TechRussia's own air defenses possibly responsible for crash of key A-50U early warning plane

Russia's own air defenses possibly responsible for crash of key A‑50U early warning plane

A-50 early warning aircraft
A-50 early warning aircraft
Images source: © Wikimedia Commons
12:52 AM EST, February 24, 2024, updated: 11:09 AM EST, February 24, 2024

Russians recently lost their second A-50 early warning plane, which incidentally was an upgraded U version of which just four were in service as of 2020. The A-50U plane crashed in Krasnodar Krai.

The reasons behind its downing appear to be more complicated than initially assumed. Russian sources on Telegram and VK report that two missiles fired by Ukrainians from the S-200 Vega system targeted the plane. These missiles can reach up to 186 miles but were not the direct cause of the A-50U downing. Rather, the Russian air defense situated in the city of Taganrog, attempting to intercept the incoming missiles, accidentally hit the A-50U, resulting in the plane crash and the death of ten specialized crew members.

This is not the first instance where Russian air defense has inadvertently downed their own aircraft. Previous incidents include instances where the defense system fired upon their own Su-34 or Su-35 planes. These mishaps occur due to all targets showing up just as points on radar screens. Ideally, friendly machines should be identified via onboard IFF systems (Identification Friend or Foe). However, potential malfunctioning could result in unintended downing of one's own aircraft. A large plane presents an easier target for a missile radar or launcher than a smaller missile.

The A-50U Beriev - Russia's finest AWACS

The A-50U Beriev planes hold significant importance in the Russian Armed Forces, allowing them to respond effectively to Ukrainian aviation actions despite them being modest. Owing to physical restraints, the effective range of ground radars in detecting low-flying objects is roughly 25-28 miles. The only way to enhance the detection range of such targets is by placing a radar on a high-altitude operating plane.

This setup permits monitoring airspace and detecting even low-flying objects at several hundred kilometers distance. In 2020, Russia had a total of nine A-50 planes in service, introduced in 1989, but only four of them were upgraded to the A-50U standard beginning in 2011.

The original A-50 came equipped with a Shmel radar, capable of detecting large aircraft from up to 217 miles away and fighters up to 143 miles away. The upgraded Shmel-M radar, through the replacement of analog signal converters with digital ones, offers improved parameters.

The S-200 Vega - an oldie tailored for battling strategic bombers

The S-200 Vega systems, dating back to the 1960s, are capable in their recent versions of reaching targets up to 186 miles away. It's important to note that the intended targets aren't fighters but slower ones like the Tu-95 or A-50/U bombers.

Ukrainians have employed these systems sparingly, often utilizing missiles from the S-200 system as a foundation to manufacture makeshift ground-to-ground missiles. These projectiles are used to target regions in Crimea or to misdirect Russian air defenses from Storm Shadow missiles.

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