TechRussia races against time to upgrade aging AWACS fleet

Russia races against time to upgrade aging AWACS fleet

Prototype of the Russian AWACS A-100
Prototype of the Russian AWACS A-100
Images source: © Armed Forces of Russia

1:02 PM EDT, June 14, 2024

The Russian A-100 "Premier" early warning aircraft program has experienced years of delays, and sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries are not helping to speed up progress. However, the Kremlin needs machines to replace the shrinking fleet of A-50 aircraft, especially with the imminent arrival of Western F-16 fighters. Will they find a solution that will strengthen the eyes of Russian aviation?

Russians have announced that the A-100 "Premier" is being prepared to operate a new radar system that will increase the aircraft's field of vision, reports The Aviationist. Photos have even appeared online, purportedly showing the A-100 "Premier" during test flights. Even if the pictures show a prototype version, it will be a while before the Russians are ready for serial production and deployment of new AWACS into the army. Russia is still grappling with sanctions that hinder access to necessary components and modern technologies.

A-100 - the airplane that all of Russia is waiting for

However, as Prof. Vladimir Ponomariov, a Russian oppositionist and former minister in the Russian Federation government responsible for the economy, stated in an interview with WP Tech, Russia does not have significant problems sourcing the necessary parts for military equipment production. The expert emphasized that modern components needed for arms production come from smuggling. Smuggling has not been curtailed; only the prevailing prices have increased. Essentially, everything for producing modern weapons for Putin comes from smuggling from the West.

The A-100 program's beginnings date back to 1999, but the contract for its construction was signed only in 2006 with the Vega Radio Engineering Corporation. The Russians assumed that the aircraft, based on the Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A transport aircraft, would initially bolster the fleet of A-50 Beriev aircraft and eventually replace it entirely. However, the losses suffered by the limited fleet of Russian early warning aircraft may mean that nothing is left to replace in the not-too-distant future, especially since the A-100 launch has been postponed. Initially, the Russians planned to deliver the first serial machine in 2016. The current target date is 2026.

Russian AWACS threatened with extinction

In 2024 alone, Russia lost two A-50U aircraft due to Ukrainian attacks. Meanwhile, one of them was attacked by saboteurs at the Mochulishchi airbase in Belarus in 2023. This brings the total loss or damage to three aircraft. This means that the Kremlin only has six A-50 aircraft at its disposal. At least that was the claim at the beginning of the year by Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Moreover, according to him, only three of these aircraft appear modernized.

The destruction of Russian AWACS, whose radar allows for the detection of airborne targets within a range of 372 miles and ground targets within a range of 186 miles, fits into Ukrainian efforts to weaken Russian air defense ahead of the impending arrival of F-16 fighters. It is worth mentioning that A-50 aircraft work in conjunction with ground command centers that coordinate attacks, including those carried out by fighters such as the Su-34 or MiG-31. These aircraft are forced to fly over Ukraine as low as possible, protecting them from enemy radars and limiting the range of their sensors. In such situations, AWACS become their "eyes" and allow for safer maneuvering over enemy territory.

It is also possible that the F-16 fighters will become a direct threat to Russian AWACS, even when they carry out their missions from Russian territory. This scenario becomes even more likely when Western fighters are paired with modern medium-range air-to-air missiles, such as AIM-120 AMRAAM.

The difficult future of Russian AWACS?

The Russians claim that the A-100 prototype is ready for the final stage of full-scale testing. They also announced that it includes tests of a new, powerful AESA radar, the Premier radar station. This is supposed to make the A-100 significantly better than the A-50 aircraft, which uses the Shmel system. Additionally, the new AWACS is expected to have several times increased radar resistance to jamming, an increased range, and the ability to track up to 300 targets at a distance of 400 miles, which is half more than the A-50.

The problem is that the delivery of the A-100 is continuously being postponed, and the aircraft is still a prototype that has not gone into serial production. It is also possible that the machines that manage to be produced will become conceptually outdated. When compared to Western AWACS, which NATO countries are constantly modernizing while simultaneously expanding their fleets, this may prove to be an insufficient solution.

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