A-50U was modernized during the implementation of the AWACS fleet renewal program. From its predecessor, the A-50, it is distinguished by the ability to track more targets. In the course of modernization, the detection range of various types of aircraft has increased and the number of attack aircraft aimed at the same time has increased. The high technical characteristics of the radar have been achieved by introducing an end-to-end channel for digital processing of radar information, as well as by upgrading the receiving and transmitting devices. In the upgraded version, the characteristics of satellite communications equipment have been significantly improved in terms of increasing the speed, volume and quality of information exchange.
The A-50U aircraft is designed to detect, track and determine the ownership of air, large land and sea targets, issue information about them to the command posts of automated control systems of the armed forces, guide fighters to air targets and front-line aviation aircraft to land and sea targets. The radio-technical complex developed by the Vega Concern is significantly lightened due to the transition to a new element base. The working conditions of the aircraft crew members have also improved. From 2011 to 2021, Vega and TANTK have handed over seven A-50Us to the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Weak points identified in the process of operation would be taken into account in the upgraded version of the A-50. But if a trend was maintained toward suspending advanced developments and toward eroding investments for RDT&E, the quality gap will increase and become a hole which later cannot be patched. The improved A-50U, featuring the Vega Shmel-M radar, first entered service in 1995, this radar is believed to a have the capacity to track between 50 to 60 targets and control between 10 to 12 fighters simultaneously. China was reported to have ordered four A-50/A-50M/U aircraft from Russia, but there were no substantiated reports of deliveries. Some sources claimed that an improved A-50U was expected to be introduced by 2005.
As of 2011 there were 26 A-50M AWACS aircraft based on the Il-76MD in service with the Russian Air Force according to Russian media reports, while IISS repoted only 19 AWACS in service as of 2013. Manufacture of aircraft engaged in Taganrog Aviation Scientific-Technical Complex named after Beriev. A-50 is able to fly at speeds up to 800 kilometers per hour for distances up to 7.5 thousand kilometers. The aircraft is capable of detecting various types of air and ground targets at ranges up to 650 and 300 kilometers respectively. In this complex provides support for up to 300 targets. The concern "Vega" in conjunction with Beriev Beriev name was upgrading the A-50M aircraft to the version of A-50U. The latter is a deep modernization of the AWACS aircraft with advanced radar systems, "Bee-M" and "Bumblebee 2". Compared with the base A-50 AWACS aircraft provides new targets for capture a greater distance.
Making its maiden flight in 2011, the A-50U entered service in 2013; by 2016, only three of the expensive, custom-built machines have been delivered to the Aerospace Defense Forces.
In May 2016 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. The platform for the new aircraft was the Beriev A-50, a Soviet-era design introduced in 1989. The A-50U, equipped with modern electronics equipment, was said to be "sharper-sighted," and features a longer range and better data transfer capabilities.
Commenting on the delay in the new plane's introduction in a June 2016 piece for the independent online analysis portal Svobodnaya Pressa, Russian military analyst Vladimir Tuchkov noted that it was the result of the "blow dealt to the Russian aviation industry in the late 1980s and through the 1990s," from which it still has completely recovered.
The analyst noted, despite its expanded capabilities, "the A-50U is only an interim AWACS design. The foreseeable future will see the introduction of the A-100 'Premier', whose capabilities will surpass those of the A-50U. However, even the 'interim' plane has made a tremendous step forward" in Russian AWACS design."
Tuchkov pointed out that "with the introduction of modern electronic components, it was possible to simultaneously reduce the size and weight of the equipment, to expand its functionality and to improve performance."
"By reducing the load on the engine, the range and patrol time for the Il-76MD platform was increased; whereas the A-50 had a range of 7,500 km, and could stay airborne for 9.3 hours [without refueling], the new aircraft's characteristics in this regard have improved by 15-20%."
"These characteristics are important," the analyst noted. "However, for an AWACS aircraft which is theoretically capable of performing multiple flight cycles without landing thanks to airborne refueling, it's the capabilities of the radio equipment that are more important. Specifically, we're talking about the radar, which serves as the core on which the rest of the electronics that serve it depend. The A-50 is equipped with Vega's Shmel ('Bumblebee') radio engineering complex. The A-50U, meanwhile, features the Shmel II. Their characteristics differ significantly."
