Video Of Another Drone Landing On Russian A-50 Radar Jet In Belarus Emerges

Another video has appeared showing a drone, apparently launched by Belarusian partisans, landing on a Russian A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft at Machulishchy Air Base in Belarus. Like the similar video that was published yesterday, and which we discussed here, the footage is inconclusive when it comes to confirming whether the claimed drone attack caused any damage to the radar plane. It does, however, reveal that drones have succeeded in reaching the aircraft on at least two occasions, demonstrating a significant degree of vulnerability.

As we previously reported, BYPOL, a Belarusian military dissident organization opposed to the Lukashenko government, claimed on February 26 that it had used drones to strike the A-50, although no video was released at that time. BYPOL’s claims that it damaged the Mainstay in two critical places — its radome and upper forward fuselage area — seemed to be undermined by satellite imagery we analyzed two days later, which showed no outright signs of major damage to the A-50, although less severe damage remains possible.

The previous video that shows a drone landing on the radar dome of the A-50: 

The new video, which appeared on social media earlier today, runs to a length of two minutes and 20 seconds in its longer form and is again taken by a drone-mounted video camera. Like in the previous video, the drone flies at a low level over the airfield, passing over the runway from the same direction, and then heads toward the A-50 on the flight line. The drone passes over the aircraft’s left wing before making a tight turn that brings it to a point over the forward fuselage. After hovering for a few seconds off the left-hand side, the drone passes low over the hump-like satellite communications (SATCOM) dome, then hovers off the right-hand side. After hovering again off the left of the jet, it moves in and makes a landing on the snow-covered SATCOM dome. Moments later, the video feed cuts out.

Some have suggested that the break in the video link is the result of an explosive device on the drone detonating. While this would fit with claims of damage to the upper forward fuselage area, there’s no way we can be sure, at this point, that the drone was even carrying an explosive payload, let alone whether it detonated. Of course, the effect could also simply have been added.

Meanwhile, there is a suggestion that the SATCOM dome of the A-50 may have been subject to repair, which would indicate that the drone may well have exploded there. Based on its appearance in the new video, the dome appears gray, while subsequent imagery of the A-50, including that released by Belarusian authorities to ‘prove’ that the attack was unsuccessful, does indeed seem to show a white fairing. That may suggest this area was damaged, and then replaced, although it’s unclear if such damage would also have reached the internal components. There remains a possibility that this apparent discrepancy could also be the effect of the contrast in colors between this area and the snow that covers much of it in the video.

A close-up of the SATCOM fairing on the forward fuselage of the A-50. BYPOL Video Screencap

Other observers have examined the color of the main rotodome, with satellite imagery showing tan or brownish areas that could be related to some kind of damage. Again, the available evidence is insufficient and the imagery published subsequently by Belarusian authorities does not show this area in any detail.

A screencap from a Belarusian Ministry of Defense video showing the A-50, purportedly during a recent mission. Belarusian Ministry of Defense

There have also been claims, unsubstantiated so far, that the A-50 departed Machulishchy at some point after the claimed drone attack, to undergo repairs at Taganrog in Russia.

According to BYPOL, the A-50 was attacked using two converted DJI quadcopter-type drones, each of which was adapted to carry a 200-gram (0.4-pound) TNT explosive charge, as well as around 200 metal balls to act as shrapnel.

Again, the drone used to capture the footage for the new video could be one of these DJI drones adapted for a ‘kamikaze’ attack mission.

On the other hand, the partisan group has also said that it used civilian drones over a two-week period to “conduct aerial reconnaissance at Machulishchy military airfield.” The video could also show one of these missions, for which the drones were presumably flying unarmed.

This latter point does beg the question of why the partisans considered it necessary to fly multiple sorties to reconnoiter the A-50, when it was apparently easy enough to reach, although the propaganda value of gathering the videos may have been judged high enough to warrant one or more of the drones being detected or countered in some way.

As it is, the two videos don’t reveal any efforts by Belarusian or Russian forces to bring the drones down or even just to monitor them. However, it’s possible that the terminated video feed from the latest video was the result of the drone having been jammed or otherwise disabled by the soldiers defending the base.

A video published by the Belarusian authorities on March 1, showing the A-50 moving on the ground under its own power, at dusk:

This point is significant, as we have explored in the past since, it reveals an obvious weak point in the defenses of Russian-operated airbases used in the Ukrainian war. Already, Ukrainian forces have inflicted major losses on Russian aircraft at an airbase in occupied Crimea, while drones have also managed to penetrate at least one heavy bomber base deep in Russia.

While we know the degree to which modified commercial off-the-shelf drones can cause havoc when deployed against even comparatively well-defended military infrastructure, this lesson does not seem to have been picked up by Russia (or its Belarusian hosts), despite the experience of drone attacks on airfields dating back to Russia’s military operation in Syria.

When it comes to the security of Machulishchy Air Base, or other similar facilities, for that matter, the new video also reveals another embarrassing oversight from Russia and Belarus. A shorter version of the same video, 1 minute and 39 seconds in length, actually shows the drone’s moment of launch. The drone takes off from a sparsely wooded area only a few hundred feet, at most, from the perimeter of the airfield. This suggests that patrols around the base are limited, or otherwise the movements of any security forces were well known to the partisans.

In this sense, there are parallels with the apparent sabotage attack launched against a Russian airbase in the Pskov region, in the far west of Russia, last October. This was filmed by the operatives before they detonated explosives placed on the attack helicopters. A video appeared at the time that seems to show one of the saboteurs assembling explosive devices next to a Russian Ka-52 Hokum-B attack helicopter.

Although a localized drone attack is particularly difficult to detect and even more problematic to counter, it’s worth noting that Russia has neglected the development of counter-drone capabilities, at least compared with other major military powers, many of which have at least made efforts to introduce capabilities to help identify the presence of a hobby drone like this.

Either way, it will be deeply concerning to Russia that one of its key force-multiplier assets in the war in Ukraine (and other aircraft too) are apparently so vulnerable to attacks by what amount to little more than modified hobby drones.

Whether the claimed drone strikes really did inflict any damage on the A-50 remains unclear for now. But the significance of the operation is beyond doubt. It would seem likely that, as partisan networks develop, similar attacks will be attempted against other Russian military and infrastructure targets. It will be interesting to see what, if any, measures Russia begins to take to protect itself from this decidedly asymmetric type of threat.

Contact the author: