Russia Scrambles to Replace Downed Spy Planes With Recon Drones

Ukraine claims Russia lost two A-50 spy planes, forcing Moscow to rely on drones for reconnaissance

Ukraine has reported that lost two of its prized A-50 airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft within weeks, prompting Moscow to scramble reconnaissance drones as a temporary replacement. However, experts say that drones cannot provide the same level of capability as the A-50 aircraft, and Russia may struggle to find an equally effective solution quickly, reports Newsweek.

Loss of A-50 Spy Planes

According to 's military, Russia has lost two A-50 spy planes since the new year. The first was reportedly taken out over the Sea of Azov in mid-January, followed by a second A-50 late last week. Newsweek has not yet verified these claims.

The Ukrainian military intelligence agency, the GUR, stated that it had downed an A-50U on February 23 near the Russian town of Primorsko-Akhtarsk, close to the Sea of Azov in Russia's Krasnodar region. Russian sources disputed Kyiv's claims, saying Ukraine was not responsible for the loss of the A-50.

Drones as Temporary Replacement

Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine's southern forces, said that Russian forces in southern Ukraine are using drones as substitutes for the downed spy planes worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Moscow is trying to replace its A-50 AWACS with reconnaissance drones to collect the information that the A-50 can no longer transmit.

UK-based drone expert Steve Wright said that while it's plausible that Russians are scrambling drones to plug some of the gaps resulting from the loss of A-50 AWACS, it's not a one-for-one replacement. Beriev A-50 aircraft, also known as Mainstay by NATO, help Russia seek out Ukrainian air defenses and coordinate attacks to be carried out by other Russian aircraft, such as fourth-generation jets. Each A-50 comes with a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Drones' Limitations

Drones, even if equipped with radar, lack the size and power to provide comparable radar coverage to the A-50, according to Frederik Mertens, an analyst with The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Kitting drones out with radar also makes them much more expensive assets.

Samuel Bendett of the Center for Naval Analyses told Newsweek that Russia may be using a combination of well-known reconnaissance drones, such as its Orlan-10 and the larger Orlan-30. While no drone can individually provide the same capability as an AWACS, a combination of different drones with varying ranges and altitudes can fill in some of the gaps left open by the loss of the A-50.

Replacing airborne early warning aircraft with uncrewed vehicles would require years of dedicated development, Mertens said. Moscow could also use infrared search and track systems, which would again take time and resources and wouldn't replace radar.

Remaining A-50 Aircraft

Ukraine claimed over the weekend that Moscow has a handful of A-50 aircraft remaining. Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine's military intelligence agency, said on Sunday that there are still six planes left. “That's two full shifts. Another A-50 will fall, and round-the-clock duty will have to be stopped,” the GUR chief added.

As of late 2023, Russia had an estimated two A-50s and eight A-50U aircraft, according to the Military Balance 2024, compiled and published by the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This count was finalized ahead of the two losses reported by Ukraine this year. Between February 2022 and the start of October 2023, Russia lost two confirmed A-50s, according to Dutch open-source intelligence tracker Oryx.

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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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