Russian A-50, the eyes-and-ears of the Russian Air Force, is down

On 15 January 2024, the Beriev A-50 (NATO reporting name: Mainstay) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft has crashed into to the Azov sea. Later, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine confirmed the crash of the aforementioned A-50 aircraft as well as an emergency landing of IL-22 (after being substantially damaged – ed.) at Anapa airfield, Russia.

On July 3, 2023, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a conference call with officers of the Russian Armed Forces, highlighted the need for expeditious modernization of the A-50 Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS).

Shoigu’s call for timely modernization of the A-50 reveals a staggering Russian Air Force (RuAF) shortcoming that has prevented RuAF from establishing air superiority over Ukraine, making it very difficult for Russia to subdue Ukraine.

AWACS platforms are critical to modern air warfare. Aerial combat, for example, pivots around beyond visual range (BVR) missile engagements, where the dueling pilot who sees the adversary first has an overwhelming advantage.

Since the outbreak of an unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, the big challenge for Russia has been the limited availability of capable AWACS platforms.

According to Eurasian Times, The RuAF operates around 7 A-50U AWACS. Factoring in routine maintenance, it is likely that between 4-5 are operationally deployed at any given time. A minimum of 3 A-50U-s would be 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-50U, requiring a fleet strength of around 14-15.

Besides Ukraine, Russia has other urgent airspace monitoring requirements.

The fact that General Shoigu referred to the A-50 indicates that Russia considers the platform important to reduce the scourge of Storm Shadows and future deployment of F-16s and ATACMS.

While Russia has been able to step up the production of many weapon systems, including sophisticated cruise and ballistic missiles, it has not been able to speed up A-50U upgrades.

Unlike Russian missiles and armor, the A-50U is heavily dependent on electronics. In view of Western sanctions, the A-50U upgrade is likely heavily constrained by the imperative for import substitution.

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