Russia Building More Dated A-50 Radar Planes Is Desperate But May Be Necessary

It’s no secret that Russia’s fleet of A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft has taken a beating in the war in Ukraine, with two examples shot down under still-mysterious circumstances and another damaged by a drone strike. But a recent proposal to restart production of these high-value aircraft is questionable, to say the least. It also sheds further light on the significant problems Moscow has faced in fielding a new-generation AEW&C platform, the A-100, which remains in limbo, for the time being.

Speaking yesterday, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia’s Rostec state defense conglomerate, said that production of the A-50 would be restarted, according to a report from the state-run TASS news agency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) greets CEO of the Rostec Corporation Sergey Chemezov, in 2017. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

“Of course, this aircraft is needed,” Chemezov said. “Of course, we will make it. Not only does our military need it but it also does very well for export.”

The Russian Aerospace Forces’ need for a reliable and capable AEW&C fleet is beyond doubt. The demand from foreign customers for such an aircraft is much more open to debate. More on that later.

Chemezov didn’t refer to the recent losses of two A-50s in the war in Ukraine, but it seems almost certain the question he responded to concerned these high-profile incidents, which have reduced an already token fleet of these aircraft.

On January 15 this year, an A-50 was brought down over the Sea of Azov, in an incident that Kyiv attributed to its air defenses. A Russian Il-22M radio-relay aircraft operating in the same area returned to base with damage consistent with having been engaged by some kind of air defense missile.

A week ago, another A-50 was reduced to burning wreckage while also flying a mission over the Sea of Azov. Russian accounts blamed friendly fire, while Ukrainian officials again claimed responsibility for the destruction. There have been unconfirmed reports that a Soviet-era S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) surface-to-air missile battery may have been reactivated by Ukraine, to pick off the Mainstay, at a distance of around 120 miles from the nearest front lines.

While there has been a spate of Ukrainian claims of Russian military aircraft shot down in recent weeks, only the destruction of the two A-50s can currently be confirmed. Photos and videos of the wreckage of the second A-50 have been widely distributed. Russian media has also published the names of the crews killed in each of the two incidents.

Whatever the cause of the two A-50 losses, they strike a major blow to the Russian war effort, not only in terms of the propaganda value to Ukraine but also in reducing the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s airpower.

“The intensity of the A-50 aircraft’s use has decreased,” Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat declared earlier this week. “They have been gone for several days.”

Prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia was estimated to have nine A-50s, including a number of modernized A-50Us, in active service. As well as the two combat losses since then, one of these aircraft was damaged in a drone attack while on the ground at a base in Belarus last year and its current status is unknown. As it stands, the best-case scenario puts seven of these aircraft in active service.

A video shows a drone landing on the forward fuselage SATCOM dome of an A-50 in Belarus, in March 2023: 

Last September, reports from Russia suggested that the modernization program, bringing the original 1980s-era A-50s up to the more capable A-50U standard would be completed “in the near future.” As far as is known, at that point, only one airframe was left in the original A-50 configuration.

The upgrade program is carried out by the Vega electronics company in partnership with Beriev, with work conducted in Taganrog (in an area that has notably also come under Ukrainian attack since the start of the full-scale invasion). An A-50 appears to have arrived at the facility this week, perhaps for modernization or otherwise for a regular overhaul.

The A-50U is basically a mid-life upgrade and it gives the aircraft a new computing system with digital signal processing. Modifications to the radar mean it’s reportedly now capable of tracking up to 150 targets at a distance of around 370 miles, compared to around 220 miles for the old A-50. The aircraft’s mission crew can now track those targets on LCD screens, rather than TV monitors. The first A-50U returned to service in late 2011.

An upgraded A-50U, the only example finished in this dark gray color scheme. Alexey Reznichenko/Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the basic radar system at the center of the A-50U’s mission suite still dates back to a design that was launched in the late 1960s. The first series-production A-50 took to the air in 1985 and around 24 production aircraft were likely completed up until 1993. Even after its upgrade, the A-50U is very much still mostly stuck in the Cold War era.

This is one reason why the A-50 has found only mixed export success, despite Chemezov’s comments.

India acquired three A-50 export versions but had them outfitted with Israeli mission systems, in Israel, before pursuing a domestically developed AEW&C program.

