NewsRussia's war front "blind and deaf." Significant loss of aircraft weakens national defense of Russia

Russia's war front "blind and deaf." Significant loss of aircraft weakens national defense of Russia

Priceless plane for Russia shot down. What does this mean for the upcoming months of war?
Priceless plane for Russia shot down. What does this mean for the upcoming months of war?
Images source: © PAP | SERGEI ILNITSKY
11:02 AM EST, January 20, 2024

It remains unclear who bears responsibility for the Russian aircraft losses over the Sea of Azov. Ukrainian authorities have claimed responsibility for downing two Russian planes. Meanwhile, the Russians have quietly conceded that the fault may lie with their own air defenses. This development could prove problematic for the Kremlin, potentially causing long-term repercussions.

Russia has lost a very valuable early warning plane A-50, and an airborne command post Il-22M-11 has been seriously damaged. Pictures circulating on social media revealed a tail of the airborne command post lacerated by the submunition of an anti-aircraft missile. It remains uncertain whether the aircraft can be repaired.

Russian AWACS

The A-50, the sole early warning aircraft in the Russian arsenal, colloquially known as the "flying saucer" or "mushroom", took nearly half a century to develop. Regardless, it still lags behind its Western equivalents. The Russians themselves appear uncertain about the capabilities of their aircraft, indicating that it can detect large objects such as transport aircraft or bombers from inconsistent distances.

Interior photos are rarely available, as the Russians believe that appearances of the indicators, screens, and consoles could reveal the actual capabilities of the A-50. However, indications suggest that its capacities pale compared to the F-16s, soon to be delivered to Ukraine. It is likely that the A-50 can detect an object of these dimensions from a distance less than 124 miles.

The Aerospace Forces of Russia officially have 12 A-50s and six modernized A-50Us. The update involved replacing analog elements from the 1980's with digital counterparts and introducing in-flight refueling capabilities. The last modernized machine, destroyed recently, only reentered service in October 2023.

According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia currently has only eight A-50s and six A-50Us, based at the Ivanovo-North airport, northeast of Moscow in the 144th long-range radar detection and guidance regiment. As it stands, around eight machines are at combat readiness. The loss of one plane and serious damage to another's radar, which a drone attacked in February 2023, may leave the Russians incapable of effective operations across substantial areas of the front.

What is AWACS for?

Early warning aircraft are stationed far from the frontlines. The destruction of an A-50 marks the first of its kind in history. Such valuable machines are typically kept out of the range of enemy fire.

The Russians primarily employed the A-50 over Ukraine to coordinate their aircraft's actions, as was the case on January 14th. On that day, Russian bombers launched cruise missiles from over the Black Sea and the Rostov region. The A-50, along with the flying command post on Il-22M-11, coordinated attacks on Ukrainian cities. British intelligence also speculated that modernized machines could adjust the flight of cruise missiles, despite contradictions with insights about the throughput and quality of Russian communications.

At the onset of the war in March 2022, the Russians maintained communication between the early warning aircraft A-50 and Sukhoi fighters that were targeting ground objects. At that time, the Russians faced no repercussions as they operated from over Belarus. The missiles they launched were intercepted by Ukrainian air defense. In this context, it is questionable whether they facilitated the Ukrainians' attack.

Flying command post

The second aircraft that was targeted was believed to be the Il-22M-11, which reportedly operated alongside the A-50. This is logical, given that the planes were coordinating a large raid involving Tu-22M3 bombers, Su-34s, and escort fighters. The air was crowded, making the support of the Il-22 essential.

The Il-22M-11 acts as an airborne command post based on the Il-22 reconnaissance and electronic warfare aircraft. The Russians have produced only five of this variant. The Kremlin invested 1.6 billion rubles in modernization. The refurbishment of each of the five planes cost approximately 310 to 333 million rubles, nearly 3.7 to 4 million dollars each.

The IL-22M-11s coordinate aviation operations above the frontline, mediating communication between ground forces and aviation and also managing aircraft and helicopters. The loss of one of these planes leaves a significant gap in the already mediocre command system of the Russian military. However, Russia has already lost two.

During Evgeny Prigozhin's coup near Voronezh, one of these aircraft was shot down by insurgents. Ten crew members died in the incident, including two senior officers. Responding to questions about why they elected to shoot down a non-combat aircraft that posed no threat to the convoy, Prigozhin explained that "an incompetent air defense officer in the column targeted every object that took off".

Downing and consequences

Since the war's beginning, the Russians have lost 40% of their flying command posts and about 22% of their early warning aircraft. These figures are alarming, particularly as these are incredibly valuable assets. The situation worsens upon closer inspection.

Russia currently has just five to seven A-50s. If approximately half of these are battle-ready, then they can assign only a maximum of three machines to tasks simultaneously. Furthermore, uninterrupted radar control over Ukraine requires at least four or five craft. This task needs the assistance of ground-based radar stations, which are presently lacking in the south.

Since the Ukrainians have destroyed several radars in Crimea, the Russians are in need of more machines to assure their ongoing operations, especially because attacks employing Storm Shadow missiles continue. Losing another A-50 would further impede Crimea's defense from Ukrainian attacks.

Moreover, if the Ukrainian SAMP-Ts or Patriots were responsible for the A-50's shooting down, the Russians would be forced to retreat their valuable machines deeper into Russia. This situation could eventually result in the loss of control over a single operational area, especially considering the imminent arrival of F-16s in Ukraine.

If anti-aircraft batteries force the A-50s to be stationed about 93 miles from the front line, the Russians would be able to detect the F-16s only when they are 18-31 miles from the front. This advantage would significantly facilitate Ukrainian operations over their own territory and their pursuit of Russian aircraft, especially if Kyiv receives the appropriate number of medium-range air-to-air missiles from the West.

In this scenario, the Russians risk remaining "blind and deaf" over the front.

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