The Beriev A-50 is perhaps the most important system in the Russian military’s airborne inventory, reflected in the type’s intense workload and the importance attached to its upgrading.
In early 2011, the Russian Air Force’s (Voyenno- Vozdushniye Sily – VVS) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) force entered a new era thanks to the introduction of the long-awaited upgraded Beriev A-50U. By mid-2013 there were two A-50Us on strength, with a third expected by the year-end and a fourth slated to follow suit in 2014. Compared to the classic A-50, with its 1980s vintage bulky and energy-consuming electronics, the A-50U is considered a much more capable AEW&C platform, albeit not as advanced as the latest Western systems packed with enormous processing power and featuring lightweight active phased array radars, passive electronic and signal intelligence gear. Nevertheless, the A-50U upgrade could be regarded as a huge leap forward for the VVS, at last introducing a range of 21st century computing and display systems, married to the existing powerful radar.
The Mainstay is just one part of an integrated air defence system. It is capable of detecting, identifying and establishing the position of air, land and sea targets and downlinking its radar picture to ground- and sea-based C2 centres. The controllers aboard the A-50 are tasked with managing friendly fighters either by encrypted datalinks or voice commands via radio. They can also manage strike packages or fighter sweeps in contested airspace. Other tasks carried out by the VVS’s A-50s include monitoring high-value air assets, such as head-of-state aircraft or aircraft transporting special cargoes, and controlling shipping.
The aircraft can also be used as an early warning radar facility or remote sensor platform, supplying a recognised air picture to a ground-based C2 centre responsible for overall battlefield management. It can carry out these tasks autonomously, acting as a C2 cell in its own right, or as part of a bigger picture using information transmitted by datalink and radio. It can also perform both functions at the same time. The A-50’s flight crew comprises two pilots (commander and co-pilot), navigator, flight engineer and radio operator. The 10-strong tactical crew in the rear compartment is made up of a system commander, a senior fighter controller, two fighter controllers, a senior tracking operator, two tracking operators, a system engineer, a radar engineer and a communication suite engineer.
The system commander manages the tactical crew’s workflow and communicates with ground- and ship-based C2 centres. The tracking operators monitor the air, land and sea situation in the designated areas of interest on their tactical situation indicators, adjusting the operation of the automatic target acquisition/tracking and identification (ID) systems and performing manual tracking and ID of selected targets in complex tactical situations when the automatic modes have been rendered unusable or are unsuitable. The system displays relevant target information in a label next to the target symbol on the controller’s screens; reference number (assigned by the operator), heading, altitude and speed plus IFF status, while friendly fighters also uplink information about fuel state and the mode of the weapon control system.
Fighter controllers are tasked with managing intercepts, mission control of strike packages and guidance of friendly fighter escorts. The three engineers, occupying the forward-facing consoles, monitor the entire system and perform in-flight fault isolation and rectification of the A-50’s mission system, radar and communication suite.
Enhancing the Mainstay
The upgrades applied to the A-50’s mission system during the late 1990s were intended to add new capabilities, such as reliable detection and tracking of low-flying helicopters and integrating modern data exchange terminals for the system’s ground users to expand the user base down to the ground force’s division level. Data fusion – fusing radar target data with data derived from on-board ELINT and SIGINT systems – to achieve more reliable target recognition was another goal. Another requirement was to facilitate operations by two or more A-50s simultaneously, with one aircraft acting as the master and the others as slaves supplying radar picture and supporting the intercepts and air traffic control operations dictated by the tactical crew aboard the master Mainstay.
These enhancements were implemented during the A-50U upgrade programme, originally designed in the early 2000s and tested until 2009 on a prototype aircraft Bort number `Red 33′ manufacturer’s serial number (MSN) 58-05. Modern hardware replaced most, if not all, of the 1980s vintage processing and display systems. The final report on completion of the A-50U’s test and evaluation effort was signed by then VVS Commander-in-Chief, Col Gen Alexander Zelin, in October 2009. The first upgraded example, `Red 47′ Russian state aircraft registration RF-92957, MSN 40-05, was handed over to the VVS on October 31, 2011, while the second, Red 33/RF-50602, MSN 41-05 manufactured in 1984, followed suit in December 2012. These examples entered upgrade at Beriev’s plant in Taganrog in late 2008 and early 2011 respectively. Red 33 was the first upgraded Mainstay to sport the new style dark grey camouflage that has been introduced across the VVS fleet since late 2011.
The testing and evaluation effort for the A-50U is reported to have taken five years and no less than 800 flights. The new hardware is said to have extended the maximum detection range of the system’s radar greatly, thanks to better processing, while the number of targets that can be tracked simultaneously has increased to 300. The tactical crew members are provided with new consoles featuring large high-resolution liquid crystal displays, capable of showing much more data than the CRT-based circular displays they replaced. Last, but not least, the new significantly smaller and lighter mission system left room for a crew rest facility, a small galley and a toilet – amenities lacking on legacy Mainstays. Another advantage of the weight reduction is the ability to take off with more fuel, thus allowing additional time on station.
The majority, if not all, of the new processors and other important hardware used in the upgraded Shmel mission suite are said to be of Western origin, as the Russian electronics industry is still deemed ill-suited to offer high-performance domestic equivalents. The new processing systems occupy just one equipment rack while the old equipment required no less than seven. The A-50U’s satellite communication system was also improved in terms of reliability, speed and the volume of data it can handle.
The upgraded, more powerful, radar system has given the Mainstay a greatly increased target set and vastly improved maritime surveillance capabilities. It is understood these new targets include low-flying and hovering helicopters as well as low-observable (stealth) aircraft, cruise missiles and UAVs; it can also work reliably in conditions of dense jamming created by enemy electronic warfare systems. In addition the more powerful processors, together with new software, enable detection and tracking of air targets flying tail-on relative to the A-50 at much greater ranges than was possible in the past. The new jam-proof communication suite has turned the enhanced Mainstay into a complete battle management system.
The first A-50U for the VVS is reported to have attained operational capability in February 2012. VVS plans foresee upgrading one A-50 to A-50U standard each year and the type is set to remain in service for 15 to 20 more years.