Video Shows Drone Landing On Russian A-50 Radar Jet That Was Supposedly Attacked (Updated)
The drone breached a Belarusian airbase in broad daylight, apparently in the days leading up to a claimed drone strike on the A-50.
A video has emerged showing a drone that is claimed to have been launched by a Belarusian partisan group, landing on the radar dome of a Russian A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft at Machulishchy Air Base, Belarus. The video was released by BYPOL, the organization of Belarusian military dissidents opposed to the Lukashenko government that claims it struck the A-50, damaging it in two critical places — its radome and its upper forward fuselage area — on February 26. BYPOL says this video was taken during a period of “two weeks [when] Belarusian partisans conducted aerial reconnaissance at Machulishchy military airfield with the help of civilian drones purchased in a store.”
To get up to speed with the claims, you can read our full initial report on this incident here and our follow-up that examined satellite imagery showing no outright signs of damage to the A-50.
Although it’s unclear exactly when this reconnaissance took place, it does lend credibility to BYPOL’s claims of a drone attack on an A-50. Until now, we had no firm evidence that drones had actually penetrated the airbase. As it stands, we know that at least one drone succeeded in getting close enough to the A-50 to land on it, although the degree of damage that was ultimately inflicted on the aircraft remains unclear for now.
The video in question began to circulate on social media today, first in a shortened form and then in a version 2 minutes and 16 seconds long. Taken by a drone-mounted video camera, it shows very clearly the drone flying at a low level over the airfield, directly over the runway, before heading toward an A-50 on the flight line, which it approaches from the rear. The drone reaches a point overhead the aircraft, turns, and then settles on the characteristic rotodome that carries the A-50’s main radar antenna. The drone then powers up and flies back in the direction from which it came.
The video was apparently shot from a quadcopter-type drone, with its rotors periodically visible at the margins of the camera shot. According to BYPOL, the attack on the A-50 involved two drones manufactured by DJI, “converted into kamikaze drones in a handicraft way.” According to the same source, each drone carried a charge of 200 grams (0.4 pounds) of TNT explosive as well as around 200 metal balls.
A machine translation of an accompanying statement from BYPOL states:
“INTELLIGENCE! A-50U AEW&C aircraft at Machulishchy airfield! Not so long ago, the dictator once again told his propagandists that he has the best air defense and means against drones. Therefore, all military objects are supposedly in complete security. The actual situation is clearly demonstrated by the video transmitted by the combat group of the participants of the ‘Victory’ plan.”
“For two weeks, Belarusian partisans conducted aerial reconnaissance at Machulishchy military airfield with the help of civilian drones purchased in a store.”
“During one of the successful reconnaissance operations, the drone not only flew into the protected territory of the indicated airfield, flew near the Russian A-50U military aircraft, but even sat on its radar antenna (‘dish’).”
“Well, how did the vaunted means of anti-drone warfare prove themselves, for the development and production of which tens of millions of rubles of budget funds were spent? The answer is obvious — not at all. Was information about these incidents reported to the self-appointed ruler? Of course not.”
“Belarus lives! Glory to Ukraine!”
Meanwhile, Belarusian authorities continue to dispute BYPOL’s claims of a successful drone attack, describing it as “fake news.” Most recently, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense has published at least two undated videos showing the A-50 in question taking off and then flying over Belarus, escorted by Belarusian Su-30SM Flanker fighter jets while conducting “combat duty tasks.” It’s possible, of course, that the video was shot before the claimed drone strike, or any damage sustained was subsequently repaired, although that seems less likely due to the short timeframe involved.
This follows a previous video that showed the same A-50, registration number RF-50608, coded ‘43 Red,’ moving on the ground under its own power, at dusk, published on March 1. Again un-dated, the video does not reveal any damage to the aircraft, although that could also be a case of careful editing, or a reflection of the fact that repair work has taken place. In particular, any potential damage to the rotodome may not be visible, based on the way the video is edited.
The appearance of this video of the A-50 on the ground would also seem to tally with satellite imagery from March 1 showing that the aircraft had moved a short distance along the flight line.
As far as the possibility of repairs is concerned, a report today from the Ukrainian Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper suggests that the damaged A-50 was flown, at an undisclosed time, from Belarus to Russia. Citing an independent Belarusian military monitoring media outlet, Belaruski Hajun, the article states that the plane headed for repairs at the 325th Aviation Repair Plant, at Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov. This has not been independently verified and, if true, a movement of this kind could be related to a regular fleet rotation, routine maintenance, a scheduled overhaul, or even an upgrade. It also could be Russia removing such a prized asset from what is now proven to be a vulnerable location.
As we have covered in the past, the A-50 (and especially the improved A-50U version that appears to have been targeted), is a key force enabler for Russia. These aircraft provide a capability for wide-area aerial surveillance and airborne command and control that is otherwise unmatched in the theater. Thanks to the A-50’s ‘look-down’ radar surveillance capability, it can observe what’s happening in Ukrainian airspace and direct Russian long-range interceptor fighters to engage aerial targets, including ones flying at low altitudes. What is more, only around 10 examples are thought to be operational, and perhaps even fewer.
An upgraded A-50U conducts an air interception exercise with Russian fighters:
The appearance of today’s drone video is certainly significant in that it shows that it’s possible to breach the air defenses that supposedly defend the airbase. It also suggests that a drone attack, of the kind claimed by BYPOL, is at least a very real possibility.
Even if the attack on the A-50 was a failure, or achieved only limited damage that was quickly claimed as more significant, it points to the very real threat posed by even commercially available hobbyist-type drones, once appropriately modified. The lack of response to the appearance, in broad daylight, of a quadcopter-type drone, at a low level and low speed, demonstrates just how hard it is to detect counter drones of this kind. It is another reminder to Russia of the potential vulnerability of its combat aircraft, which have already suffered major losses and damage, including at bases deep within Russia.
What remains much less clear is the degree to which the claimed drone attack actually caused damage to the A-50 that was being targeted. Unless more video footage is released, showing the attack in progress, or the immediate aftermath, we may well never know exactly how successful the Belarusian partisans were in pressing home what would have been an audacious raid on one of the key intelligence-gathering assets used by Russia in its war on Ukraine.
Another video showing another drone landing on the A-50 at its Belarusian base has emerged. Checked out our full report here.
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