Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate (HUR) has confirmed two high-value Russian airborne command aircraft were shot down on Sunday evening, cutting into the Kremlin’s ability to see the situation in the air.
Such aircraft are considered high-value assets because of the force multiplying capability it provides by giving situational awareness of the battlespace to commanders as well pilots operating in combat zones.
They are expensive to produce because of heavy use of electronics and other modifications to support its radar and other sensors, and a large array of radios and other communication equipment.
The large flight crews represent many years of expensive experience, making such losses even more significant.
Beriev A-50 “Mainstay”
Ukrainian media reported an A-50 early warning and control aircraft was shot down on Sunday evening shortly after take-off over the Sea of Azov in the Kyrylivka area of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine.
The A-50 [NATO reporting name: “Mainstay”] airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft is based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport.
The aircraft serves a role similar to the US and NATO E-3 Sentry, commonly just called AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System), though with fewer capabilities.
It's reported cost per aircraft is a massive $330m.
These AEW&C aircraft are vital to maintaining air superiority by functioning as the eyes for all aircraft operating in combat. Because they have very long-range radar search capability, they can share a “picture” in a broadcast to all airborne combat aircraft and assist fighter aircraft in completing intercepts and engagement of adversary aircraft through more direct communication.
The Mainstay has a large surveillance radar with its antenna in an over-fuselage rotating radar dome (rotodome), that externally resembles the “frisbee” atop US/NATO AWACS. Detection range is nominally 650 kilometers (400 miles) for air targets and 300 kilometers (190 miles) for surface targets.
The A-50 has 15 mission controller personnel who interpret radar returns and can control up to ten fighter aircraft for either air-to-air intercept or air-to-surface attack missions.
Without external support of airborne tankers, the A-50 can fly for four hours with a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from its base, at a maximum takeoff weight of 190 metric tons.
The A-50M variant has been modified to allow airborne refueling by Il-78 tankers, which can extend its loiter and surveillance time.
The Indian Air Force also operates an export version, the A-50EI, that has been upgraded with an Israeli radar.
Russia is reported to have about 9 A-50s in its inventory.
Ilyushin Il-22M “Coot”
The Ilyushin Il-22M airborne command post was also damaged in an attack and forced to make an emergency landing in Anapa on the Russian side of the Sea of Azov.
Not to be confused with a 1946 protype jet bomber aircraft with the same designation, the current Ilyushin Il-22M [NATO reporting name: “Coot”] is a turboprop powered airborne command post and radio relay aircraft based on the Il-18 airliner.
The Il-22M is part of a small fleet of up to 12 aircraft, used for both airborne command and control, and radio relay tasks, has played an important role in controlling Russian forces in their war against Ukraine.
“As high value assets they have operated within the safety of Russian airspace, far beyond the range of Ukrainian air defense systems,” Ukraine’s Defense Express noted last summer when an Il-22M was shot down.
At the time, the UK Ministry of Defence assessed the loss of the aircraft as being significant. “The Il-22M is part of a relatively small fleet of up to 12 aircraft, heavily utilized for both airborne command and control, and radio relay tasks,” they said.
Previously, in September 2018, a Russian electronic signals intelligence variant of the aircraft was shot down accidentally by Syrian air defenses as it returned from surveillance operations over the Mediterranean Sea.
While the Il-18 airliner version of the aircraft was widely used in the past by Soviet client states for civilian passenger service, the Russian military is the only operator of the dwindling supply of these aircraft.
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