On Feb. 26, 2023, the news spread that a Russian Beriev A-50U Mainstay airborne early warning & control aircraft had been damaged in two critical places — its radome and its upper forward fuselage area in a drone attack carried out by the Belarusian partisan group, BYPOL, at the Machulishchy Airbase, Belarus.
The base, aircraft was first spotted operating from the base located some 12 kilometers from Minsk on Jan. 19, 2023, when, according to the UK Ministry of Defense’s daily intelligence bulletin on the war in Ukraine, it flew alongside two MiG-31K aircraft.
The UK MOD Intelligence report said on Feb. 28 that attribution and damage had not been officially corroborated. “However, the loss of an A-50 MAINSTAY would be significant as it is critical to Russian air operations for providing an air battlespace picture. This will likely leave 6 operational A-50s in service, further constraining Russian air operations.”
While the news got a lot of media attention around the world, the high-rez satellite images released by Maxar in the following days showed the A-50U pretty much intact on the apron of the Belarusian air base.
Obviously, this didn’t prove the AEW asset was not damaged in some kind of attack, but for sure, the color satellite imagery seemed to rule out a full loss or heavy damage to the A-50U.
Now, yet another footage has been released. You can see the small drone as it is launched from a place apparently located just outside the perimeter fence of the airport, gets close to the radar jet, overflies the front section of the aircraft (likely looking for a convenient landing spot), and eventually lands on the SATCOM antenna of the Mainstay.
At this point, the video feed ends, suggesting a detonation was triggered making the stream unavailable when the drone touched down. The breaking in the video link caused by an explosion would fit with the claims of the BYPOL group but with can’t be sure this is exactly what we are seeing in the clip.
Therefore, this latest video, which appears to be genuine, might prove a drone attack was carried out. Still, it’s not clear why BYPOL did not release it earlier but decided to publish the other one that just showed a landing (or failed attempt to detonate the drone after landing on the radar dish) and subsequent return.
The extent of the eventual damage caused to the aircraft, if any, can’t be assessed with the currently available images, although it’s probably limited or quickly repairable. Let’s not forget that the targeted A-50 allegedly returned to flight some four days after the attack, as claimed by the Belarusian MOD. Belarus authorities also released some undated footage including a clip of the aircraft taxiing at Machulishchy Airbase suggesting (a return to) normal ops.
Still, this is all just a guess considering all the fuzzy and unclear details which show that the video is still inconclusive in providing evidence that an actual attack was carried out.