An Indian Air Force A-50EI. Michael Sender/Wikimedia Commons

China planned to have the Israeli Phalcon radar installed in its A-50s, but instead opted for a homegrown solution which it installed itself in the same Il-76 airframe as used by Russia, producing the KJ-2000, which you can read about here. Problems acquiring secondhand Il-76 airframes to produce more such conversions limited Chinese ambitions with the KJ-2000.

With prospects for Russian defense exports now severely hindered by international sanctions and Moscow’s increasing pariah status, as well as notoriously bad support for exported Russian aircraft due to the Ukraine war effort, A-50s would realistically only be required by Russia — or perhaps a close military ally, like Iran or North Korea.

Interestingly, satellite imagery from North Korea last December suggested the country may be in the process of building an AEW&C aircraft of its own, also based on an Il-76. As we discussed at the time, a North Korean AEW&C capability could well provide a very useful addition to Pyongyang’s armory. It’s very possible that Russia is supplying related technologies in some kind of exchange deal for North Korean weapons for use in Ukraine, including ballistic missiles and millions of artillery rounds.

It may very well be the case that exporting these aircraft to North Korea has now emerged as the better option, especially as Moscow seems clear that sanctions against Pyongyang mean little to it.

But a true A-50 successor, the A-100 mentioned above, is already in the works for the Russian Aerospace Forces, so the outdated A-50 — even after the upgrade to the A-50U standard — would be a significant downgrade.

The prototype A-100 Premier airborne early warning and control aircraft. Rostec

Nevertheless, the A-100 program has so far failed to put any aircraft into service. Even securing the airframes for the new radar plane has proven difficult, with Russia struggling to produce the new-generation Il-76MD-90A transport aircraft in meaningful quantities. Production of the Il-76MD, on which the A-50 was based, has long since ended and, besides, the production line was in what is now Uzbekistan, not in Russia. Since then, the manufacture of the Il-76MD-90A and A-100 has shifted to the Aviastar-SP factory in Ulyanovsk, western Russia, but setting it up there has been far from easy.

German Eurofighters intercept the first Il-76MD-90A for the Russian Aerospace Forces, RF-78658, over the Baltic Sea recently. Luftwaffe via X

Moreover, the A-100 program has also felt the effects of Western sanctions, which have severely disrupted the supply of high-technology components, especially semiconductors that are required for many advanced Russian weapon systems. We have explored these issues before, as well as how they have affected the A-100 in particular.

The A-100 features a much more modern active electronic scanned array (AESA) radar. In its proposed export form, which would likely be downgraded somewhat, the manufacturer says it will be able to track up to 300 targets at a distance of around 400 miles, a significant advance over the A-50U, let alone the A-50. The A-100 will also be fitted with advanced navigation and communication systems and features many other additional antennas, likely for passive surveillance. The A-100, which first flew in 2017, is still not in operational service.

The still-unpainted prototype A-100 during a test flight. UAC

In the meantime, despite its age, the A-50 remains a very useful asset for Russia in its war in Ukraine.

These aircraft can provide a unique ‘look-down’ air ‘picture’ that can extend deep into Ukrainian-controlled territory, depending on their patrol zone. From the outset, the A-50 was designed to detect low-level cruise missile attacks, and the same capability means it can potentially spot Ukrainian drone attacks, too, as well as low-flying fighter sorties. They also provide command and control and situational awareness for Russian fighters and air defense batteries. Ukrainian authorities also assess that Russia uses A-50s to help plan and execute its own cruise missile attacks.

An official Russian Ministry of Defence video shows A-50U crews practicing guiding interceptor fighters to aerial air targets:

Their prestige status means it’s no surprise that the A-50 fleet has been targeted by forces allied with Ukraine before.

The reported plan to restart production of the A-50 is not the first seemingly desperate measure proposed by Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Last year, it was reported that MiG had resurrected a jet trainer project from the 1990s, amid growing problems in Russia’s military pilot training pipeline.

Aircrew training is another aspect of the efficiency of the embattled Russian AEW&C force. The loss of two full sets of crews — each A-50 is normally operated by as many as five flight crew and 10 mission crew — is significant. Ultimately, replacing these likely very experienced personnel may well be just as hard as fielding new aircraft.

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Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.