Claims Swirl Around Possible Shoot Down Of Russian A-50 Radar Jet (Updated)

A Russian A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) jet and an Il-22M radio-relay aircraft were successfully engaged by Ukrainian air defense over the Sea of Azov Sunday, according to a Ukrainian legislator who heads a prominent defense committee, as well as Ukrainian media.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has not officially commented on this claim, which The War Zone cannot independently verify. If true, losing these two command-and-control aircraft would be a major blow for Russia because only a handful of each exists. Beyond that, it will make flying within the same proximity of Ukrainian lines highly dangerous, effectively pushing these assets back. This would follow an anti-access counter-air campaign that Ukraine has been waging against Russian military aircraft in recent weeks using long-range Patriot air defense systems.

“Around 9:00 p.m., Ukrainian units fired at two Russian Air Force aircraft, namely the A-50 DRLO [airborne early warning] aircraft and the Il-22 bomber [inaccurate description], which were over the waters of the Sea of ​​Azov,” Deputy Chairman of the Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence in the Verkhovna Rada, Yuriy Mysiagin, stated on Telegram.

The A-50 was shot down, and the Il-22 “was in the air and tried to reach the nearest airfield, but it disappeared from the radar after the descent began, in the Kerch area,” Mysiagin said, later updating his post to say the second aircraft was an Il-22M, a radio-relay version.

“According to information from sources within the Ukrainian Defense Forces, it has been revealed that a military aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces, A-50, was shot down, and an Il-22M11 with registration number 75106 was damaged,” the Ukrainian RBC media outlet reported on Sunday.

An Il-22M Coot-B, with spurious markings suggesting it is an Il-18 transport. Anna Zvereva/Wikimedia Commons

The incidents took place in the western part of the Azov Sea, according to RBC.

The A-50 “was downed immediately upon entering the patrol zone near Kyrylivka around 9:10 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. on January 14, RBC reported. 

“The A-50 disappeared from radars and ceased responding to tactical aviation requests. Subsequently, the pilot of a Russian Su-30 aircraft detected a fire and the descent of an unidentified airborne vehicle.”

The Il-22M11 was on patrol in the Strilkove area and was eventually shot down along the coast of the Azov Sea at around 9 p.m. on Jan. 14, according to RBC.

“After being hit, the aircraft intended to make an emergency landing in Anapa, requesting evacuation and calling for ambulance and firefighting services.”

The outlet published what it said were communications between the stricken Il-22M and the Anapa airport dispatcher. The aircraft planned to land in Anapa and requested evacuation, calling an “ambulance” and a fire truck

The Russian Defense Ministry has yet to comment on the claims that two of its rare airborne command platforms were hit, but well-connected Russian milbloggers bemoaned the losses.

“For the Il-18/22, the situation has already become clear, the plane has landed, but there are casualties (the nature of the damage and their cause are not entirely clear),” the Colonelcassad Telegram channel wrote.

“The enemy declares the defeat of A-50 and Il-22 of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the skies over the Sea of ​​Azov,” the Military Informant Telegram channel wrote. “The damaged Il-22 was able to reach the airfield and land, as evidenced by leaked intercepted conversations on an open frequency, but with the A-50, apparently, everything is much sadder.”

“If the loss of the aircraft is confirmed, it will be a huge loss for domestic aviation, since there are only a few such AWACS aircraft in service and are constantly in short supply at the front,” Military Informant complained. “By the way, after the loss of three Su-34s at once from Patriot fire, also in the Azov Sea area, very little time passed.”

If these aircraft were lost at all, and beyond the very real possibility that this was a case of friendly fire, which has happened before, Ukraine shooting down aircraft in the western portion of the Sea of Azov would be a major development. It’s worth noting that the Sea of Azov sits between Crimea to the west, Russia to the east, and eastern Ukraine to the north. The Kerch Bridge and the entrance into the greater Black Sea are to the south.

Google Earth

A shootdown would also fit with the aforementioned highly targeted campaign the Ukrainian Air Force has been waging against Russian combat aviation which has included multiple long-range downings of tactical aircraft. These anti-access tactics have resulted in effectively pushing back Russian airpower and degrading its ability to launch direct attacks and even those using standoff glide bombs, which have wreaked havoc on Ukrainian towns.

