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Russia reportedly loses valuable AWACS A-50 aircraft over Azov Sea (updates)

Late on 14 January, Ukrainian forces hit Russia’s valuable A-50 early warning and control aircraft and IL-22 airborne control center. This may be the Russian Air Force’s most devastating loss since the start of the all-out war.
Russia's airborne early warning and control aircraft A-50U
Russia’s airborne early warning and control aircraft A-50U (Red 41). File photo: Wikimedia Commons
Russia reportedly loses valuable AWACS A-50 aircraft over Azov Sea (updates)

Late on 14 January, Russia reportedly lost an irreplaceable AWACS aircraft used to monitor the airspace in southern Ukraine and to guide Russia’s multiple air attacks.

The Beriev A-50 (NATO reporting name: Mainstay) is one of Russia’s most valuable air assets: it’s a Soviet-era airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS) based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport airplane. In total, between 30 and  40 of those were produced as of 1992. According to Military Ballance, Russia had only nine operational aircraft of this kind as of 2022.

On 14 January at 22:47, Olga Honharenko, the radio monitoring account on X/Twitter, reported that Russian AWACS A-50 has fallen near Berdiansk, later adding, Yes of course it was by the meaning of ‘shot down’, and mentioning its board number RF-50601.

The A-50 aircraft was downed shortly after entering the patrol zone near Kyrylivka between 21:10 and 21:15 on 14 January, as reported by RBC Ukraine referring to its sources in the Defense forces. It vanished from radar and stopped responding to aviation communications. Subsequently, a Russian Su-30 pilot observed a fire and the descent of an unidentified aircraft.

The Il-22M11 was on patrol in the Strilkove area and was eventually shot down along the Azov Sea coast around 21:00 on 14 January, as per RBC Ukraine. RBC shared the alleged intercepted communication of the IL-22 pilots confirming that following the attack, the aircraft attempted an emergency landing in Anapa, requesting evacuation, ambulance, and firefighting services.

According to the radio communication interceptions, a Russian Su-30SM fighter jet escorted the A-50 and saw an aircraft “falling like a candle”:

Further communications suggest that the A-50 crashed near Obytichna Kosa Spit near Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia Oblast:

Area of Obyticchna Kosa Spit where Russia’s A-50 reportedly crashed marked in red. Map: Deepstatemap

What Ukraine’s official sources say

At 23:00, Serhii Bratchuk, the spokesman for the Odesa Oblast Military Administration Head, said that “sources” reported the “disappearance from radars” of the Russian A-50  in the skies over the sea of Azov.

The official also added that a Russian IL-22 air control center aircraft that accompanied the A-50 was also hit and was trying to reach the nearest airfield for an emergency landing but allegedly disappeared from radars near Kerch, occupied Crimea.

“According to preliminary data, the information has been confirmed, so we are waiting for comments from the Air Force. If we talk about the AWACCS, only ≈30 units were manufactured. It’s a very ‘fat’ target,” Bratchuk updated.

On  15 January, Ukraine’s Air Force which  is also in  charge of  the country’s Air Defense Forces officially confirmed the successful destruction of two valuable aircraft, not elaborating what weapons were used to carry out this operation:

“Minus an enemy long-range radar detection aircraft A-50 and an enemy air control center Il-22! The special operation in the Azov Sea area was a success,” the Air Force wrote.

At noon on 15 January, the Ukrainian Army’s Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi confirmed the destruction of Russia’s A-50 and IL-22 over the Sea of Azov.

“The Air Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine destroyed an enemy A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft and an enemy IL-22 airborne control center,” Zaluzhnyi wrote.

Later, in his remarks to Financial Times at his office in Kyiv, Ukrainian intelligence chief  Kyrylo Budanov mentioned that the A-50 had been shot down and exploded, but also noted that the IL-22 had sustained significant damage, but managed to execute an emergency landing in Anapa, a Russian town situated on the Black Sea coast.

“There are just eight A-50s in good condition,” Budanov told FT, also saying that the aircraft’s destruction would probably affect Russia’s capability to use these air assets in the war zone “around the clock.”

Russian sources confirm the loss

On 15 January, the Russian Air Force affiliated Telegram channel, Fighterbomber, maintained by an alleged high-rank pilot, commented on another Russian Telegram channel’s suggestion that he could have died during the A-50 crash:

“Tragedy is always tragedy. Especially when it’s on this scale. No matter who was there. Who is to blame for the deaths of the pilots, we probably won’t know. To the deceased [I wish] eternal flight, to the wounded speedy recovery and return to service,”  he wrote.

Another popular Russian milblogger who calls himself Helicopterpilot confirmed damage to the IL-22:

“The IL-22 with damage and several injured crew members landed at a civilian aerodrome in Russia. That is why they were able to hear the crew’s radio communication. Civilian aerodromes have no means for “closed radio communication,” he claimed, adding  that he has no no reliable reports on the A-50.

How Ukraine attacked the aircraft

The official Ukrainian sources did not disclose the details of the operation. Unofficially, there are two main versions of how the Ukrainians could have attacked the two aircraft some 150  kilometers behind the lines.

The most plausible version is that Ukraine once again deployed one of its Patriot SAM systems close to the frontline and a lucky long-range shot.

Reporting on the successful destruction of these two air assets, Valerii Zaluzhnyi shared a clip showing the routes of the A-50  and the IL-22. Justin Bronk, the Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Military Technology at RUSI, says that based on this clip, the range from the nearest likely forward location for Patriot launcher is about 140km from where the A-50 orbit was when reportedly shot down.

“A long shot, but should be within envelope for PAC-2 GEM and PAC-3 MSE missiles,” he wrote.

Also, various sources again speculated that Ukraine could have secretly used the F-16 fighter jets to down the  A-50 and the IL-22. In such a case, the Ukrainian AIr Force ould have sent the F-16s to launch the AIM-120D, which is a range-enhanced AMRAAM missile.

However, previously when Russia  lost several bombers at the same sector of the front, Ukraine’s Air Force spokesman denied that Ukraine might have been operating the F-16s as of yet.

The third suggestion is using the US-supplied HARD anti-radiation missile, which homes on the sources of radio signals. Since the A-50 is an airborne radar, a HARM missile could have detected and hit it.

Belarusian partisans damaged another A-50 in early 2023

In February 2023, a Belarusian partisan group used drones to attack a Russian A-50 long-range radar detection jet at an airfield in Belarus.

Though Belarus authorities claimed that the members of the resistance group inflicted minor damage to the A-50U. The monitoring group Belaruski Hayun said that the Russian military repaired the aircraft at a plant in Taganrog.

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