The Beriev A-50 is used to detect and engage aerial targets, surface ships, and collect aerial and maritime situation information.
East Asia was extremely stressed out on July 23, 2019 when Russian military planes appeared in the airspace off the Dokdo Island, also known as Takeshima in Japanese way – a long-standing dispute between Seoul and Tokyo. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense Joint Chief of Staff officials said that F-15K and KF-16 fighters were scrambled to intercept the aircraft. After multiple warning calls, Republic of Korea Air Force fighter jets have fired warning shots at a Russian Beriev A-50 “Mainstay” airborne early warning and control aircraft. This is the first time that the Republic of Korea Air Force has taken such measures in an air-to-air intercept.
The Beriev A-50, known in the West by the Nato codename Mainstay, is a Russian airborne warning and control system aircraft developed in the Soviet era based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft. A-50 was born to replace Tupolev Tu-126 Moss, an airborne early warning and control aircraft was in service with the armed forces of the Soviet Union from 1965 to 1984.
The A-50 first flew in 1978, it entered service in 1984 with about 40 produced by 1992. The Mainstay is not as sophisticated as its western counterpart, the E-3 Sentry, but provides Russian Fighter Regiments with an airborne control capability over both land and water. The A-50 also acts as a control centre, guiding fighter-interceptors and tactical air force aircraft to combat areas in order to attack ground targets at low altitudes.
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The role of the A-50 is comparable to that of the US’s E-3 AEW system developed by Boeing. Currently, there are about 16 to 20 aircraft operating in the Russian Air Force, according to various reports, the most used version in the Russian air force is the A-50M. In November 2011, the new version A-50U entered in service in the Russian Air Force.
The A-50 is outwardly distinguished from a conventional transport aircraft by the onboard radar antenna fairing nine meters in diameter attached to the fuselage by aerodynamic struts. The overall dimensions of the A-50 include a length of 49.59m, a wingspan of 50.5m and a height of 14.76m. The aircraft’s wings are high-mounted, swept-back, and tapered with blunt tips.
There are four turbofan engines mounted on pylons under and extending beyond the wings’ leading edges. The fuselage is long, round and tapered to the rear, a radome on the chin is the antenna for the surveillance radar. The tail flats are swept-back and tapered with blunt tips high-mounted on the swept-back, tapered fin, forming a T-style.
The Russia’s airborne early warning and control aircraft is powered by four Soloviev D-30KP turbofan engines with a thrust of 117.68 kilonewtons each, making it capable of reaching maximum speed up to 900 km/h. The maximum flight range of the aircraft is 5,000km and service ceiling is 12000m. The aircraft can stay aloft without refueling for four to six hours and can remain airborne for another four hours with mid-air refueling. The aircraft is manned by five flight crew and ten mission crew.
The mission crew derive data from the large Liana surveillance radar with its antenna in an over-fuselage rotodome. The A-50 can control up to ten fighter aircraft for either air-to-air intercept or air-to-ground attack missions. The radar “Vega-M” is produced by NPO Vega, capable of tracking up to 150 targets simultaneously within 230 kilometres. Large targets, like surface ships, can be tracked at a distance of 400 kilometres.
The A-50 is fitted with a self-defence system when flying en-route and over patrol zones. The self-defence system ensures protection from guided and unguided weapons of the enemy’s fighters attacking the aircraft from its front and rear hemispheres.
The self-defence system includes an electronic countermeasures system. The aircraft can also be protected from the enemy’s fighter aircraft via guidance of friendly fighters. The aircraft radio and electronics systems are robust against hostile jamming and provide good combat performance in dense electronic countermeasures environments.
A-50U is an updated variant of the A-50M with new modern electronics and increased crew comfort level, and were delivered to the Russian Air Force since 2011. The A-50U’s major improvement is its new Shmel-M radar. The manufacturer claims that the radar dome itself is lighter due to the modern components of the Shmel-M.
It is also more effective, with the ability to track air targets at a distance of up 650 km and ground targets at 300 km. It can track around 300 ground or forty air targets simultaneously. The A-50U boasts a fully digitized system, which makes it easier and faster to use while minimizing the risk of operator error.
In late December 2015, the A-50U started operations over Syria, flying from Russia, in support of the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. In December 2018, it was deployed to Crimea. The most recent encounter occurred near the easternmost islets of Dokdo, disputed islands controlled by the South but claimed by Japan, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.
A specially produced export variant of the original A-50, the A-50I, was manufactured with the Israeli EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar and sold to India. Given the Kremlin’s aggressive arms export strategy over the past decade, it seems exceedingly likely that India is being eyed as a prospective buyer for the A-50U as it moves along in its mass production.