Russia’s Upcoming A-100 AWACS Platform to Drastically Improve the Air Force’s Situational Awareness

Although gaining considerably less publicity than other programs to develop new generations of Russian military aircraft such as the Su-57 fighter or Tu-22M3M bomber, the A-100 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft has the potential to serve as an important force multiplier for the capabilities of the Russian fleet. The aircraft made its first flight using its new sensor suite in February 2022, over four years after its maiden flight in November 2017, after the program faced considerable delays related to deficiencies in the Russian electronics industry. The A-100 will replace the A-50 which has been in service since 1989 the year the Cold War ended, and provides superior reliability and immunity to jamming or spoofing, a greater endurance and a much longer detection range and reduced work for crews. Many of the technologies developed for the A-100 have been used to enhance the A-50 design, with improved variants fielded as the A-50U which has a far superior sensor suite and a detection range against small fighter size targets which increased from 400km to over 700km. The A-50U can track up to 60 targets simultaneously, coordinate operations by fighter and interceptor units and reportedly even help guide long range air to air missiles such as the R-37M to their targets. Its much greater coverage and reliability makes it a more cost effective.

The A-100’s sensor suite will reportedly have a performance around 30 percent superior to the A-50U, and its ability to share data with new Russian combat jets such as Su-30SM fighters and MiG-31BM interceptors has the potential to significantly boost units’ situational awareness to respond to possible threats and engage targets with greater precision. Unlike in NATO member states, which rely on lightweight fighters such as the F-16 and Rafale to comprise most units, the large majority of Russian fighters and interceptors already use very large radars - with the MiG-31 deploying the largest of any aircraft designed for air to air combat the Zaslon. All modern Russian fighters and interceptors thus already have a detection range of 400km or more, which reduces the need for support from airborne early warning aircraft. 

Radar size is supplemented by the superior performance of electronically scanned array radars, which the Soviet Air Force began to integrate onto active interceptors from 1981 twenty years ahead of its Wester rivals. Nevertheless, Russia’s advantage in radar technologies inherited from the USSR has diminished since the Soviet collapse with the country lagging behind in the integration of active electronically scanned array radars onto its combat aircraft units with not even single squadron yet to deploy them. The induction of the A-100 will thus provide a much needed improvement to the Russian Air Force’s situational awareness, particularly as longer range air to air missiles enter service more widely, and will be pursued in parallel to the induction of the country’s first fighter squadrons using AESA radars — namely new Su-57 stealth fighters. 



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