Russia's prototype A-100 Premier next-generation airborne early warning and control plane has flown for the first time with its radar turned on, according to the state-owned companies responsible for the design. The announcement comes just under two weeks after a Russian newspaper published a story asserting that Western sanctions on the country were hampering the development of this aircraft.
Rostec, a Russian state-owned conglomerate that oversees much of the country's defense industry, announced the test flight earlier today. The A-100 prototype flew from aircraft manufacturer Beriev's facility in Taganrog in southwestern Russia. Beriev is responsible for the conversion of the aircraft, which is a modified Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A airlifter, while Russia's Vega Group has supplied the radar and other mission systems.
"Specialists of the Vega Group within the Ruselectronics Holding and the Beriev Aircraft Company integrated into the United Aircraft Corporation (both are parts of the Rostec state corporation) conducted the first flight of the A-100 long-range radar surveillance and control platform with its onboard radio-technical system switched on," according to an official press release. "The tests confirmed the normal operation of special equipment and the aircraft’s onboard systems under high electromagnetic radiation."
"The flight proceeded in the normal mode. All the systems and equipment operated smoothly," Sergey Parkhayev, a Beriev test pilot and the commander of the aircraft during this flight, said in a statement. "The crew accomplished the flight assignment in full, checking the aircraft’s stable and controlled operation in the designated modes of piloting and the performance of the equipment mounted on the airplane. The Il-76MD-90A platform confirmed its designed characteristics."
The A-100, which first flew in 2017, is intended to provide a significant boost in capability over the Russian Aerospace Forces' existing A-50 and A-50U Mainstay airborne early warning and control aircraft, which are Beriev conversions based on older Il-76 variants. The Premier most notably features an entirely new radar, which has active electronic scanning functionality in elevation, though it still uses mechanical scanning in azimuth.
The radars on existing A-50 variants are entirely mechanically scanned. When it comes to radars, active electronic scanning generally offers benefits in terms of precision detection and targeting, even of smaller or stealthy objects flying low over terrain, as well as greater range, reliability, and general flexibility compared to mechanical scanning. They are also more effective in dense electronic warfare combat environments.
Compared to the A-50 and A-50U, the A-100 has a number of new antennas and fairings attached to different parts of the airframe, as well. This could point to additional electronic support measures, battlefield management, communications, or other capabilities over its predecessors, something The War Zone has explored in the past.
The A-50U has already been reported to be a significant upgrade over earlier A-50 variants, with improvements in the maximum range of its radar and the total number of tracks it can manage at once. These upgraded Mainstays are also said to be able to better spot and track a wide variety of targets, including low and slow-flying targets such as cruise missiles and helicopters. Russia's A-50s, in general, have long offered a critical look-down capability against for finding threats at lower altitudes and in mountainous or otherwise complex terrain. The expectation is that the A-100 will be even more capable.
Regardless of the A-100's capabilities and the test flight today, it remains unclear when the Russian Aerospace Forces may actually begin fielding these aircraft. Rostec says that it hopes to complete the current round of flight testing on the Premier platform by the end of this year, but its press release did not include a projected date for when the delivery of operational examples might start or when those planes might actually start flying real missions.
"An important stage of the trials of the A-100 – an aircraft platform that integrates the most advanced solutions – has begun," Vladimir Verba, a chief designer at the Vega Group, said in a statement. "Throughout 2022, we are planning to complete the cycle of preliminary flight trials and hand over the aircraft platform for state joint trials."
There is still a potential for delays in the delivery of these aircraft even if the flight testing of this prototype proceeds as planned. On January 31, Russian newspaper Voyenno-Promyshlenny, published a story, citing an anonymous source within the country's Ministry of Defense, that said that various Western sanctions were causing problems for the A-100. The development of the aircraft's radar, which reportedly uses a significant number of components made in the West, at least as it was originally designed, had been particularly impacted, according to that piece, as you can read more about here.
Beyond that, there have been struggles with the production of Il-76MD-90A aircraft, in general, which the Russian Aerospace Forces are also keen to acquire in their basic transport configuration to modernize the service's airlift capabilities. The ebb and flow of Russian military budgets in recent years have often forced the country to scale back programs or push back their schedules, or even shelve them completely, in order to ensure funding continues to be available for projects deemed to be of the highest priority.
When it comes to the A-100, it seems that it would be increasingly challenging at present for the Russian Ministry of Defense to be able to meet its previously stated goal of having 30 of these planes in service by 2030. This will only put continued pressure on the existing and relatively small fleet of A-50 and A-50U aircraft, of which only around 10 are in service now. The actual availability of these aircraft is subject to a number of factors, as well, including the continued upgrading of the older A-50s to the U configuration.
The A-50s are already in high demand. The aircraft are particularly important for supporting Russian expeditionary operations, such as in Syria, where they make routine appearances, as well as for supporting the country's defense of its own territory, including areas in the ever-more strategically significant Arctic region.
All told, the A-100 prototype's latest test flight does appear to be a significant milestone in its development, but it will still likely be years before the Russian Aerospace Forces receive any significant number of these new airborne early warning and control platforms.
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