Beriev A-50 Mainstay

A-50 Mainstay

The success of the EC-121 and E-2 AEW aircraft during the Vietnam War did not go un-noticed in the USSR and it is believed that sometime in the mid 1960’s the Russians began to try and develop their own AEW aircraft. However, the Russians soon discovered what many other countries have also found to their cost – acquiring the necessary technology and making it work effectively in an aircraft is very difficult, extremely expensive and can take far longer than originally planned.

Tu-126 Moss

Nevertheless by the early 1970’s the USSR began to operate the Tu-126 Moss, a military version of the Tupolev Tu-144 airliner. This four-engine turboprop operated with a crew of 12 and carried the Liana radar (NATO Code name Flat Jack) in a rotordome mounted above the fuselage. However, the large counter-rotating metal propellers used by the Kuznetsov NK-12M turboprop engines seriously compromised the performance of the radar and only a few versions of this aircraft were developed. These deficiencies were only marginally improved by the installation of a replacement radar called Shmel – what was needed was a new airframe.

A-50 Mainstay

To replace the Tu-126 Moss it was decided that the new platform had to be jet powered and the obvious aircraft was a modified version of the new IL-76MD Candid transport aircraft which was just beginning to enter service in the mid 1970’s. The new aircraft, designated the A-50, was developed and manufactured by the Beriev Company and, like the E-3A Sentry, mounted a rotodome above the fuselage. In addition the usual nose glazing and tail turret of the Candid were replaced with new radomes and an in-flight refuelling probe was installed above the nose. The aircraft are equipped with an extensive avionics suite including voice radio, datalinks, IFF, an ECM system and comprehensive navigation equipment. The normal crew complement is 15, comprising of 2 pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and 10 systems operators. Compared to the E-3, the crew facilities inside the Mainstay are Spartan, with no rest bunks and high noise levels.

A-50 Mainstay

The A-50 was given the NATO reporting name Mainstay and the aircraft entered service in 1984, initially operating from bases in the Baltic, eventually the fleet of between 16 to 25 aircraft were all grouped further north at Perchora. Although capable of longer missions using air-to-air refuelling, Mainstay’s have generally operated on station for around 4 hrs flying a figure of eight pattern at around 32,500ft. The Mainstay’s radar performance is said to be roughly similar to the Sentry and, although the absolute detection range is less, it is supposed to have a superior ability to discriminate targets against ground clutter. A-50’s are frequently detached to participate in exercises in the Far East and two aircraft are known to have monitored certain activities in Gulf War 1 from orbits over the Black Sea. The improved A-50U, featuring the Vega Shmel-M radar, first entered service in 1995, this radar is believed to a have the capacity to track between 50 to 60 targets and control between 10 to 12 fighters simultaneously.

A-50 Mainstay

For obvious reasons the USA is very reluctant to allow the export of AEW technology to specific regions as this invariably results in an ‘AEW race’ between competing nations. However, the acquisition of a modern AEW system has been high on the list of priorities for many emerging nations and if the USA has been unwilling to export their AEW technology, other countries such as Russia, Israel and Sweden have been quick to offer their own AEW systems for sale. So far three other countries have attempted to operate AEW versions of the Il-76 Candid, Iraq, India and China.


Iraq Il-76 AEW

Sadam Hussein and his generals knew that the USA were unlikely to ever sell him a workable AWACS, so instead he directed various Iraqi engineers to create their own using the Il-76 Candid airframe. The first version, known as the Baghdad 1, featured a French Thompson –CSF Tiger-G radar, built under licence in Iraq as the Salahuddin G, which was the mounted right at the rear of the fuselage below the tail. This was supported by a Rockwell-Collins IFF pod slung underneath, together with various electronic equipment from Selenia in Italy and Marconi in England. Thompson acted as the systems intergrator as well as building the fibreglass and composite radome that replaced the aircraft’s belly doors. However, although the Tiger-G was a sophisticated 2-D radar, it was designed to operate from the ground and nobody ever imagined anyone would seriously consider hanging the radar upside down inside the back of an IL-76 and try to use it as an AWACS system. A French engineer who saw the system commented, “ I don’t believe in it for an instant. The Tiger-G gives out so much heat when it turns, the people manning it in the back of the plane are going to fry after half and hour”. Unsurprisingly, the Baghdad 1 proved to be a complete failure. During Gulf War 1 the Baghdad 1 was flown out to Iran and was seen in 2003 on the ramp at Tehran-Mehrabad air base. Three other Iraq IL-76 aircraft were given the Adnan conversion, consisting of a more conventional rotodome above the fuselage, but this system was also a failure. Although one of the Adnan aircraft was destroyed on the ground at Al Taqaddum airfield on 23 Jan 91 during Gulf War 1, the two other aircraft managed to take refuge in Iran where they are believed to remain in storage at Shiraz air base.


