January 28, 2012:
Russia has upgraded its A-50 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) and the first of these A-50Us recently entered service. The A-50 AWACS entered service in 1984 and 40 were built by the time the Cold War ended. In the 1990s most of the A-50s didn't fly much at all. The A-50 is based on the Il-76 transport. After over a decade of development the A-50 became a growing presence in Russian air operations during the 1980s.
The inspiration for the A-50 was the U.S. Air Force E-3 AWACS, which entered service in 1977. This was a continuation of AWACS development that began in 1944. The first AWACS appeared in 1945, when the U.S. Navy deployed radar equipped aircraft to control large numbers of airborne warplanes in combat. The Navy continued developing airborne early warning and control aircraft in the 1950s (the E-1) and replaced it with the E-2 in the early 1970s. This one is still in service.
The A-50 used less capable technology than the U.S. AWACS. The A-50 radar only had a range 200 kilometers, compared to 400 for the E-3. The A-50 upgrade uses modern (digital, rather than analog) systems and has a max range of 600 kilometers. The new computers allow far more (150) aircraft to be tracked and this is done more quickly and with fewer equipment breakdowns. The A-50U can control ten warplanes at a time, while these aircraft perform air-to-air or ground attack missions. The upgrade was actually underway when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and has been dormant until money became available to revive it four years ago.
China bought some of the older A-50s and was so dissatisfied that they switched to a new AWACS design based on the Boeing 737-800 airliner. The 157 ton Il-76 jet is considered less reliable and more expensive to maintain than the twin engine, 79 ton, Boeing 737-800. Chinese airlines (some of them controlled by the Chinese Air Force) have been using the 737-800 since 1999 (a year after this model entered service). So no matter how much Russia upgrades the A-50 they are still stuck with an expensive aircraft to carry everything around.