The Russian Air Force recently received its sixth new A-50U AWACs (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft and described in some official detail the capabilities of this new version. In late 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 of spotting large naval and land targets and directing airstrikes at them.
It was known that the new U version entered service in 2011 but foreign ELINT (electronic intelligence) experts had not yet had a good opportunity to see how effective it was. 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.
In addition to American ELINT aircraft, there were several new F-35Is owned and operated by Israel. These have been seen flying near the Syrian border but no one is sure if an F-35I or two slipped across the border to join the hide and seek action the F-22s had monopolized until 2018. The F-22 and F-35 have more than stealth in common. Both have impressive software that automatically operates the many passive (they don’t broadcast and reveal their position) sensors on board both aircraft. The U.S. Air Force recently admitted that the F-22 was, as was always suspected, carrying out ELINT missions (early sales efforts pointed that out). The F-35 uses a similar but different array of sensors and apparently more powerful software to control the collection and analysis of what is out there and do it in real time. The Israelis have installed a lot of their own hardware and software in the F-35I (which is why it isn’t called F-35A) and both Israelis and Americans want to see what the Israeli version of ELINT does, compared to the F-22 and, one suspects, an F-35A pretending to be Israeli for the purpose of playing with the hostile electronics found in Syria.
Having the new version of the A-50 there was a bonus. By the end of the 1990s, the A-50 was long overdue for an upgrade and the money wasn’t available in the 1990s, a period when most of the A-50s didn't fly much at all (because of no cash). The original A-50 first entered service in 1984 and 40 were built by the time the Cold War ended. The A-50 is based on the Il-76 transport. After over a decade of development, the A-50 became a growing presence in Russian air operations during the late 1980s. But many defects and deficiencies (compared to the American AWACS) were noted and an upgrade was planned, but delayed after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
The inspiration for the A-50 was the U.S. Air Force E-3 AWACS, which entered service in 1977. This was a continuation of American AWACS development that began in 1944. The first AWACS appeared in 1945 when the U.S. Navy deployed radar-equipped aircraft to control large numbers of airborne warplanes in combat. The Navy continued developing airborne early warning and control aircraft in the 1950s (the E-1) and replaced it with the E-2 in the early 1970s. This one is still in service.
The original A-50 used less capable technology than the U.S. AWACS. The A-50 radar only had a range 200 kilometers, compared to 400 for the E-3. The A-50U uses modern (digital, rather than analog) systems and has increased range and accuracy. The new computers allow far more (150) aircraft to be tracked and this is done more quickly and with fewer equipment breakdowns. The more powerful radars and computers make it possible for the A-50U to more accurately maintain a view of distant aircraft and, Russia implies, provides some capability of positively detecting stealth aircraft. That capability may have been enhanced by modifications made to A-50U electronics because of their experience in Syria. Larger flat screen displays replaced the older CRTs. The A-50U can control ten warplanes at a time, while those aircraft perform air-to-air or ground attack missions. The upgrade also included welcome crew amenities (a rest area with a galley and improved toilet) for the ten equipment operators and five flight personnel on board.
Russia has also developed a new version of the A-50, the A-100. These aircraft are based on the more recent Il-76 model; the IL-76MD-90. The A-100 has all the modern electronics and other upgrades of the A-50U but also has a new radar, which can spot aircraft 600 kilometers away and ships up to 240 kilometers distant. The A-100 first flew in 2017 and is supposed to enter service in 2020.
China bought some of the older A-50s and was so dissatisfied that they switched to a new AWACS design based on the Boeing 737-800 airliner. The 157 ton Il-76 jet is considered less reliable and more expensive to maintain than the twin-engine, 79 ton, Boeing 737-800. Chinese airlines (some of them controlled by the Chinese Air Force) have been using the 737-800 since 1999 (a year after this model entered service). So no matter how much Russia upgrades the A-50, they are still stuck with an expensive aircraft to carry everything around.
By 2017 the presence of modern Russian S300/S400 air defense systems in Syria, along with their own ELINT aircraft and the first foreign excursion by the A-50U at the same time F-22s and F-35s are in the neighborhood, is another reason why Russia has been rather cozy with Israel even though Russia is technically an ally of Iran and the Assad government. There are apparently understandings that the Israelis will not do anything (a long list of potential troublemaking) to embarrass Russian arms salesmen in the Middle East and elsewhere.
While the A-50U may be a much more capable AWACS, the Russian air force cannot afford many of them, with only six purchased in the eight years since the new version became available. There have been no export sales either. India still operates three of the older A-50M models and has expressed an interest in upgrading them to the U standard if the price is right and the promised performance is real. Meanwhile, India is looking at the many AWACS offered by Western firms. China is happy with its own locally developed AWACS and not interested in what Russia has to offer. The Russian air force still lists 22 older A-50Ms in service but most of these are basically retired in the hope that money will be available for upgrades to the U standard.