Russia Loses Two High Value Aircraft Near Ukraine and the Theories Abound

Beriev A-50 via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0/unchanged)

The Russian Air Force suffered a major loss Sunday when an airborne early warning and control aircraft disappeared from radar over the Sea of Azov, and an Il-22M11 airborne command post was forced to make an emergency landing at Anapa on the northern coast of the Black Sea.

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There has been no official acknowledgment of the loss from the Russian Armed Forces, but the semi-official milblogger Telegram channel, FighterBomber, through that channel, hints that it was friendly fire.

The commander in chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces and the chief of military intelligence are saying otherwise.

The Aircraft

The Beriev A-50 is a Russian airborne early warning and control aircraft. It is the equivalent of the US E-3 Sentry AWACS. It has a 15-man mission crew and can manage air-to-air and air-to-ground control missions as well as maintain surveillance of operational airspace.

 

This is a view inside the A-50.

The IL-22M11 is an airborne command post. It has an advanced radar and communications system and acts as a battle management center. It is a rugged aircraft built on the time-tested Il-18 four-engine turboprop.

 

There have been two other combat losses of this aircraft. One was damaged on a runway in Belarus, and another was shot down by Wagner Group fighters during their mutiny in June 2023.

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The Location

This map shows the approximate locations of the two aircraft when they were hit. The red arrow from the lower one shows the airbase where it made an emergency landing.

The Damage

The FighterBomber Telegram channel provided this image of the shredded rudder and vertical stabilizer on the Il-22. The electronics pod that is mounted on top of the vertical stabilizer is missing. This image gives the impression that only the tail was hit by a blast-fragmentation warhead. That may or may not be true. In any case, it will be out of action for a while; you won't be fixing that with 100-mph tape.

The Engagement

The Il-22 reported being hit and declared an emergency around 9 p.m. local time. The A-50 disappeared from radar at about the same time. This radar track was released by the commander-in-chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces. The two aircraft are pinkish and at center screen at 0:03. The Il-22 runs for home, and the A-50 disappears from radar at 0:07. The other aircraft are unrelated traffic.

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How Did It Happen

Bottom Line Up Front

There are three theories on the shootdown of the A-50 and the operational loss of the Il-22. Aerial combat is not my area of expertise. I have an opinion, but it is not all that strongly held. What makes this story so intriguing is that no one has released an "official" version.

The Russian Version

The current Russian version is that Russian surface-to-air missiles hit both planes. This is not the first time we've heard this when a plane is lost. The nature of the two aircraft makes this extremely unlikely. The A-50 manages Russian air and missile systems. The Il-22 is an airborne command post. Slinging missiles around is not the way the Russians operate.

The likelihood of a simultaneous engagement of two aircraft running race tracks over the Black Sea without the Il-22 or A-50 being in the loop approaches zero. We've seen some bizarre stuff in this war, but such an event would require a complete breakdown of command-and-control and military culture at several levels. I think the Russians would rather be thought stupid and incompetent than have anyone think they've been bested by the Ukrainians.

Ukrainian Version 1: Patriot

The Patriot ambush is the easiest conceptually. A missile launcher is moved close to the front lines and fires two missiles. Three things make me skeptical about this theory. First, the engagements were at extreme Patriot range. The Il-22 engagement appears to have taken place beyond the unclassified range of the Patriot PAC-2. Second, I don't think the Il-22 would have survived a Patriot engagement with a shredded tail section. Third, moving a Patriot launcher close enough to the front to make this work would entail a great amount of risk.

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This thread theorizes that the Russian aircraft were caught unaware by a "FrankenSAM." That is, a Patriot missile fired from an S-300 system. The aircraft were painted by the S-300 radar, but the pilots knew they were out of range of the S-300 and ignored the radar signal.

This is a simulation of how a Patriot attack could have happened. Again, in my opinion, the major hole in it is that both aircraft are significantly closer to Ukrainian territory in the simulation than in the radar plot.

My skepticism aside, the Ukrainians have a track record of aggressively handling their Patriot launch units.


BACKGROUND: 

Four Russian Aircraft Were Shot Down Over Russia in a Couple of Minutes and No One Is Giving Straight Answers

Putin's War, Week 64. Patriots Score Big and the Scene Is Set for Offensive Action


Ukrainian Version 2: Air-to-Air Engagement.

This theory is that a pair of Ukrainian strike fighters equipped with American-made AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air missiles crossed the front lines in a hole in the Russian air defense system and hid in the ground clutter using a flight profile that looked like a Storm Shadow or SCALP-EG. Read my post on Robin Olds and Operation Bolo to see how imitating the flight profile of a different airframe can work as camouflage: January 2, 1967. Robin Olds And Operation BOLO." They volleyed their AMRAAMs at the two aircraft and beat feet for safety.

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This is a simulation of how that could have happened; the creator has imposed F-16s into the scenario. I've seen no evidence that F-16s are operational in the Ukrainian Air Force. But that doesn't mean they aren't. I think the most likely aircraft would have been the MiG-29 or Su-27, with which Ukrainian pilots are familiar.

This is one description of how it might have happened.

We know the Ukrainians have been targeting Russian surface-to-air missile launch systems, fire control radar, and air defense headquarters in Crimea. In my last update, I posted about a Russian air defense headquarters being demolished by a Storm Shadow or SCALP-EG attack. We also know that Western technicians have successfully integrated the AGM-88 HARM and the JDAM into Russian aircraft.

In my opinion, the Il-22M11 was much more likely to survive a hit from an AMRAAM than a Patriot, and the shredded tail is more similar to an air-to-air missile strike than the Patriot, which, IIRC, has a diving attack profile against aircraft.

The Impact

The A-50 loss is critical. Only eight of the aircraft were made; the last was delivered in September 2023. They are strategic assets and in high demand. A lot of intel people say it is believed that only two of the aircraft are mission capable. The A-50 is particularly vital to the Russian forces in Ukraine because it can see cruise missile attacks as they are launched, and it allows the Russian Air Force to limit the capability of the Ukrainian Air Force to strike targets behind Russian lines.

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The men who died were highly skilled professionals. There are probably a maximum of 150 officers in the Russian Air Force who can crew an A-50. About ten percent died Sunday.

Unconfirmed Bonus

According to multiple social media accounts, the commander of Russia's long-range aviation, General Oleg Pchela, was aboard the A-50. If so, it makes the loss of the A-50 more serious.

Let the Conspiracy Theories Start

As this was playing out, a US Global Hawk drone was boring holes in the sky over the Black Sea, not all that far, relatively speaking, from the scene of the action.

To me, the "US was behind it" is the flip side of the "friendly fire" excuse. It is a kind of bigotry that says the country that has driven the Black Sea Fleet out of its traditional homeport and sank its flagship is too inept to come up with a surprising line of attack.

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BACKGROUND: Putin's War, Week 98.


Summary

While there are a lot of stories swirling about concerning the loss of the A-50 and the serious damage to the Il-22M11, the fact remains they happened. The likelihood of two command-and-control aircraft being targeted and hit by Russian surface-to-air missiles seems improbable, but it can't be definitively ruled out. 

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