For example, the analyst pointed out that where the Shmel is capable of detecting a missile launch at 800 km, the Shmel II can do so at a distance of up to 1,000 km. Where the Shmel tracks fighters up to 300 km, the Shmel II does so up to 400 km. In detection of maritime objects, both systems track objects to the horizon. And whereas the old system is capable of simultaneously tracking up to 200 objects, Shmel II can track 300 objects at once, and provide 40 targets for interceptors, instead of 30.
The new system, according to Tuchkov, also 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 plane also has a self-defense system providing protection against enemy fighters in the front and rear hemispheres, including means of active and passive electronic countermeasures, flare countermeasures and radar reflectors." The A-50U has a flight crew of five, with the radar systems themselves manned by 10 specialists, with more comfortable work conditions compared to the A-50, including a rest area and kitchen.
Ultimately, the military analyst noted, "it is expected that in addition to the 25 A-50 aircraft in service, another 20 A-50Us will be added. However, as we have already indicated, this is an interim option. The Aerospace Defense Forces need the A-100 Premier, whose radar will use an active phased array antenna," rather than the passive phrased array system installed on the A-50 and its modifications.
In 2012, the Vega Radio Engineering Corporation's deputy director general was "cautious about the time-frame [for the A-100's introduction], but did not skimp on the epithets. The new machine would surpass the best foreign analogues in parameters including range, the amount and detail of radar information provided. The plane was supposed to be delivered last year. Accounting for the delay in the introduction of its carrier the Il-76MD-90A, which Vega received in 2014 the deadline was moved a year. However, nothing has yet been heard of the plane's testing."
Moving on to the capabilities of Russian AWACS systems' chief competitor the United States, Tuchkov recalled that "the 'freshest' American AWACS aircraft is the Boeing E-767, built on the basis of the popular passenger liner, which made its first flight in 1996. However, this aircraft is mainly intended for export. The US Air Force is equipped chiefly with the earlier-built Boeing E-3 Sentry, created on the basis of the Boeing 707. But the electronics onboard the two planes are identical."
The E-3 Sentry's electronics are capable of tracking up to 300 targets. "Bomber aircraft are detected from a distance of 520 km, low-flying smaller targets can be detected from a distance of 400 km, and objects over the attitude indicator up to 650 km from the aircraft. The complex works well in detecting inconspicuous targets: a radar cross-section target amounting to 1 square meter can be detected at a distance of 400 km. In principle, the characteristics of the Boeing's AN-APY-2 are roughly equal to those of the Shmel II."
"And while we wait for the A-100, Lockheed Martin has pulled ahead by releasing a new onboard radar the AN/APY-9, with an active phased array antenna," Tuchkov noted. "Its specifications (as with the A-100) are unknown. But it is already clear that it will be capable of tracking more targets and directing interceptors to them, and feature greater range and resolution. Testing of the An/APY-9 has already been completed, and the system is beginning to be installed on the Grumman Advanced Hawkeye, designed for the US Navy. Moreover, there are excellent prospects for the sale of these aircraft to other countries. Consequently, in this segment the market for Russian arms will have to make room."
Ultimately, Tuchkov recalled, the Russian military "can console itself with the fact that satellite systems are able to solve many of the tasks of AWACS aircraft. And we are close to the adoption of such a system in the form of Liana electronic intelligence satellite. However, the more tools there are capable of solving the same problems, the higher our defensive capabilities.
Concern "Vega" of the holding "Ruselectronics" and TANTK them. G.M. Berieva (both are part of the Rostec State Corporation) handed over to the Russian Aerospace Forces the seventh AWACS A-50U aviation complex after modernization on 29 December 2021. Compared to its predecessor, it can track a larger number of targets and simultaneously guided fighters, and is also capable of detecting fundamentally new types of aircraft.
During the modernization, the A-50U received new electronics with greater performance and speed, which made it possible to increase the capabilities of the functional software. The system for displaying the situation at the workplaces of operators has been improved - new high-resolution LCD monitors have been installed. Improved ergonomics have improved the performance of the tactical crew.
The aircraft also has a new flight and navigation system. Due to the use of modern equipment with less weight, the flight range and the time to complete combat missions at a given turn have increased.
Early warning aircraft are flying radars with the functionality of a command and control center. The speed of detection and countermeasures of potential enemy air targets depends on their technical equipment, the performance of the installed radio-electronic systems and flight characteristics, which is confirmed by the combat experience gained. We continue to work on upgrading military A-50s to the A-50U level. We plan to commission the next aircraft in 2023, said Vyacheslav Mikheev, Director General of the Vega Concern.
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