Ukraine’s aviation history is rich and storied, marked by achievements and innovations in the aerospace industry. One significant contribution was the development of the An-71 AWACS, a remarkable airborne surveillance system. This article will delve into the rise and fall of the An-71 AWACS and explore the factors that led to its decline. From its successful development in the 1980s to its eventual discontinuation, we will uncover the intriguing journey of this iconic aircraft and its impact on Ukraine’s defense and military industry.
The Unique An-71 An-71 AWACS Early Warning Aircraft
Near the international airport of “Igor Sikorsky” in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, there is a huge and extremely rich aviation museum, the National Aviation Museum of Ukraine, which houses a large collection of modern fighters made in the Soviet era from the largest Tu-22M3 “Backfire” strategic bomber to many fighters developed by various design bureaus.
The products of the Antonov Design Bureau in Ukraine are also very rich, and one of the most strange-looking early warning aircraft is a treasure, that is, the An-71 early warning aircraft and most of the early warning aircraft used disc-shaped radar antennas arranged on the back of the aircraft.
Development of the An-71 AWACS
The An-71 was successfully developed in the 1980s. Unlike the rumored carrier-based early warning aircraft, this early warning aircraft was actually established as a new generation of early warning aircraft of the Soviet Air Force and had nothing to do with aircraft carriers and the Navy.
The Soviet Homeland Air Defense Force used the Tu-126 early warning aircraft based on the Tu-114 passenger aircraft (derived from the Tu-95 strategic bomber) platform at that time and the lack of detection capabilities for low-altitude targets urgently needed replacement.
In the end, the Soviet Union decided that the Taganrog Beriev Design Bureau would develop a second-generation long-range early warning aircraft code-named “Product A” based on the Il-76 large military transport aircraft platform, which was first flown in 1978 and put into use in 1985. It used the rotating early warning radar developed by the “Vega” Research Institute in Moscow for use by the Homeland Air Defense Force.
Key Features and Specifications of An-71 AWACS
According to the An-71 indicators formulated in 1983, the aircraft was required to have an endurance of not less than 5 hours. The “quantum” early warning radar developed by the “Vega” Research Institute had a search distance of up to 360 kilometers, the ability to track 120 targets simultaneously, and the capability to penetrate voice and other data under multiple command posts at the same time.
The early warning radar also could detect small low-altitude targets, such as the US-made “Tomahawk” cruise missile. The carrier platform also could operate in bad weather and various geographical environments. This advantage was attributed to the An-72 platform, which had only 6 tactical command stations.
Prototypes and Testing of An-71
A total of 3 prototypes were built for the An-71, and by convention, prototype 2 was a static test aircraft. In July 1985, the first prototype of the USSR-780151 completed its first flight, and in February 1986, the prototype no. 3 with the number USSR-780361 made its first flight. However, the West did not discover the existence of such an early warning aircraft until 1987 when the figure of the An-71 appeared in a picture book of Soviet civil aviation. The first public photo of the An-71 in the Soviet civil aviation album further confirmed its existence to the West.
The second prototype of the An-71 underwent hundreds of test flights, with the No. 1 prototype completing 387 flights (650 flight hours) and the No. 3 aircraft conducting 362 flights (380 flight hours). Unfortunately, in 1990, the project was halted due to drastic changes in the Soviet Union and a lack of funds. After independence, Ukraine was unable to continue this project, and two prototypes were parked at The Antonov Airport. As of 2010, the first Prototype was moved to the National Aviation Museum, but it remains unclear whether Prototype 3 still exists after the fierce battle.
Comparison with Carrier-Based Early Warning Aircraft
It should be pointed out that the radar antenna of the An-71 is very high, making it completely impossible to fit into an aircraft carrier hangar. It was not designed from the outset to be a ship-based early warning aircraft. In contrast, the “Yak-44” developed by the Yakovlev Design Bureau, was a carrier-based early warning aircraft prepared for the nuclear carrier “Ulyanovsk.” It looked similar to the E-2 but used two much more powerful D-27 paddle fan engines, also used by the An-70 new generation tactical transport aircraft. However, the Yak-44 only made a full-scale model and never built a prototype.
In order to compete with the Yak-44, Antonov proposed an An-75 carrier-based early warning aircraft program based on the An-74 platform. This showcased the potential contribution of Ukrainian aviation manufacturing companies to shipbuilding companies, provided that the “Ulyanovsk” nuclear aircraft carrier was successfully launched and commissioned.
In conclusion, the An-71 early warning aircraft was a remarkable achievement in the 1980s, showcasing the advanced capabilities of the Soviet Air Force. However, the project could not reach its full potential due to various geopolitical and financial factors. Despite this, the legacy of the An-71 lives on in the National Aviation Museum of Ukraine, reminding us of Ukraine’s rich aviation history and the potential for future advancements in military aircraft technology.