The A-50U (NATO codename MAINSTAY-D) features a 9-meter diameter rotating radar radome similar to that of the well-known American Boeing EA-3 Sentry AWACS. Consequently, it can detect and identify enemy aircraft at greater distances than Russian fighter radars or SAM systems “because its altitude allows it to see further around the earth’s curvature,” says the Ministry of Defense report in London.
The core of the A-50U upgrade replaces the previous generation’s analog electronics with a modern digital avionics suite that accelerates data processing and improves both signal tracking and target detection. Spokespeople for the RosElectronica consortium, which produces the onboard hardware, say the A-50U configuration can detect more types of aircraft and simultaneously track a greater number of targets and guided missiles than the previous generation variant.
Since the beginning of the Ukrainian war, the A-50U has been largely used for combat management of VKS fighter aircraft, as well as providing coordinates of long-range ground targets to Mikoyan MiG-31K aircraft that They carry the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile.
Although more than 40 A-50 aircraft have been manufactured, there are only eight of these more advanced versions of the aircraft, and any that were lost in action would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Russia has deployed the planes accordingly, keeping them well away from Ukrainian air defense systems. Fear of losses was exacerbated after a drone attack on a plane in February while it was parked at an airfield in Belarus.
That Russia is willing to move the planes forward is a tacit acknowledgment of the continuing problems with the VKS, but there are three specific reasons for the move now: Russian air losses, the need to maximize the S-400 air defense system, and readiness for the arrival of Western-made fighter jets in 2024.
As Ukraine’s air defenses improve and with the arrival of Western fighter models, the Russian Air Force (VKS) will be forced to make some difficult decisions, said a Ukrainian EW and defense electronics expert who spoke to Breaking Defense. “They will have to decide what costs them more: losing one or more of these A-50s or continuing to see their fighter aircraft and S-400 units progressively degrade.”
Heavy Russian air losses, no replacements
This first point refers to VKS’s heavy losses since hostilities began. Tabulations vary, but a detailed assessment by RAND expert Michael Bohnert estimates that Russia has lost between 84 and 130 planes and helicopters. This includes losses due to Ukrainian air-to-air attacks, shoot-downs by Ukrainian air defense units, and training or other accidents.
Bohnert also estimates “imputed” losses of between 27 and 57 aircraft due to the VKS flying aircraft for a much greater number of hours and at a rate of operation much higher than the normal wear and tear that Russian platforms are designed to withstand. (In his analysis, Bohnert also points out that the imputed losses are probably higher.)
These losses are forcing the VKS to carry out operations further from the front lines, trying to keep aircraft out of harm’s way, in contrast to the strategy deployed at the beginning of the conflict. This change in tactics was signaled in September by General James B. Hecker, head of the United States Air Forces in Europe and Africa.
“When [the VKS] started, they were flying right in the Ukrainian surface-to-air missile combat zones,” he said in an interview with Air & Space Forces Magazine. “So now they don’t fly in those rings, or if they do, it’s at low altitude for very quick moments, and then they come out again. “That’s adapting to save planes, but it obviously doesn’t bode well for dropping bombs and trying to gain air superiority,” Hecker declared.
A Nov. 28 Newsweek report quoted a Ukrainian spokesperson as saying that “following the [Russian] loss of eight Sukhoi Su-25 subsonic [close air support] attack aircraft near Avdiivka, the use of frontline aircraft and attack helicopters was significantly reduced. The spokesman claimed that the VKS has been using Su-35s, the most advanced fighter jets in the Ukrainian theater of operations, to deliver guided aerial bombs.
The VKS’s practice has been a “come and go” pattern in its deployments, said Justin Bronk of the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), who spoke at October’s Warsaw Security Forum.
“The Russian Air Force tends to take a beating and then retreat out of reach. Then, step by step, they retreat towards the front lines until they suffer another “bloody” incident of some nature. Then they withdraw again to a safe distance until the moment when they decide to slowly advance again towards the forward edge of the combat zone (FEBA) », he explained.
In line with previous practice, the VKS is in one of its moments of withdrawal towards the rear, so the Su-35 “operates at a distance,” remaining out of range of Ukrainian air defenses. This is according to Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman for the Tavria force group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “In the last two days, more than 20 such [Su-35] airstrikes have been recorded.”
Regardless, it appears the A-50U is breaking the mold and moving closer to the front lines rather than behind them. Greater use of the A-50U could further minimize losses by not only locating and tracking Ukrainian aircraft, but also directing VKS formations to avoid them. It is also being used to identify and mark specific areas defended by Ukraine’s growing surface-to-air missile network.