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What is the Be-12 Aircraft russia Deploys for Sea Drone Hunting, How Old it is and How Many of Them Still Available

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Be-12 maritime patrol aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet of the russian navy / Archive photo
Be-12 maritime patrol aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet of the russian navy / Archive photo

About the unique features of this obsolete jet and the reasons why russians use them in the war against Ukraine

Yesterday's update from the UK Defense Intelligence reported that russia's Black Sea Fleet was "emphasizing maritime air patrol operations, highly likely with a primary mission of the early identification of uncrewed surface vessels," i.e. Ukrainian explosive sea drones. In this context, the Be-12 MAIL was mentioned as the "key asset" in these operations.

A real rarity of times gone by, the Be-12 amphibious aircraft was commissioned back in 1968. Since now it is used in real warfare, we should take a look at its specifications and reassess if it is actually too old for modern war activities, and how many of them could be available to the russian armed forces in operational condition. And most importantly, why did russians only now remembered about this aircraft.

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Be-12 of the Black Sea Fleet of the russian navy
The aircraft is locally known as Be-12 Chayka, the "Mail" is a NATO reporting name / Archive photo

The Be-12 maritime patrol aircraft has the following "datasheet" specifications: fuselage length – 30 meters, wingspan – also 30 meters, maximum take-off weight – 36 tons, including payload – 1,500 kg to 3,000 kg, cruising speed during patrol – up to 320 km/h, maximum speed – up to 550 km/h. The maximum flight range can be up to 4,000 km, but when patrolling for 2–3 hours or more, the flight radius does not exceed 600–650 km.

Though in the case of Be-12 especially, it is crucial to emphasize the words "datasheet specs" because this type of aircraft completely retired in 1992 precisely due to the poor condition of its representatives. Nevertheless, the russian army formally has the option to use the jets up until their service life expires, and that is the reason why some of them are still left in naval aviation.

There is also a nuance that the title of "amphibious" is quite nominal since the russian pilots no longer risk trying to take off the water surface because of the poor condition, instead only rise off land-based runways.

Be-12 takes off water in Gelendzhik, russia. September 2004
Be-12 takes off water in Gelendzhik, russia. September 2004 / Photo: Yevgeny Pashnin; credit: Wikimedia commons

Another detail is related to the number of Be-12 jets in service with the Black Sea Fleet of the russian navy. The Military Balance 2023 states there are six of them in the search-and-rescue (SAR) modification, not the anti-submarine ones (with the capability to take down boats).

On the other hand, the satellite photos from July 2022 published in open sources show there were 7 or 8 units of Be-12 plus two of them stationed at the Kacha air base in a disassembled state. At the same time, only 4 to 5 planes were actually in active service, they belonged to the 318th Mixed Aviation Regiment of the Black Sea Fleet.

russian Be-12 aircraft at the Kacha air base in temporarily occupied Crimea, July 20, 2022
russian Be-12 aircraft at the Kacha air base in temporarily occupied Crimea, July 20, 2022 / Satellite image credit: The Drive through the courtesy of Planet Labs as copyright holder

Worth mentioning, the first recorded time russia used Be-12 in the war against Ukraine was in August 2022, when first Ukrainian strikes reached the russian-occupied Crimea. The aircraft was dispatched to search for "saboteurs" and monitor the civilian shipping to and fro the ports of Odesa.

If the russians really have only the SAR modification of Be-12 MAIL aircraft, it could explain why they were trying to look for Ukrainian naval drones "visually" instead of employing search radars. Apparently, the russian military are convinced their Be-12 is still well capable of performing its functions until the very end of prescribed service life.

Be-12 maritime patrol aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet of the russian navy
Be-12 maritime patrol aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet of the russian navy / Archive photo
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