Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a conference call with Russian Armed Forces officials, has highlighted the need for rapid modernization of the A-50 Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS).
According to RIA Novosti, Shoigu said: “Two issues are under consideration. The first concerns the fulfillment by the Taganrog Aviation Scientific-Technical Complex, named after GM Beriev, of the state contract for repairing and modernizing A-50 aircraft.
These flying radars are used in special military operations. Timely modernization of these aviation complexes’ fleet will significantly increase troop groups’ effectiveness in solving the tasks they face.”
The A-50 (NATO codename: Mainstay) aircraft is built on the platform of the Ilyushin Il-76MD variant of the Il-76, a four-engine strategic airlift developed in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s.
The A-50 is a crucial component of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF), providing long-range surveillance, command and control capabilities, and early warning of airborne threats.
The airborne radar platform features a large rotating radar antenna housed in a distinctive rotating radome mounted on top of the aircraft. This radar system can detect and track airborne targets such as aircraft, missiles, and UAVs.
The A-50’s “Vega-M” radar is designed by MNIIP, Moscow, and produced by NPO Vega. It can track up to 150 targets simultaneously within a 230-kilometer radius.
Shoigu’s exhortation addresses a critical shortcoming of the RuAF
Shoigu’s exhortation to modernize the A-50 in time relates to a critical deficiency of the RuAF that has prevented it from establishing air superiority over Ukraine, making it extremely difficult for Russia to subdue Ukraine.
AWACS platforms are critical to modern air warfare. Dogfights, for example, revolve around Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile engagements, where the dueling pilot who sees the adversary first has an overwhelming advantage.
Using its powerful airborne radars, AWACS provides a data-connected fighter with the situational awareness needed to fire the first shot.
AWACS platforms also provide data linked fighters attacking ground targets with a good opportunity to evade enemy air defense (AD) missiles thanks to their ability to track them almost immediately after launch.
Since the start of the Special Military Operation in February 2022, the great challenge for Russia has been the limited availability of capable AWACS platforms.
The Ukrainian E-3 AWACS advantage
Flying in NATO airspace bordering Ukraine, an E-3 can detect aircraft, missiles and drones flying in Ukrainian and Russian airspace. More importantly, it can identify adversary target types and distinguish friends from hostile in often-crowded airspace.
Since the start of the conflict, the E-3 platforms have provided the Ukrainian Air Force with very high-quality enhanced aerial surveillance and situational awareness.
The surveillance and tracking ranges of the E-3 AWACS are classified, but it is likely that they will start tracking RuAF bombers as soon as they take off from their bases in Russia to launch cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets.
The E-3’s ability to track low-flying cruise missiles is critical to ensuring that not all Russian missiles hit their targets.
US and NATO AWACS are tightly integrated with Ukrainian AD systems supplied by NATO countries such as Patriots, SAMP-T, NASAMS and IRIS-T. All four are competent systems, with the Patriot and SAMP-T endowed with anti-missile capabilities.
Using the data links from these systems, the E-3 transmits real-time target-tracking data to these systems, allowing them to passively track Russian air threats without turning on their search radars and giving away their positions.
As soon as Russian air threats come within range of the missiles, the AD systems turn on (activate their missile guidance radar) and launch their missiles.
Passive tracking protects these systems from SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) attacks by Russian fighters armed with Kh-58UShK anti-radiation missiles (ARM). Passive tracking also prevents the RuAF from conducting air domain patrols in Ukrainian airspace.
At present, Russia has no way to counter the operation of Ukrainian AD systems with the help of AWACS. It has to put up with the high attrition rate of its drones and missiles during a missile strike against targets deep inside Ukraine.
Limitations of the Russian A-50
Russia could offset much of the Ukrainian AWACS advantage if it could deploy equally capable AWACS for surveillance and situational awareness.
For example, the RuAF would be able to locate a Ukrainian AD system even when it was operating passively. RuAF AWACS could detect a missile launch and transmit launch coordinates to a RuAF fighter conducting an air domain patrol armed with the Kh-58 ARM.
The problem is that the Russian A-50 platform is not as capable as the E-3. The A-50 first flew in 1978 and entered service in 1985, with about 40 being produced until 1992.
Less than 20 are still flying. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, modernization of the AWACS platform languished, and the RuAF continued to make do with A-50-equipped analog avionics.
Modernization of the A-50U
Development work on a modernized version, the A-50U, began in 2003; State testing began on September 10, 2008.
The A-50U incorporates a new digital avionics suite manufactured by Vega Radio Engineering Corporation that speeds up data processing and improves signal tracking and target detection.
