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Ukraine Shot Down A Russian A-50 Radar Aircraft And Damaged An Il-22 Airborne Command Post

A-50 shot down
Image of a Russian A-50 Mainstay. In the box, the “radar picture” over the Sea of Azov (Image created by The Aviationist using photo of Papas Dos/Wiki and screenshot of video released by Ukrainian defense)

According to the Ukrainian Air Force, an A-50 Airborne Early Warning and an Il-22 airborne command post aircraft were hit yesterday in what would be a major blow for Russia.

Ukraine says it shot down a Russian A-50 radar jet and an IL-22 in the evening on January 14, 2024. The news had been circulating online for several hours without any confirmation; then the Ukrainian Air Force posted its usual combat update that was soon followed by the release of a clip allegedly showing the radar picture of the Sea of Azov at the time of the double downing.

No additional details have been released so far, although some (still unconfirmed) details had leaked online: according to the Ukrainian media outlets, the A-50 aircraft was downed around 21.10 – 21.15LT on January 14, upon entering the patrol zone off Kyrylivka. The A-50 disappeared from radars and ceased responding to tactical aviation requests. According to Kyiv media, the pilot of a Russian Su-30 aircraft detected a fire and the descent of an unidentified aircraft.

At 21.00, an aircraft reported to be an Il-22M11 on patrol in the Strilkove area, in an area located on the Sea of Azov, to the northeast of Crimea was hit. However, the aircraft declared an emergency and attempted to land in Anapa. The RBC-Ukraine media outlet, obtained a transcript of the comms between the damaged aircraft and the airfield. The Ukrainian Air Force says the aircraft was destroyed however some sources say it carried out the emergency landing (that may well have ended in a full loss of the airframe – therefore, the status of the Il-22 is still not clear…).

The Beriev A-50 Mainstay is an incredibly important asset in the Russian Aerospace Forces inventory. It’s an Airborne Early Earning and Control aircraft, used for long range radar detection and surveillance roles. One A-50U was deployed to the Machulishchy Airbase, Belarus in January 2023. Although on Feb. 26, 2023, the Belarusian partisan group, BYPOL, carried out a drone attack on the radar jet that caused some damage to the aircraft on the ground, the A-50 has remained quite far from the front line until November 2023, when the UK MOD reported that Russia, for the first time, had started using its Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, to identify targets over Ukraine for its SA-21 long-range ground-based air defence missile system, adding to the Mainstay’s core mission of co-ordinating fighter aircraft.

“Compared to SA-21’s usual ground-based radar, MAINSTAY can use its radar to spot adversary aircraft at longer ranges because its altitude allows it to see further around the curvature of the earth. Russia has likely expedited integrating MAINSTAY and SA-21 partially because it is concerned about the prospect of Ukraine deploying Western-provided combat aircraft.”

In order to carry out the new mission, “there is a realistic possibility that Russia will accept more risk by flying MAINSTAY closer to the front-line in order to effectively carry out its new role,” the British intelligence report hightlighted.

The Il-22M11 Bison (Coot-B) is an airborne command post. Less tha a dozen Il-22M11 (most of those upgraded to the -RT variant) are reportedly in service with the Russian Air Force. In August 2018, RIA Novosti reported that the Russian Air Force will receive five additional Il-22 converted to the Il-22M11 variant. Two planes had to be delivered by November 10, 2019, and three by November 10, 2021, according to the Russian State agency. Some Il-22M11 have been upgraded to the -RT variant, that is equipped with the SURT (Samolotnyi Uzel Re-Translatsii, airborne relay hub) “Sokol” (“Falcon”) radio relay system. This variant can be recognized by two large L-shaped antenna on the upper side of the fuselage.

If confirmed, the loss of both the A-50 and the Il-22 would be a significant blow for the Russian Aerospace Forces that operate the types in very small fleets and mark yet another pretty impressive success for the Ukrainian Air Force anti-access air defenses in the southern part of Ukraine, where, in the last few weeks, as many as five Su-34 Fullback attack aircraft have been shot down.

As commented after three Su-34s were shot down in the Kherson area on Dec. 22, 2023, Patriot or SAMP/T batteries have arguably been activated in southern Ukraine and used in some sort of SAM bait for the Russian aircraft.

Update on Jan. 15, 2024, 12.29 GMT

Update on Jan. 15, 2024, 13.45 GMT

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.

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