Russia’s ‘Flying Radar’: Amid NATO Tensions, Russian Air Force Gets 7th Upgraded A-50U Long-Range Recon Plane

In the backdrop of increasing tension with Ukraine, the Russian Air Force has received its seventh A-50U modernized long-range radar surveillance plane.

The A-50U is a modernized version of the Soviet-era A-50, which is an AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) aircraft. It is one of several Il-76 variants developed in the 1980s outfitted with a surveillance radar system that can track up to ten targets in real-time.  

The Vega Group (part of the Ruselectronics Holding within the state tech corporation Rostec) and the Beriev Aircraft Company (part of Rostec’s United Aircraft Corporation) delivered the plane to the Russian Air Force.

Tass reported that the aircraft was upgraded as part of Russia’s large-scale renewal program for the long-range air surveillance fleet. The plane can detect hostile aircraft while simultaneously tracking and guiding a bigger number of fighters towards targets.

Rostec underlined that the enhanced ‘flying radar’ is equipped with new technology. According to a statement, the A-50U has been upgraded with new, high-performing faster circuits, which will enhance the software functions.

A navigation instrumentation system is also installed on the aircraft. The plane’s operational range and time to complete combat operations at a designated frontier have increased as the upgrade has made the aircraft lighter.

Beriev A50U – Russian Defense Ministry

The A-50U can be used for a variety of missions, including aerial and land-based target detection, tracking, and identifying a friend or foe.

“The modernized A-50U has received new, better performing and faster electronics, which has boosted its software functional capabilities. The aircraft is also furnished with a navigation instrumentation system. Lighter modern equipment has increased the plane’s operational range and the time of accomplishing combat tasks at a designated frontier,” a statement from Rostec’s press office says.

“We are continuing work on upgrading the operational A-50 aircraft to the A-50U level. This is already the seventh airborne platform delivered to the troops. We are planning to deliver the next plane in 2023,” Vega Group CEO Vyacheslav Mikheyev said.

A-50U AEW&C Aircraft

The A-50U is an enhanced version of the A-50 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. 

“While upgrading the A-50U aircraft to boost its combat and flight attributes, the Vega company has improved the on-board Shmel radar through the adoption of advanced software and hardware,” Ruselectronics said in a statement. The Shmel-M is a rotating, dome-shaped radar tracking system that provides the A-50U its distinctive appearance, which the Russian military refers to as the “mushroom plane”.

The modification of onboard AEW&C systems greatly lowered the overall weight, allowing the aircraft to carry more fuel and fly a longer range. The platform’s landing and take-off characteristics, as well as its stability and control, remain unchanged.

Moreover, the aircraft is capable of tracking air targets at a distance of up 650 km and ground targets at 300 km. It can track around 300 ground and 40 air targets simultaneously. 

Beriev A-50U – Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the A-50, which has an analogue system, the A-50U comes with a fully digitized system, making it easier and faster to use while reducing the chance of human error. It has a modified interior layout with a lavatory and rest area.

A self-defense system with active and passive electronic countermeasures, as well as radar reflectors, is included on the A-50U. The self-defense system protects the aircraft against incoming guided and unguided missiles.

Its satellite navigation system enables high-accuracy navigation during operations. It can accommodate five to ten AEW&C system operators and specialists. 

The A-50U aircraft is equipped with four Soloviev D-30KP turbofan engines. The aircraft’s power plant allows it to reach a top speed of 800 km/h and a range of up to 9,000 kilometers. The plane has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 190 tons and a maximum flight time of 11 hours.

Beriev A-50 – Wikipedia

The Russian Air Force had an opportunity to assess the aircraft’s performance when the original A-50 was deployed in Syria in 2015. Moreover, Russia has also sent this aircraft around the Korean Peninsula along with Su-35S fighter jets and Tupolev-95MS bombers while the US and South Korea conducted joint military exercises in 2017. 

In terms of design and function, the A-50U is identical to the Boeing E-3 Sentry of the United States. The A-50I, the export variant of the original A-50, was delivered to India and is equipped with the Israeli EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar.

China was rumored to be interested in this aircraft in the early 2000s. However, negotiations fell through, and Beijing went on with its domestically produced KJ-2000 AEW&C aircraft.