Andrei Akulov — Strategic Culture Dec 2, 2017
November 18 was a historic date for the Russian Aerospace Forces. The A-100 Premier airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, nicknamed “a flying mushroom” due to the distinctive rotating radar dome above the fuselage, completed its maiden flight. The test was conducted by the Taganrog Aviation Scientific and Technical Complex (TANTK), located near the Sea of Azov.
The aircraft is intended to replace Russian Aerospace Forces A-50 and A-50U Mainstay aircraft beginning in 2020 – about the same time as the S-500 air defense system enters service. The A-100 will be another important component of Russia’s anti-access/area-denial arsenal monitoring potentially contested airspace. “This is one of [the] priorities of the current arms procurement program,” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said in March 2017.
Based on the Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A military transport aircraft, the new AWACS plane will feature completely new systems: avionics, mission systems, and workstations to help reduce the workload for the flight crew and systems operators.
The aircraft is a multi-purpose command and control, electronic warfare, and intelligence gathering platform – a fully-fledged flying headquarters for the military. The new AWACS plane is equipped with a unique antenna system and the state-of-the-art radar equipment, which enables it to quickly build up a radar field in a predetermined direction of operation. The specifications include an overall length of 152.9 feet, a wingspan of 165.7 feet and a height of 48.4 feet.
Functioning as a tactical airborne command center, the aircraft is capable of rapidly passing large amounts of information back and forth between other aircraft and troops on the ground. It will increase Russia’s ability to deploy relatively quickly and support operations in places where it would otherwise have limited military communications infrastructure.
There are plans to use the platform to control unmanned aerial vehicles. Since the Russian military relies on line-of-sight control for its unmanned aircraft, this could dramatically extend the range and scope of its drone operations. The A-100s could free the unmanned aerial vehicles from the tether of control stations on the ground extend their reach further deeper into enemy controlled areas.
With the ability to track, monitor, or even possibly jam enemy radars or communications nodes, just one of the planes could be a huge force multiplier. In September 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the A-100 would be “superior to its foreign equivalents.” According to him, the A-100 will have extended capabilities in detection and tracking of “new types of targets and also in managing combat actions of strike aircraft groupings.”
The external shape of the A-100 will be similar to the A-50, with the rotating radome fitted over the dorsal spine of the aft fuselage, ahead of the tail unit, and enabling the tracking of both land and maritime targets, giving it a decided advantage over the battlespace. Externally, the A-100 continues the form and function established by the Il-76 series in that its flight deck sits over a short nosecone assembly, the wings are mounted high along the fuselage sides and a “T-style” tail unit is featured. The plane has a multi-wheeled undercarriage for ground-running and each wing mainplane is swept rearwards while managing the load of a pair of underslung engine nacelles.
The new AWACS boasts the new Vega Premier faster scanning active phased array radar (APAR), which manually scans in azimuth, but electronically in elevation. It gives the A-100 the ability to detect and track multiple targets at longer ranges and with greater precision.
The active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar in the dome will have electronic steering in elevation while azimuth is controlled by the rotation of the dome. The array will rotate once every 5 seconds, thus improving the radar’s ability to track fast-moving targets.
The aircraft can use sharply focused beams of electromagnetic radiation from either the Vega Premier or a separate AESA radar system to disorient or even disable targeting radars, protecting the aircraft or a larger force package en route to a target area. The A-100 can spot aerial targets more than 370 miles away and warships nearly 250 miles from the aircraft. It is capable of tracking over 300 targets simultaneously. The aircraft can detect the US state-of-the-art F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
The platform is equipped with the four new PS-90A-76 turbofan engines, which feature low fuel consumption. The PS-90A-76 engine has the following specifications: take-off thrust: 14,500 kgf, thrust of cruising mode: 3,500 kgf, specific fuel rate: 0.595 kg/kgf/hr, flight altitude: 13,100 m, maximum speed: 900 km/h (490 kt, 560 mph). The A-100 will also have an aerial refueling capability.
With the A-10 in service, the Russian Aerospace Forces will greatly upgrade their “eyes and ears”, preventing the enemy on the ground, at sea and in the air from using the surprise factor as an advantage. The Russian military find it especially important in view of the growing threat from the NATO buildup near the country’s borders.