Russia’s Stock of A-50 Spy Planes Is Running Low

( — On Friday, March 8, Ukrainian forces launched an air strike against an aircraft plant in Taganrog, Russia. The facility is believed to have been engaged in repairing and modernizing crucial A-50 spy planes for Russian military service.

The Beriev A-50 airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, sometimes referred to by the NATO reporting name “Mainstay,”, are considered a vital and dwindling resource for Russian offensive attacks. The Ukrainians have reported shooting down one in January and another in February. During the Friday drone attack on the aircraft plant, another A-50 seen outside the facility was destroyed or severely damaged. It is unknown if that one was in operation at the time of the strike.

The head of Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency, Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, commented in February that Russia could not afford the loss of any more A-50 aircraft if they intended to keep up with their operations. In fact, the Ukrainian military believes there are already signs that Russia is attempting to fill in the gaps created by their A-50 losses with reconnaissance drones. The U.K. Defense Ministry suggested earlier this month that Russia may also be turning to mothballed A-50 airframes in order to increase their aircraft numbers.

The modern A-50 uses digital systems for faster signal tracking and target detection, while older models use analog systems. U.K.-based drone expert Steve Wright says that the A-50 has a powerful radar that operates outside the frequency of normal cameras. This makes it capable of recognizing the movements of vehicles on land and in the air in just a single sweep. Frederik Mertens, an analyst with the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, commented that at the height at which the A-50s operate, their radar horizon can stretch much further than any ground-based radar. They typically have a crew of 15, and cost approximately $300 million to produce.

Colonel Yuriy Ignat, Kyiv’s air force spokesperson, believes that the loss of even some of the A-50s will greatly diminish Russia’s ability to conduct radar reconnaissance of Ukrainian territory, as well as make it more difficult to either detect the Ukrainian radars or airborne targets. The Russian military is currently thought to have only six of the valuable A-50s left in their fleet, according to Budanov. The destruction of the aircraft facility, in addition to the loss of two of the planes, could mark a hopeful moment for Ukraine in the devastating ongoing conflict with Russia.

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