The first use of these tactics — pushing forward Patriot batteries to reach deep into Russian-controlled airspace — occurred last May, with the downing of multiple Russian aircraft over Russian territory that borders northeastern Ukraine. Last December, similar tactics were used against tactical jets flying over the northwestern Black Sea. But taking down Flankers and Fencers is one thing, swatting down an A-50 is another.

The A-50s are extremely low-density, high-demand assets. From there perch high-up in the flight levels, they provide a look-down air picture that reaches deep into Ukrainian-controlled territory. They can play a key role in spotting incoming cruise missile and drone attacks, as well as low-flying fighter sorties. They also provide command and control and situational awareness for Russian fighters and SAM batteries. There are only around 10 of these aircraft in existence and it is thought that significantly fewer — around half that number — are operational at any given time and their replacement has been slow to materialize. These aircraft have been targeted by forces allied with Ukraine before. So downing one would be a big score, as would taking out an Il-22M, a type that is also limited in number and provides critical radio relay and command and control functions.

But above single counter-air victories, this would be a much bigger deal if it indeed occurred, as it would deny reconnaissance aircraft access to critical areas of operation. In essence, the threat of being shot down would push them farther back, away from Ukrainian territory. This could drastically degrade the quality of intelligence and command and control they provide. Even fighters, which are harder targets than lumbering surveillance aircraft, may now also be at risk far from the front lines in this area.

From Robotyne, which is really the closest Ukraine operates to the Sea of Azov, it is roughly 55 miles to that body of water. Other towns along the bank of the Dnipro River in Ukrainian-held territory are somewhat farther away, but it all depends on exactly where the targeted aircraft were at the time of the engagement. Considering risking a Patriot system or even a remote launcher right at the front is unlikely, and these airborne assets were likely orbiting at least some ways out over the water, this shot was more likely to have been around 100 miles, give or take a couple dozen miles.

So, if indeed this did occur, the status quo for the air war over Ukraine may have made a significant shift in Kyiv’s favor.

Update: 1:47 AM Eastern –

Ukrainian Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, commander of the Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR), confirmed to us that Ukraine shot at and destroyed the A-50 and damaged the Il-22M. He declined to provide further details.

“No comments yet,” Col. Yuri Ignat, the Ukrainian Air Force spokesman, told The War Zone.

Update: 6:00 AM Eastern –

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has now claimed responsibility for what it says is the destruction of the Russian A-50 and Il-22. It doesn’t provide details of how the aircraft were destroyed but does note that the cost of a single A-50 radar plane is equivalent to $330 million.

The Ukrainian Air Force also took to X this morning to post a more cryptic comment on the incident, with a graphic depicting the A-50 and Il-22, which it says were both destroyed, below the question “Who did this?”

In an apparent answer to that question, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces posted the following statement on the Telegram messaging app:

“Ukraine’s air force destroyed an enemy A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft and an enemy Il-22 air control center. I am grateful to the Air Force for the perfectly planned and executed operation in the Azov Sea region!”

Also on Telegram, Zaluzhnyi posted a video that purports to show the flight tracks of the two aircraft (together with apparent escorts) over the Sea of Azov. The points where the tracks suddenly disappear suggest that contact was lost, in one instance, close to Prymors’k, on the Ukrainian coast, while the other track vanishes as the aircraft is apparently headed back to Russia.

Further indications that the A-50, at least, was brought down continue to come from the Russian milblogger community, too. On Telegram, the usually well-informed Russian Fighterbomber channel posted a statement suggesting that the A-50 was lost and leveled criticism for the incident at the highest authorities. “It definitely won’t get any worse,” the statement concludes.

Update: 12:53 PM Eastern –

Fighterbomber posted an image it said was of the shrapnel-riddled tail section of the Il-22M.

“If we say that the IL-22 crew are real heroes, it means to say nothing,” the Fighterbomber Telegram channel wrote. “I hope we hear their story from the first person.”

Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, told a briefing that Russia had used the plane extensively to prepare for and conduct long-range missile strikes on Ukraine, Reuters reported.

“We expect such a strike (on the A-50) to be fairly painful and, at least, to delay powerful missile strikes,” she said.

As of 1 p.m. Eastern time, the Russian MoD had yet to comment on this incident.

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Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.