missiles from the S-400. This missile has a declared range of 380 km to destroy targets. The A-50 is supposed to detect the target, and then the missile launched in the area of the target captures it on its own. At the same time, Russia has admitted that its Su-35S and MiG-31BM "cannot see" anything in the air without the help of the A-50. The Russians said that their fighters can launch long-range R-37M air-to-air missiles at a distance of up to 300 kilometers only when targeted by the A-50. 

Therefore, Defense Express director Serhiy Zgurets called the destruction of the A-50U "a significant blow to the capabilities of the Russian air force."

“If we draw a parallel with The Lord of the Rings, this is the Eye of Sauron (a symbol of relentless vigilance - ed.) These aircraft have the capability to control airspace within a 450-kilometer radius. Three of these aircraft were consistently on duty in the air, with one stationed in Belarus, one in the Kursk region, and one in Crimea," commented the expert.

 

According to him, these aircraft could watch practically the whole Ukrainian airspace and transmit data to the fighter jets, ensuring constant control and effectiveness of the Russian air attack system.

"If this aircraft is destroyed, it is a significant blow to the capabilities of the Russian air force, as it significantly reduces their ability to detect our aircraft operating at low altitudes. The enemy hardly sees them because the enemy radar is limited to the radio range,” said Zgurets. 

Technical characteristics of A-50

  • Length - 48.27 m,
  • Wingspan - 50.5 m,
  • Height - 14.8 m,
  • Wing area - 300 m²,
  • Takeoff weight - 190,000 kg,
  • Fuel capacity - 109,480 liters,
  • Cruising speed - 800 km/h,
  • Practical range - 7500 km,
  • Flight time without refueling - 9.3 hours.
 

How the Ukrainian Armed Forces shot the A-50 down?

In February 2023, one of the A-50s was already damaged at a military airfield in Machulishchi, Belarus. At that time, the local dictator Alexander Lukashenko recognized the drone strike on the precious aircraft.

The destruction of one of the nine A-50s was a historic event. No one had ever shot down a long-range radar detection aircraft before the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Defense Express emphasized. Usually, these machines try to stay away from the contact line and do not enter the hostile air defense zone, and are protected from fighter attacks by escorts. 

Valeriy Romanenko, a leading researcher at the State Aviation Museum, believes that the invaders paid for their impudence.

"The Russians just got brazen and laid out patrol routes at a very close distance. And they paid for it. They were flying 150 kilometers from the front line and were confident - the Su-30, according to Russian publicity, was supposed to protect the A-50 in that flight. It recorded the damage to both the A-50 and the downing of the Il-22. The A-50 does not have any serious self-defense weapons and is standardly equipped with thermal and electronic passive defense traps. That is if a missile is detected pointing at it, those traps are fired in order to divert the missile away from the aircraft," the aviation expert explained

The fact that the A-50 approached Ukrainian positions may also indicate that the declared distance of 400 km is an exaggeration of Russian propaganda.

There is no official information on what shot down the plane. Russian military commanders hint at "friendly fire," but this version seems incredible. Instead, Defense Express observers suggested that it could have been a Patriot system operating near the front line. This American system was in operation in July 2023, when the invaders lost at least one Su-34 and one Su-35, two rare Mi-8 MTPR-1 air defense helicopters (there were less than 20 of them), and another Mi-8 that could have been part of a search and rescue team. At the end of December, the Patriot allegedly destroyed several aircraft - four Su-34s and one Su-30. Therefore, military observers do not rule out the possibility that this is a so-called roving Patriot, which, despite the great risk, is being pulled into the frontline area. In the case of the A-50's defeat, it is not just a frontline zone, but a very close deployment of air defense systems to the battlefield.

Photo: from public sources

 

What consequences will the destruction of the A-50 have?

All experts agree that the loss of such an aircraft, of which Russia had only a few, will be extremely difficult for the Russians. First, the Russian military-industrial complex is not able to compensate for it. It takes about a year to modernize one aircraft, and the Russian Federation has no ability to produce new machines at all, so each loss is irreversible.

Manpower can also be a big loss for the Russian forces. There were 16 people on board - 5 flight crew members and 11 special crew members. 

"The flight crew itself is a small loss for the Russians because there are many such crews. Any Il-76 crew will be able to pilot an A-50 after several months of training. But a special crew consists of 10-11 operators who were trained for several years. This is a really serious loss for the enemy," emphasized expert Valeriy Romanenko.

 

In addition, the A-50 incident has dispelled the myth of the "'no analogues' aircraft. Recently, the Russians boasted that the A-50s would allow them to destroy F-16s without any problems after they were handed over to Ukraine. The A-50 was supposed to locate American fighters and transmit data to the SAM. The anti-aircraft missile system would allegedly launch a 40H6 missile into the target area, and the missile would use its own radar head to find the F-16. However, the number of A-50s is extremely limited, and after damaging one in Belarus and destroying another over the Azov Sea, the Russians' plans to counter the American fighters do not look very reliable.

At the moment, to quote the commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, Mykola Oleshchuk, "the Sea of Azov is as clear as ever." Moreover, the South Operational Command has stated that the downed Russian A-50 aircraft was used by Russia to launch powerful missile strikes against Ukraine. Therefore, its elimination may delay future missile attacks.




 
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