The Sunday evening destruction of a pair of high-tech four-engine Russian military planes over the Sea of Azov was in monetary terms one of the most painful air setbacks suffered by the Kremlin in the entire Russo-Ukrainian War.
But aside from the bottom line on the damage bill, many questions remain unanswered.
According to open sources, the more expensive plane was the four-engine Russian air force AWACS jet, called an A-50. Designed to monitor air space up to a distance of 400 kilometers and crammed with advanced electronics, a single aircraft reportedly costs around $300 million – a dollar loss equivalent to four Russian top-line Su-35 fighter jets.
Current estimates of the total number of A-50s operated by the Russian air force range from 10 to 15 planes.
The Il-22M electronic reconnaissance four-engine turboprop is based on a 1960s-era Soviet passenger plane. Upgraded with advanced radars, listening devices and communications equipment enabling the plane to operate as a flying command post, it is designed to spot high-value ground targets.
Russia does not export the aircraft. The US-made P3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop designed to collect electronic intelligence with technology similar to the Il-22M costs around $36 million.
How many planes were actually shot down?
Russian military media on Monday widely confirmed an Ilyushin A-50 early-warning and reconnaissance jet was destroyed in air space over the Sea of Azov, but some platforms claimed an Ilyushin Il-22 command and control turboprop returned to base damaged and with two dead crew aboard.
Ukrainian military statements and air force comment to Kyiv Post have confirmed both aircraft were destroyed, and Ukrainian military bloggers claimed the Il-22’s radio stopped transmitting and disappeared from radar somewhere over the sea.
Air tracking data published on Monday by the Ukrainian military purportedly tracing flight routes of Russian aircraft observed by Kyiv air defenses on Sunday showed one Russian plane disappearing from radar some 30 km. south of the Sea of Azov resort village Prymorske.
The plane appeared to be flying a tight circular pattern. A second Russian military aircraft, according to that data, was flying an east-west oval some 70 kilometers long when the first shootdown took place.
A second plane is shown to turn south and head directly away from the first shoot down location, before being lost from radar over the center of the Azov Sea, some 70 kilometers due south of the Russian-occupied port city Berdyansk. The detailed but inconclusive data shows a third aircraft, possibly a fighter jet, disappearing from radar at the end of the video.
What shot the Russian planes down?
Official Kremlin sources by midday Monday had not commented on how the planes were destroyed. Most Russian military social media loyal to Moscow credited one or two kills to Ukrainian air defense forces, in some cases suggesting US-made Patriot missiles scored the kills.
But a minority of Russian military bloggers claimed Russian air defenses shot down one or both aircraft by accident, some blaming a failure of electronic aircraft identification equipment.
Official Ukrainian sources led by Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) commander Valery Zaluzhny said Ukrainian air defenses – system not identified publicly because of security – were responsible for both shoot downs.
On Sunday evening, in a national video address published by his office shortly before news of the shootdowns went public, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine “is preparing to have good news about air defenses.”
Of the air defense systems the AFU is known to operate, the American Patriot has the longest range. However, even were a Patriot battery system to be positioned in close proximity to the fighting line, the projected locations of the shootdowns are outside the Patriot system’s officially published 140-kilometer maximum range.
The AFU’s last multiple shootdown of Russian combat jets, from Dec. 22-25, knocked down four Su-34 strike jets and one Su-30 fighter jets in a series of air ambushes. According to reports from the time, a Ukrainian Patriot system or systems placed close to the southern fighting line most likely scored the kills.
The actual effective range of Patriot systems delivered to Ukraine by the US and Germany is a military secret.
What were the Russian planes doing?
In past months, according to official Ukrainian sources, Russian air force commanders have routinely operated an A-50 AWACS aircraft as a backstop to air operations in Ukraine, most often with one aircraft orbiting over the Sea of Azov or Black Sea, and another one over Russia’s western Belgorod or Kursk regions.
Spots of the electronic intelligence-gathering Il-22M, according to official Ukrainian sources, are less common. Some Ukrainian military bloggers have suggested that Russian air force commanders planning massed missile attacks on Ukraine often launch reconnaissance aircraft a few days before the strikes to identify targets and the locations of Ukrainian air defenses.
What about the air crew?
Apart from pro-Moscow platforms claiming some air crew from the Il-22M managed to return to base with casualties aboard, all sources on Monday were reporting that all personnel in both aircraft almost certainly were dead, because frigid near-zero water temperatures in the Sea of Azov would kill any possible crash survivor in 30 minutes or less.
The crew of an A-50 is reportedly 15 pilots and equipment operators, and the standard crew of an Il-22M is 11 people including pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, communications manager and 6 cabin operators. A recovery operation would take place in the Sea of Azov’s shallow waters between 7 and 15 meters deep, depending on the exact location of the crashed aircraft.
If confirmed the Sunday death toll of 25 (or more) air crew would mark the worst single day of confirmed Russian service personnel lost aboard aircraft since May 13, 2023, when Ukraine used Patriot missiles to intercept two military helicopters and two combat jets in air space above Russia’s western Bryansk Oblast. At the time, it appeared Russian air defenses did not expect deployment of a Patriot battery near Russia’s border. Nine aircrew died.
On Feb. 25 2022 the AFU claimed it had shot down two Russian Il-76 transport aircraft, killing at least 350 paratroopers, but that claim is unconfirmed by independent sources.
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