Having eyes in the sky is a huge game-changer in aerial combat. Since the United States entered the E-3 Sentry into service, American planes have been very successful in the air-to-air arena. In fact, there's been just one (disputed) American air-to-air loss, which happened during Desert Storm — some sources claim that Scott Speicher's F/A-18 was shot down by a surface-to-air SA-2 Guideline missile, not a MiG-25 Foxbat.
The United States Navy's primary eye in the sky is the E-2D Hawkeye. This plane is capable of seeing out hundreds of miles. In essence, it provides the information needed to coordinate the activities of the planes in an air wing. The Air Force's E-3 is capable of this on a much larger scale. Of course, it's much larger, since it doesn't need to be capable of operating off a carrier.
A Tu-126 Moss is intercepted by a U.S. Navy A-4. (Photo from U.S. Navy)
The Soviet Union began to develop its own versions. First, they deployed the Tu-126 Moss. It was somewhat serviceable, but was retired in 1984. The Moss was based off an airliner, the Tu-114 Cleat, much like the E-3 was based off the Boeing 707. The next version was the A-50 Mainstay, which has been in service since 1984.
Now, Russia's A-100 has made its first flight, according to Aviation Week and Space Technology. This is an upgrade of the A-50, and among its features is a new radar system using an active-phased array that is capable of identifying up to 300 targets in the air and on the ground, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
One of two dozen A-50 Mainstay airborne radar planes in the Russian Air Force. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Russia currently has 24 A-50 Mainstay airborne radars in service. This new plane, based on an improved Il-76, will replace these 24 planes. Learn more about this aircraft in the video below.