Indian Il-76 AWACS at the Tashkent factory in May 2005

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been keen to acquire an effective AWACS system for many years to give it a competitive edge in it’s long running dispute with Pakistan. In early April 2000 Russia agreed to lease two A-50 Mainstay aircraft to the IAF and during July 2000 these aircraft were used along the border with Pakistan to see exactly how far inside the other country the radar could identify targets. Eventually in 2004 India decided not to buy the A-50 Mainstay ‘off-the-shelf’ and instead concluded a $1.1 billion deal with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) for them to install a version of their Phalcon radar on three IL-76MD aircraft. The first aircraft was delivered from the Tashket factory in Uzbekistan to the IAI factory in Israel in Apr 2005 and the other two following in May and June 2005. The first IL-76MD fitted with the Phalcon radar will be delivered around Dec 2007, with the second aircraft following in Sep 2008 and the final aircraft in Mar 2009. These aircraft will probably work alongside a number of smaller Embraer EMB-145 AEW aircraft, equipped with a phased array radar developed in India by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in a seven year programme costing $3,88.9 million. Currently it is planned to mount the radar above the fuselage in a similar manner to the Ericsson PS-890 Erieye radar.


Chinese Beriev A-501

China has been in the market for a AWACS system since the early 1990’s and in 1992 they began discussions with Russia about the possibility of purchasing the A-50 Mainstay. However, rather like the Indian Air Force, the Chinese decided that what they really needed was a more effective radar system mounted on the Il-76, rather than the A-50 Mainstay ‘off-the-shelf’ and the radar they wanted was again the Israeli ‘Phalcon’ system. In 1994 they began negotiations with Russia and Israel for the purchase and conversion of four AWACS aircraft worth about $1 billion. Then in 1996 the three sides reached agreement for the supply of one Phalcon equipped Il-76 aircraft, known as a Beriev A-501, and the following year this deal was extended to include the option of three more aircraft in a contract worth over $1 billion. In Oct 1999 an A-50 airframe was flown to Israel to allow IAI to begin installation of the Phalcon system and by May 2000 this work was almost complete – but then international politics came into play. The US administration had always been against the Chinese acquiring advanced military technology that could be used to threaten Taiwan and the Phalcon AWACS system would give the PLAAF a significant military and technological capability that, in the best Chinese tradition, they would soon copy and then eventually improve. After intense pressure from the USA, in July 2000 Israel finally cancelled the deal, stripped the aircraft of the Phalcon equipment and returned it to China via Russia in 2002.

Chinese Beriev A-501

Nevertheless, although their plan to acquire advanced western technology has been scuppered at the last minute, this made the Chinese all the more determined to press ahead their AWACS aircraft, albeit considerably less capable than the Phalcon would have been. Work on the A-501 airframe began in 2002 almost as soon as it returned from Russia at the Xi’an Aircraft Industry Company (XAC) to install a conventional rotordome over the fuselage. The rotordome is believed to contain a non-rotating Chinese manufactured Phased Array Radar (PAR) laid out in a triangle of three modules to provide 360 degree coverage. At least two of these aircraft, known as the KJ-2000, have been converted to this particular configuration and these have been seen undertaking flight tests since 2003 at the Chinese Flight Test Establishment at Nanjing.

Chinese Y-8 AEW A-501

Meanwhile the Nanjing Electronic Technology Research Institute (NETRI) was also developing a smaller AEWC system mounted on the Y-8/An-12 aircraft. The system consists of a single PAR module mounted in a fairing above the fuselage in a similar manner to the Saab 340 Argus Ericsson PS-890 Erieye radar and is believed to be known as the High-New 2. A smaller PAR module may also be mounted underneath the fuselage to provide ground surveillance. NETRI is also believed to be working on two other AEWAC projects known as the High-New 3 and High-New 4, also based on the Y-8/An-12 airframe.

In the future many well informed observers believe that the main threat to world peace may well come from a wealthy, ambitious and expansionist Chinese nation, intent on establishing their predominance in the Far East and Pacific Rim. With this in mind, I very much doubt that any advanced western technology will be exported to China, particularly as, like Russia in the past, they tend to steal western technology and then copy it, without ever actually paying the companies who actually own the copyright.