David Axe

Feb 23, 2024


Incredibly, the Russian air force has lost another one of its rare Beriev A-50M/U Mainstay radar early-warning planes. Video that circulated online on Friday reportedly depicts the A-50’s burning wreckage in Krasnodar Krai, in Russia just east of the Sea of Azov.

The location of the crash, at least 120 miles from the front line in southern Ukraine, could indicate the four-engine, 15-person radar plane either suffered a mechanical failure—or took a hit while operating closer to the front and tried to make it back to its base in Krasnodar before exploding.

For what it’s worth, the Ukrainian air force claimed it shot down the A-50 with assistance from the intelligence directorate in Kyiv.

Either way, it’s a devastating blow for the battered Russian air force. The air arm has lost, mostly to Ukrainian long-range surface-to-air missiles—American-made Patriot PAC-2s, in particular—nine of its best planes in just a month. Including an A-50 that the Ukrainians hit over the Sea of Azov in January.

Prior to that earlier shoot-down, the Russian air force had just nine modernized A-50M/Us. Now it’s down to seven, just a few of which are active at any given time.

The A-50s play important supporting roles in Russia’s two-year wider war on Ukraine. They help to detect incoming Ukrainian missile raids and also relay radio signals from front-line forces to their headquarters, which might be hundreds of miles away.

Early in their wider war on Ukraine, the Russians deployed A-50s north and south of free Ukraine, but kept them at a distance in order to minimize the risk from Ukraine’s S-300 air-defense batteries with their 75-mile range missiles.

Over time, the Russians got bolder. “There is a realistic possibility that Russia will accept more risk by flying Mainstay closer to the front line,” the U.K. defense ministry noted in November.

But that boldness backfired as the Ukrainian air force deployed the three Patriot batteries it got from Germany and the United States. A Patriot PAC-2 ranges 90 miles, far enough to hit an A-50 flying over the Sea of Azov.

The first A-50 loss spooked the Russians. They began flying their southern A-50 track over land around Krasnodar rather than farther west over the sea. The move was “highly likely indicative of a reduced risk appetite,” according to the U.K. ministry.

But that reduced risk appetite didn’t save the second A-50.

As much as the airframe loss hurts, the loss of 15 experienced airmen might hurt worse. Russian air ops “are constrained by the availability of pilots with sufficient experience to carry out key missions,” analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds wrote in a recent study for the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Russian industry reportedly is working overtime to modernize a new A-50 as a replacement for the first destroyed jet. The cost—potentially hundreds of millions of dollars—is significant. In the meantime, the Russians rapidly are losing their ability to control the air over southern Ukraine.

Still, it’s unlikely the Ukrainian air force can keep shooting down Russia’s best jets at the current rate. Four months after Russia-aligned Republicans began blocking U.S. aid to Ukraine, Ukraine’s stock of Patriots is “dropping to a critical level,” according to Anton Gerashchenko, a former advisor to the Ukrainian interior ministry.