Russia is losing more and more aircraft. The next blow to the Russian Air Force will be dealt by F-16s

 30. 01. 2024      Category: Air force

The recent crash of a Russian Il-76 military aircraft in the Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine has brought, besides the question marks over the crew composition, another tangible loss for the Russian Air Force. In addition, the Ukrainian Air Force is expecting the deployment of US F-16 fighter jets soon. According to the latest information, these aircraft are expected to be deployed this year. This will finally give the Ukrainians an effective active defence of their airspace.

As early as December last year, the British Ministry of Defence reported that the Russians were increasingly taking risks in Ukraine regarding the deployment of their most advanced early warning and command aircraft, the Beriev A-50U (in NATO code Mainstay), designed to monitor combat operations in the contested country. This aircraft, developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s from the modified body of the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane, was designed to identify enemy targets in airspace. The Russians have produced around 40 of them, but only eight are believed to be fully operational. Similar to the US Boeing E-3 Sentry early warning aircraft, its main advantage is its nine-meter radar and an internal control center tailored to track multiple targets at once, including missiles. "The Mainstay can spot enemy aircraft at greater distances because its altitude allows it to see further around the curvature of the Earth," the UK Ministry of Defence described in an assessment at the time. Since the beginning of the aggression in Ukraine, the aircraft has mainly functioned as a support to MiG-31 fighters, providing them with coordinates of ground targets. Gradually, however, its deployment approached the Ukrainian range. "The Russians will have to decide what will cost them more: losing one or more of these A-50s, or continuing to run out of their fighter aircraft and S-400 systems," an unnamed Ukrainian expert contacted by Breaking Defense commented late a year ago, alluding to the multiplying successes of Ukrainian air defenses with increasingly sophisticated Western weapons that are gradually being adopted into the arsenal. 

Picture: Beriev A-50 |
Picture: Russian Air Force Beriev A-50U |

Beriev A-50: 40 units produced, 8 operational

It is not known how many A-50s are currently in operational condition. Many experts rate any loss of even a single such aircraft as almost irreplaceable, given the war's depletion of Russian military industry, especially in aviation. For example, Moscow's earlier promise of wider deployment of fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 fighters has lingered. "The Russians have not achieved their goals when it comes to the production of this aircraft. They have very few of them. They are still working out the bugs and the aircraft is still undergoing significant modifications," Mike Dahm, a former US Navy intelligence officer, described the situation regarding the Su-57 to Business Insider.

Pro-Ukrainian Belarusian guerrillas already released a video last February showing them using a drone to reach one of the A-50s at the Machulishchi base near Minsk. And while the friendly Belarusians claim that they managed to detonate charges on the drone at the time, damaging the target so badly that it would never take off again, the Ukrainian side has not confirmed this information. However, the destruction of the Russian drone occurred in mid-January, when Kiev said the A-50 was shot down after the aircraft strayed too close to Ukrainian territory over the Sea of Azov. At the same time, the Ukrainians reportedly damaged another aircraft, an Ilyushin Il-22M, which serves as Russia's flying command centre. "This is a significant blow to the Russian Air Force and, more importantly, to the overall image of the Russian regime. The loss of such an aircraft as the A-50 is probably the first time that this has happened," Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ihnat boasted of the success in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda, but immediately added "At the same time, Russia still has several units of these aircraft capable of long-range radar detection in operational condition."

Kiev denies that Moscow warned it in advance about the Il-76 flight with the prisoners

Uncertainty also remains over the latest crash so far of a large Russian military plane, the Ilyushin Il-76. The only available information about its route or crew is presented by Moscow propaganda, which claims that 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war were on board, in addition to nine Russians. Kiev refuses to confirm this claim, as well as the claim that the aircraft was shot down by a missile fired from Ukraine's Kharkiv region. The Russians subsequently began claiming that they had informed the other side of the overflight near the common border 15 minutes in advance. Kiev denies this claim as well, describing instead the hitherto common practice of exchanging prisoners of war, of which there have been 50 since the start of the Russian invasion. "According to the agreements, the Russian side was supposed to ensure the safety of our defenders. At the same time, the Ukrainian side was not informed about the need to ensure the security of the airspace in the Belgorod region during this period of time, as it has been repeatedly in the past," Ukrainian intelligence wrote on its telegram account. "Ukraine was not informed about the number or type of vehicles, routes or forms of transport of prisoners. It is known that prisoners are transported by air, rail and road. This may indicate Russia's intention to create a situation leading to a threat to the life and safety of prisoners," Ukrainian military intelligence continued.

Kiev is now calling for an international investigation into the whole incident, and the UN has said it cannot examine it in response to Russia's request. "But it is clear that this incident took place in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In order to prevent further escalation of the situation, we call on all involved to refrain from actions, speeches or accusations that could further inflame an already dangerous conflict," UN Political Affairs Secretary Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council.

A major change on the Ukrainian battlefield, then, is the soon-to-be Ukrainian-deployed, more advanced US F-16 fighter jets, whose combat capability is imminent. Both Ukrainian and U.S. officials have hinted at a timetable in recent weeks that confirms the first U.S. machines could begin defending Ukrainian airspace as early as this year. "Our goal is to provide Ukraine with an initial operational capability with its F-16 program as early as 2024, which would include trained pilots, the necessary platforms, plus trained mechanics, infrastructure, spare parts and ammunition," Celeste A. Wallander, U.S. undersecretary of defense for international security, told Air & Space Forces Magazine after a recent meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also remains optimistic. "Preparations for the first F-16 deployment in Ukrainian airspace are on schedule. Pilots, engineers and infrastructure are being prepared," Kuleba told local television.

 Author: Oliver Jahn