Ukraine claims to have hit two Russian command aircraft over Sea of Azov

IRONHIDE / Wikimedia Commons

Ukrainian Armed Forces affirmed that they successfully shot down a Beriev A-50 and inflicted substantial damage on an Ilyushin Il-22, both critical Russian airborne command and control platforms, above the Sea of Azov on January 14, 2024. 

Valeri Zaloujny, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, reported on his Telegram channel that the Ukrainian Air Force destroyed an A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft and an Il-22 air control post. 

“Thanks to the Air Force for the excellently planned and conducted operation in the Azov region,” Zaloujny said, without specifying what asset was used to target the two aircraft. 

The information had been initially reported by The Kyiv Independent, citing Yuriy Mysiagin, Deputy Chairman of the Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence. It was later confirmed by Kyrylo Budanov, commander of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate to The War Zone

According to reports, the Il-22M11 tail number 75106 was on a mission in the Strilkove area, on the western bank of the Sea of Azov, when it was hit by a projectile. Despite significant damage, the pilots managed to broadcast a distress call and urgently diverted to Anapa Airfield in Russia, on the northeastern coast of the Black Sea. 

“Urgently request an ambulance and fire team,” the crew of the affected aircraft said in an audio recording shared by RBC.  

The Ilyushin Il-22 is designed for command and control operations and to serve as an early detection aircraft, featuring an Airborne Warning and Control System enabling it. Despite its more modest size compared to the A-50, the Il-22 plays a crucial role in coordinating airborne activities. 

Soon after, the Beriev A-50 quad-jet was reportedly struck by a projectile while on a mission in the Kyrylivka area of Zaporizhia Oblast, also on the western coast of the Sea of Azov. 

The fate of the Beriev A-50 remains uncertain, as it disappeared from radar and ceased responding to radio calls. According to RBC, a Russian Su-30 pilot in the area reported detecting an explosion and witnessing the fall of an aircraft, presumably the A-50. 

The Beriev A-50 is a Russian airborne command and control aircraft, serving as the country’s counterpart to NATO’s Boeing E-3 Sentry. Based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport, it is equipped with an Airborne Warning and Control System or AWACS rotodome, and functions as an early detection and command platform, offering comprehensive aerial terrain visibility. 

Potential critical blow to Russian airborne command and control fleet 

The targeted aircraft are among the most expensive and valuable assets in Russia’s detection and command fleet. So, the question remains: what type of weapon was employed to target these aircraft over the Sea of Azov?  

The two aircraft were flying over 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the current front line. For comparison, the US-made Patriot air defense system, which was supplied to Ukraine, has an operational range of 70 to 100 kilometers (40 to 60 miles), depending on the variant. 

If they were both rendered inoperative, this would mark the single worst day for the Russian Air Force in terms of lost value since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022. 

According to the 2023 World Air Forces directory, the Russian Air Force operated 15 A-50 and 30 Il-22 aircraft respectively. 

However, in February 2023, Belarusian resistance fighters targeted a Beriev A-50 stationed at Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk, Belarus, using an explosive drone – the extent of the damages remains unclear to this day.  

In June 2023, during the brief insurrection of the Wagner mercenaries, an Ilyushin Il-22VZPU airborne command aircraft was downed, killing its crew of eight people. 

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