According to Russia’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a government-owned daily, the fourth A-50U early warning and control aircraft (AWACS) has entered service with the Air Space Forces. The ceremony took place a few days ago in Taganrog. This is the fourth aircraft of the total 20 planned to be in service by the 2020s.
The Russian Defense Ministry rolled out the A-50U, the Aerospace Defense Forces' most advanced airborne AWACS aircraft, at an air base in Russia's Ivanovo region in May 2016. Equipped with modern electronic equipment, it was said to be «sharper-sighted», featuring a longer range and better data transfer capabilities.
The A-50 (the «flying eyes») has been operating over Syria, flying from Russia, since December 2015.
A derivative of the A-50, which has been in service since 1989, the AWACS plane provides all-weather surveillance, command, control, and communications. It detects and identifies airborne objects, determines their coordinates and flight path data and transfers the information to command posts. 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. It is able to direct aircraft to engage airborne and surface targets.
The aircraft is actually a flying data processing center stuffed with equipment. Long-range AWACS aircraft are critical to ensure air superiority and improve situation awareness for military commanders in a dynamic combat environment.
The main feature of the aircraft is its circular rotating radar (radome), dubbed «mushroom» by its crews, above the fuselage. Installed in the forward portion of the radome is the antenna for the surveillance radar while the after section houses various data-link systems. If the automatic system fails, an operator can rotate the radar with a special handle.
The aircraft's wings are high-mounted, swept-back, and tapered with blunt tips.
Mounted further forward on the fuselage is a canoe fairing that houses a satellite communications antenna. The A-50 is also equipped with twin flare pods to defend against heat-seeking missiles, wingtip electronic countermeasures pods, an inflight-refueling probe in the nose, and a radar warning receiver. There is a gun provision for two 23-mm cannons in a tail turret. There are also two wingtip hardpoints.
The length is 49.59m (152 ft 8 in), wingspan: 50.50 m (165 ft 6 in), height: 14.76 m (48 ft 5 in), wing area: 300 m² (3,228 ft²), empty weight: 75,000 kg (165,347 lb).
The service ceiling is 10 km. The A-50 carries out patrol missions at an altitude of 5,000 m to 10,000 m. The maximum flight range of the aircraft is 5,000 km and the flight endurance is seven hours 40 minutes. At a range of 2,000 km, the A-50 can remain on patrol for up to one hour 25 minutes. The aircraft is manned by five flight crew and ten mission crew who can enjoy more comfortable work conditions compared to the previous A-50 modifications, including a rest area and kitchen.
Along with extended airspace monitoring capabilities, the A-50U aircraft have sophisticated digital avionics, which save more space for crews and improve their in-flight performance.
The Russian AWACS features the Shmel II radar capable of detecting a missile launch at a distance of up to 1,000 km and tracking fighters up to 400 km. In detection of maritime objects, both systems track objects to the horizon. The radar can track 300 targets simultaneously, providing guidance for 40 fighter aircraft.
The «flying eyes» has increased capabilities for detecting low-contrast ground-based targets, and has increased radio range (2,000 km in HF and 400 km in UHF). At greater distances the system uses satellite uplink.
The A-50 is fitted with a self-defense system to protect it from fighters attacking the aircraft from its front and rear hemispheres. The system includes an electronic countermeasures suite. The radio and electronic warfare systems are protected against electronic countermeasures.
It is powered by four D-30KP engines, each with 12 tons thrust, mounted on pylons under and extending beyond the wings leading edges. The maximum take-off weight of the aircraft is 170,000 kg. It can travel at a maximum speed of 800 km/h.
The A-50U is only an interim AWACS design to serve till the A-100 Premier reaches initial operational capability. The Premier’s radar will use an active phased array antenna, rather than the passive phrased array system installed on the A-50 and its modifications. However, even as an interim design, the plane provides a qualitative leap forward.
Modern moving surveillance platforms are the eyes of the forces on the ground, at sea and in the air, preventing the enemy from using a surprise factor as an advantage. The inability to catch Russian forces off-guard is serious deterrence. Even outnumbered, the Aerospace Forces can retain the dominance of the airspace.
Early warning has considerable military and political importance in view of the growing threat seen in NATO’s expansion. The AWACS capability greatly enhances the performance of Russia forces operating against terrorist formations as Syria’s experience shows.