Attrition: Russia Loses Another A-50U AWACS


February 27, 2024: In February 2024 Russia lost a second A-50U AWACs (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft in Ukraine. Like the first one, it was downed off the Ukrainian coast, in the Sea of Azov. The recent loss was because of Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles fired at the A-50U when it came too close to the combat zone to improve their ability to spot targets for Russian missiles.

The January incident also saw another A-50U damaged by friendly fire but was able to land safely. At the same time, a nearby multi-engine Il-22 airborne command aircraft was mistakenly fired on by Russian anti-aircraft forces. A Russian missile damaged the aircraft, and it made an emergency landing at a nearby Russian airbase. It was a bad day for rare and expensive specialized Russian aircraft.

In Ukraine Russia uses its a-50U aircraft to track Ukrainian aircraft in flight and the location of Ukrainian ground radars while also finding targets in Ukraine for Russian missile attacks. Russia suspects that the Ukrainians used their S-300 and Patriot Anti-aircraft missile systems to stage a trap to ambush the A-50U destroyed in January. The Russians noted how this S-300/Patriot trap worked and avoided it during the February incident that saw the second A-50U shot down. The Ukrainians outsmarted the Russians twice and to avoid another such incident Russia has withdrawn T-50Us from anywhere near Ukrainian airspace. Russia cannot afford to lose anymore A-50Us.

If Russia losses another A-50U they will no longer be able to maintain round-the-clock surveillance of Ukrainian airspace.

A-50U aircraft cost about $350 million each to build, and Russia cannot afford to build any new ones because they don’t have access to the Western components required. In 2019 the Russian Air Force received its sixth A-50U AWACs aircraft and described in some official detail the capabilities of this new version. In 2015 A-50Us were spotted operating in Syria, where the first four A-50Us delivered were apparently getting some practical experience in a combat zone. In Syria American and Israeli aircraft were active and available for the A-50U to practice their new detection and tracking capabilities on. The Syrian experience also made it possible to tweak the A-50U capabilities in spotting large naval and land targets and directing airstrikes at them.

The new U version entered service in 2011 but foreign ELINT electronic intelligence experts did not have a good opportunity to see how effective it was until 2015. To do that you have to get your ELINT aircraft close to an A-50U in a combat zone. In this case, the most effective ELINT aircraft turned out to be several American F-22s stealth fighters quietly, and apparently undetected, operating over Syria. Officially the F-22s were there to perform missions where effective stealth was a requirement. That meant reconnaissance missions during periods when the Russians or Syrians were angry at the U.S. Russia had some of its most modern electronic warfare systems operational and vulnerable to close examination by American and Israeli ELINT. The A-50U was apparently unable to detect the F-22.

While both the Ukrainians and Americans have defeated the T-50U, this Russian AWACs is still effective against Chinese and other foreign aircraft. Russia is saving its R-50Us for aircraft it can safely detect and track.



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