Military Aviation

A detailed analysis of how Ukrainian Air Force could have shot down the Russian A-50 AEW&C aircraft over the Azov Sea on Jan. 14

Ukraine shot down Russian A-50 AEW&C aircraft

As already reported, on Jan. 14, 2024 Ukraine’s military said it shot down a Russian Beriev A-50 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.

In fact, Army chief Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi said the Ukrainian Air Force had “destroyed” an A-50 (NATO reporting name ‘Mainstay’) AEW&C aircraft, and an Ilyushin Il-22 (Coot-B) Airborne Command Post variant of the Soviet Cold War-era Il-18 airliner series.

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Details about how Ukrainian were able to shoot down the Russian Air-Space Force (RuASF or VKS) A-50 are sketchy but Gen Zaluzhnyi said on Telegram that Ukraine’s air force had “excellently planned and conducted” an operation in the Azov region, south-east of Ukraine.

Damaged Russian Il-22

Russian A-50 shot down: what happened on Jan. 14, 2024 over the Azov Sea?

Based on what can be heard in the social media, the developments went something like this:

  • On Jan. 13, 2024, PSU flew a series of air strikes against Russian ground-based radars and air defence systems on the occupied Crimean peninsula.
  • A number of radars were knocked out.
  • As a result, the Russians ordered one of their few A-50Us into the air. And, to complement the Mainstay with insufficient equipment for the task[A-50’s communications- and electronic warfare facilities were still insufficient: limiting enough that for most of the time it acted as a mere ‘air traffic control’, and always had to be accompanied by Ilyushin Il-20M electronic warfare aircraft and Il-22M airborne command posts], and as usually, this was accompanied by an Il-22M airborne command post, probably by an Il-20M electronic warfare aircraft, too.
  • Problem: the radar range of the A-50U was too short but to detect incoming Ukrainian aircraft and missiles from sufficient distance. Thus, the aircraft had to operate very close to the frontline: as little as 80-90 kilometres from it.
  • On its own, ‘no problem’ – at least as long as no Ukrainian surface-to-air systems (SAM-systems) with a longer range were _not_ around.
  • On Jan. 13, 2024, not only have Ukrainian air strikes caused Russian super-smart generals to order the A-50U and the Il-22M closer to the frontline, but: simultaneously, the VKS also flew its own air strikes. As usually, the two aircraft were escorted – probably by at least a pair of Su-30SM interceptors. Moreover, Su-34s were releasing Kh-59 stand-off precision guided munitions at targets in Ukraine.
  • The Russian activity attracted quite a lots of Western attention, too: certainly enough, this helped Ukrainian planning for following operations.
  • What is known as next is that the crew of one of Su-34s then reported that its own electronic warfare systems have recorded a radar emission by one of Ukrainian S-300 (ASCC/NATO-reporting name ‘SA-10 Grumble’) – which, previously, was not known as being there.
  • Minutes later, the A-50 and the Il-22 were targeted by surface-to-air missiles.
  • The A-50 (bort 50, serial RF-50601) was hit, set on fire and crashed in the marshes south of Preslav, probably with the loss of its entire crew.
  • The missile aiming for the Il-20M proximity fused near its target, peppering it with shrapnel: according to reports in the Russian social media, at least two crewmembers were killed, two others wounded (one of them is still in critical condition). But, the crew managed to fly the badly damaged aircraft back to the Anapa airport and landed it safely.
Four Patriot missiles can be fired from the highly mobile transporter erector launcher (TEL)

How could this happen, and what can be said about the methods Ukrainians have deployed to achieve this spectacular success?

While it’s obvious that this was an ‘ambush’ – by one or two of SAM-systems of the PSU operated in the ‘Assault Mode’ – some are guessing that Ukrainians have deployed one of their ‘Franken-SAMs’: kind of ‘mated Patriot missiles to their S-300 systems’. Sure, that’s is possible, but I do not think this was a result of such a complex affair: things working this well are usually based on much simpler solutions.

S-300 system
  • Ukrainian air strikes on the Russian air defence systems on the occupied Crimean peninsula on Jan. 13, have forced the Russians to react the way Ukrainians could predict them to react: a day later, on Jan. 14, they have ‘pushed’ their A-50U closer to the frontline. When one is behaving in predictable fashion, one is easy to ambush – and to kill.
  • Now ‘all Ukrainians had to do was to secretly deploy’ a suitable SAM-system to target the two aircraft from long range. Perhaps this was one of PSU’s S-300 SAM-systems. Perhaps one of PSU’s PAC-2/3 SAM-systems: so far, this is unclear. It is also possible that Ukrainians have deployed a launcher and a radar (plus power-supply equipment) from one of their three PAC-2/3 SAM-systems in ‘Assault Mode’, and in combination with one of their S-300 radars….
  • As soon as the S-300-radar detected suitable targets, it provided their azimuth and range to the PAC-2/3 SAM-system. The latter powered up its radar for only a few seconds: long enough to obtain its own targeting data, but too short for the Russians to dependably detect its emissions and assess them as a threat. And then Ukrainians started firing their missiles. How many? No clue. But, I do agree that it’s perfectly possible that some of these were working in the ‘home-on-jam’ mode: essentially, they were homing into electronic warfare emissions from the Russian aircraft.
  • With their fire-action over, the Ukrainian S-300- and PAC-2/3-crews have promptly ceased emitting, and started packing their systems, to move them away and thus avoid any possible Russian retaliation.
  • Meanwhile, after travelling some 90-120 kilometres away from launching points, their missiles killed that A-50U and damaged the Il-22M.

Of course, I have no ‘hard’ evidence this has happened exactly that way, but: it is the way I would have done it if having the equipment known to be operated by the PSU.

Check out the blog Sarcastosaurus and Helion & Company website for books featuring interesting stories written by The Aviation Geek Club contributor Tom Cooper.

Beriev A-50 Mainstay

Photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defence, U.S. Army Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation via Wikipedia and Fighter Bomber Telegram Channel

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017. tom@acig.info

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