The A-50U has the computing power to track more than 300 air targets simultaneously. It has more efficient engines in fuel consumption that facilitate greater resistance.
The platform can detect bomber-type targets at 650 km and cruise missiles at 215 km. You can even track small targets, like drones.
According to Rostec, the A-50U “can detect fundamentally new types of aircraft, and is also capable of simultaneously tracking a larger number of targets and guided fighters than the previous modification.” The “new aircraft types” part of the statement probably alludes to the ability to track low-observable aircraft, missiles, and drones.
The A-50U can detect launching missiles like the Patriot interceptor within seconds of launch. The A-50U can alert the pilot of the attacked Russian fighter to take evasive action, ensuring the safety of the pilot and the attacker. It can transmit missile battery position to armed airborne fighters for SEAD missions.
The A-50U is believed to be as capable as the American E-3 Sentry. The problem is that Russia does not have a sufficient number of A-50U.
Operational deployment of the A-50U
Beriev delivered the first A-50U to the Russian Air Force after completing joint state tests in Taganrog on October 31, 2011.
In a covering press release, Rostec stated: “The aircraft has been modernized within the framework of the implementation of a large-scale program for the renewal of the AWACS aircraft fleet, provided for by the state defense order.”
On December 29, 2021, Beriev delivered the 7th A-50U to the RuAF. In his speech from him, the general director of the Vega concern, which develops the supporting electronics for the platform, Viacheslav Mikheev, stated: “We continue to work on the modernization of the military A-50 to the level of the A-50U. This is the seventh complex of this type delivered to the troops. We plan to put the next aircraft into service in 2023.”
On February 26, 2023, a Russian A-50U parked at the Machulishchy airbase near Minsk, Belarus, may or may not have been damaged during a drone strike.
Apparently, the RuAF’s 6 or 7 A-50Us are part of the 610th Combat Use and Retraining Center at Ivanovo-Severny airbase. As part of Special Military Operations, they are likely to operate from forward airbases, including the Machulishchy airbase near Minsk.
In addition to the A-50U, Russia is also developing the A-100 “Premier” based on the Il-76MD-90A aircraft with new, quieter and more powerful PS-90A-76 engines. The platform features a new AESA radar and improved electronics. Flight tests of the A-100 began in 2019.
According to Rostec, in addition to being based on a more modern platform, the A-100 has much more powerful electronics. The new electronic set developed by Vega facilitates the detection, identification and instantaneous classification of targets. The data is immediately transmitted via data links to command and control centers, as well as to ships, AD systems or airborne aircraft to attack targets.
Russian sources claim that the equipment of the new Russian AWACS aircraft is significantly superior to its domestic and foreign counterparts and will help to observe the airspace of many EU countries without even entering it.
Although the recently modernized A-50U lacks the more powerful AESA radar and more fuel-efficient flight platform of the A-100, it is likely to feature similar electronic capability.
Counter Storm Shadow Missiles
The A-50U can track cruise missiles, including low-observable cruise missiles like the British Storm Shadow.
On April 14, 2018, the A-50U was reportedly used to track a large salvo of cruise missiles launched by a coalition of the United States, France, and Britain against targets in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons.
The coalition launched a total of 105 missiles, including the US Navy’s Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM), the UK’s Storm Shadow cruise missiles and France’s SCALP cruise missiles.
AWACS aircraft helped detect about 20 LO Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles to ground radars.
The RuAF operates around 7 A-50U AWACS. Taking routine maintenance into account, it is likely that 4-5 are operationally deployed at any given time.
Assuming a minimum of 3 are needed at any given time for complete surveillance and full situational awareness of Ukrainian airspace. Assuming 8 hours on station and 24×7 surveillance, Russia needs a fleet of at least 10-12 operationally deployed A-50Us, which requires a fleet of around 14-15 aircraft.
In addition to Ukraine, Russia has other urgent needs for airspace surveillance. In other words, Russia operates with less than half the fleet needed in Ukraine. As a result, many Storm Shadows are slipping away from the ground-based Russian AD causing pain.
The fact that General Shoigu was referring to the A-50 indicates that Russia considers the platform important in reducing the scourge of Storm Shadows and looking ahead: F-16s and ATACMS!
Although Russia has been able to ramp up the production of many weapons systems, including sophisticated cruise and ballistic missiles, it has not been able to speed up upgrades to the A-50U.
Unlike Russian missiles and armor, the A-50U relies heavily on electronics. In view of Western sanctions, modernization of the A-50U is likely to be severely constrained by the compelling need to substitute imports.
Vijainder K Thakur