The Importance Of One Soviet-Era Airplane
The Belarus resistance strike, explained
The Beriev A-50U does not look pretty, or powerful. Nevertheless, anti-government partisans in Belarus targeted one of these on the ground at Machulishchi airbase near Minsk on Sunday.
According to Belarusian sources, “security services found a bag with drone control panels at the scene of the attack.”
“Partisans from the ‘Pieramoha’ (Victory) plan confirmed a successful special operation to blow up a rare Russian plane at the airfield in Machulishchy near Minsk,” tweeted Franak Viačorka, advisor to the exiled preisdent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Clearly pleased, Viačorka noted that “this is the most successful diversion since the beginning of 2022,” when Belarusian partisans sabotaged Russian rail logistics, contributing to the defeat of Russian offensives in the north of Ukraine.
Airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS) aircraft look ungainly because of the rotodomes, those large disk-shaped radars on top. Soviet designers built it on an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo lifter in the early 1980s. Altogether, “about 40” were produced by the end of the Cold War. However, nowhere near that many A-50s are still flying. Boldface mine:
Russia has long been known to have a few numbers of AWACS aircraft, and this was one of the only nine aircraft in its inventory. Belarus Hajun claimed that the A-50 (registration number RF-50608) arrived in Belarus on January 3, 2023, marking “54 days in the Republic of Belarus,” and flew “12 sorties.”
Before that, the last time the aircraft flew to Belarus was on February 24, 2022, when Russia began its special military operation.
This might not sound like a great reduction in force — from nine planes to eight — except that this one plane flew only one sortie every 4.5 days. Even with midair refueling, a fifteen-man crew (they are still all men in the Russian air regiments) cannot sustain an infinite sortie. Several of these planes would be necessary for Russia to contest Ukrainian airspace 24/7.
The fact that there are so few of them helps to explain why Russian air sorties have been fewer and smaller than prewar analysis expected. The loss of even one AWACS plane out of nine does indeed represent a serious erosion of Russian airborne command and control because it puts even more stress on the remaining systems.
Operating from 40,000 feet, the Liana radar inside the rotodome can detect Ukrainian aircraft 650 kilometers (400 miles) away, directing other aircraft to fire very long-range air-to-air missiles at them. A-50Us have supported bomber missions firing cruise missiles at Ukraine by keeping an eye out for any Ukrainian planes that might sortie out against them.
Operators can also detect targets on the ground, such as tanks, up to 300 kilometres (190 miles) away. That downward-looking capability has been helpful in the Ukrainian theater, where both sides are mostly using their helicopters and attack jets to deliver unguided rocket barrages in low-risk indirect fire missions on “concentration areas,” approaching fast and low and popping up (“lofting”) at the last moment to expend unguided payloads before ducking and running away.
Russian air superiority is limited to territory that Russia controls, but it has denied Ukraine effective close air support for offensive operations. The loss of even one Beriev A-50U degrades this key force protection capability. Liana radars are also not easy to replace, especially with western components becoming so expensive.
According to RUSI, the Royal Uniformed Services Institute, A-50Us had less impact than predicted during the initial air campaign of February 2022 because “the coordination of air operations was subordinated to the military district command posts of the Ground Forces rather than the VKS.”
“Rather than running operations from a central combined air-operations centre, coordination of air tasking was managed by ground-based C2 and planned separately by air armies assigned to support each operational group of forces.”
In plain terms, the “kill chain” between the operator on the Beriev who knows where a ground target is right now, and the person with authority to do something about the target thus acquired, was far too long. Battlefield reports suggest that this problem is ongoing, and now it will hardly improve.
For “Russian systems are largely designed around single missions,” RUSI explains. Boldface mine:
Even within an EW or air-defence system, each operator will control a different sensor or function. Operators are trained to examine the specific picture for which they are responsible. Neither in their systems’ design, nor in their culture, is there an effective fusion process. In consequence, although the force often has the information to spot inconsistencies in its sensor picture, it is rarely able to compare its datasets to identify these inconsistencies within an operationally relevant timeframe.
The electromagnetic spectrum matters for Ukraine even more than Russia, since so much of their artillery doctrine relies on making the most out of every shell or rocket. “Attriting enemy precision capabilities or EW assets is critical in fighting for the right to precision,” according to RUSI.
Victories on the electronic battlefield are fleeting, “limited in duration and require the necessary capabilities to all be available so that the window of opportunity can be exploited once it is identified.” But they do add up. “Whichever side can secure better access to the [electromagnetic spectrum] is likely to retain significant tactical advantages that accumulate over time.”
The Beriev A-50U does not look very tactical, or advantageous. But it has been a Russian advantage, and now it is less of an advantage, and will remain diminished as an advantage for however long it takes to repair or replace this one airplane, assuming it is ever replaced. We cannot say that the loss of one plane has defeated Russian arms. What we can say is that by putting it out of action, defeating Russian armies just became a little bit easier.
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