Ukrainian air defense made its presence known again last week when they announced the double interception of a Russian A-50 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and an Il-22 airborne command post early on the morning of January 15 over the Sea of Azov. A photo said to be of the Il-22’s tailfin later surfaced on Russian Telegram channels after the initial furor had died down. This photo, along with accompanying evidence, lends credence to the Russian claim that the Il-22 was able to perform an emergency landing at the Anapa airfield northwest of Novorossiysk and east of the Kerch Strait. The A-50, on the other hand, vanished from radar over the Sea of Azov and has not been seen since. This incident, however, is only a small part in the greater battle for air superiority that continues to rage over the skies of eastern Ukraine.
How Did It Happen?
The Ukrainian government has not announced what weapons system was used to shoot down the two aircraft. Considering the A-50 was downed over 160 kilometers from the front line and the Il-22 was orbiting over the Kerch Bridge nearly 270 kilometers away, the only two weapons likely used would be the S-200 or one of the two MIM-104 Patriot batteries that Ukraine operates. The target distance exceeds the 120-kilometer range of the Italo-French SAMP/T, as well as the range of the older S-300 systems that Ukraine still operates, to say nothing of the shorter-range IRIS-T or NASAMS systems. The higher and bigger the target aircraft is, the further away a ground-based air defense missile can reach it. And few aircraft fly higher (in order to get a better radar picture on the ground) or are bigger than AWACS. The fragmentation pattern on the Il-22’s tail also matches the warheads on the S-200, S-300, and the Patriot PAC-2 family of missiles.
The S-200, despite being built in the 1960s, boasts an extremely long range due to being a two-stage missile. It is debated how many S-200 batteries the Ukrainians are currently fielding, but its range would enable them to be launched far behind the front line, possibly even from the western side of the Dnipro River. Its dated homing warhead and low maneuverability make it useless against ballistic missiles, but still effective against large, slow-moving aircraft. Patriot launchers are relatively small and nimble, especially compared to the S-300 launchers which Kyiv prefers to keep well back around their core cities as the backbone of Ukraine’s strategic air defense against Russian ballistic missile attacks targeting civilian infrastructure. This is evidenced from the lack of Kremlin publications taking credit for destroyed Ukrainian S-300s. The interception also closely matches the modus operandi of a notable July 2023 interception. Patriot missile launchers have a long-standing ability to be fired remotely at some distance from both the controlling electronic control station and the Patriot radar itself. This allows the launchers to be placed far forward of the vulnerable radar, increasing both the system’s range and its survivability. The interceptor, either Patriot or S-200, could also have been cued in by passive air defense sensors picking up the tremendous amount of electromagnetic radiation coming from the Il-22 and A-50.
It is also worthy of note that channels friendly to the Kremlin claimed that both the downed A-50 and damaged Il-22 were mistakenly attacked by friendly fire, an interesting continuation of the Russian penchant for insisting on their own incompetence rather than acknowledging Ukrainian successes.
Lessons from the Air War
So what are the most important takeaways from this episode? First, the incident indicates that the Russian air force continues to struggle mightily with the suppression of Ukrainian air defense (SEAD). The Russian air force historically did not put nearly as much effort into counter–air defense pilot training as its US and NATO counterparts and continues to pay the price against the patchwork quilt of air defense systems the Ukrainians are fielding. SEAD is a highly complex mission that requires tremendous coordination across air and land forces. Merely having antiradiation homing missiles is not sufficient, as can be seen by Ukraine’s equivalent failure to neutralize the Russian air defense network beyond the front line.
Second, the Russians likely felt that putting their valuable AWACS aircraft at risk was necessary. The A-50 over the Sea of Azov as well as its companion AWACS orbiting over Belgorod would not have dared come so close to the front unless the need for a complete radar picture running the full length of the front line was extremely pressing. It is possible that the report of the imminent arrival of Ukrainian F-16s encouraged the Russians to move their A-50s farther forward back in November and take the risk of losing one of their priceless AWACS in the hopes of getting the first shot in against Ukrainian close air support aircraft. The Russians only have eight (likely now only seven) A-50s available, making this loss as damaging as it was avoidable.
Finally, how will this impact Russian air operations going forward? The air defense operation will likely have the effect of forcing the Russians to move their AWACS orbits further east. This in turn will increase detection time and the cushion that Ukrainian aircraft have to perform their mission and escape before being detected and intercepted themselves, a crucial advantage on the modern battlefield where so often to be seen is to be dead. Recently, the Kremlin stationed another replacement A-50 east over Krasnodar, further away from the range of Ukrainian land-based air defense, an implicit admission of the loss of their AWACS over the Sea of Azov, but also of the importance that control of the air has for both sides as the war continues to rage.
Maj. Peter Mitchell is an air defense officer and strategic studies instructor at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Aktug Ates