“That’s some bad hat, Harry”; The An-71 ‘Madcap’

April 28, 2021

Never let it be said that the folks who issue NATO designations don’t, on occasion, have a sense of humour. Because if you want an example, look no further than the Antonov An-71 – NATO codename – ‘Madcap’.


To explain the origins of this aircraft, a very brief explanation of part of the military structure of the Soviet Union is required. During the Cold War, the Soviet Air Forces were split into several component parts with each having distinct responsibilities. This meant aircraft were quite often developed for a particular air service for a specific role.

Fighter and interceptor aircraft were split primarily between Frontal Aviation and the Soviet Air Defence Forces – the PVO. Frontal Aviation had the job of providing tactical fighter coverage for field armies and in foreign operational areas. The PVO had responsibility for protecting the Soviet Union itself.

Having to cover a vast amount of territory, the PVO was an early adopter of a large airborne warning and control aircraft, colloquially known as an AWACS. This, the Tupolev Tu-126, was a large aircraft based on an existing airliner and entered service in 1965.


Though equipped with powerful radars and supplementary systems, the Tu-126 was not a particularly effective aircraft and only a total of between nine and twelve were built.

The limitations of Tu-126 meant that a successor was soon in development, the Beriev A-50, and this continues to perform AWACS duties with the Russian Air Force and several others around the world to this day.


But while the PVO was developing and fielding the Beriev A-50, the leadership at Soviet Frontal Aviation were watching and decided that they too wanted an AWACS.

Now, I’m not sure why they didn’t just go with the A-50. It could be that it was considered too expensive, with more capability than was needed for Frontal Aviation requirements. However, given how vicious inter-service rivalries can be, it could be a case of the FA simply having an episode of “not invented here” syndrome and demanding their own aircraft.

It should also be noted that the development of the new, small AWACS confused NATO, who thought it might be intended for use on the new Soviet aircraft carriers then coming into service. This was not the case and the short answer is that Frontal Aviation, for whatever reasons, wanted their own AWACS.

In 1982 R&D began on what would become the ‘Madcap’. The aircraft chosen to be the basis of the new AWACS was the Antonov An-72 transport, which was then in advanced development. This has an unusual configuration in that its twin turbofan engines are mounted above the wings. This gives the aircraft some protection from ground debris getting sucked into the intakes; a real danger on the primitive airstrips which the aircraft is designed to be able to operate from.


It also allows the An-72 to utilise the Coandă effect, blowing engine exhaust gases over the wing’s upper surface to boost lift and improve short field take-off and landing performance. Of course, the engine location was a problem for an AWACS aircraft, like the projected An-71, as it obstructs where the rotodome would generally be located between the wings.

So, the designers got around it by combining the radars mounting and the aircrafts tail into a single swept forward structure, hence the An-71’s rather distinctive appearance.


The radar was a Vega-M Kvant, which reportedly was able to track up to 120 targets at once and had a  range of 200km against a target with a two metre square Radar Cross Section. This was monitored by a six-man mission team, who would also vector fighters and other aircraft as required.

The An-71 made its first flight in July 1985 and trials continued on this and with a second aircraft the following year. Testing of the radar and electronic systems began in May 1986, but here problems seem to have occurred. Details are scarse, but development dragged on for several years while these issues were worked on.

Unfortunately for the ‘Madcap’, time was not its friend. In 1990, the Soviet Union dissolved, as did the various Soviet Air Forces.

The single unified Russian Air Force had enough A-50s for its requirements and anyway the Antonov Bureau was now located in the newly independent country of Ukraine, which didn’t need a tactical AWACS. So, the An-71 project was dropped.

Apparently in the early-2000s an attempt to market the aircraft, in an upgraded form, was made to India, but the IAF purchased an Israeli system instead. A total of three ‘Madcaps’ were reportedly built, with at least one still in existence at the Ukraine State Aviation Museum in Kyiv.



Guns-A-Go-Go; The Boeing Vertol ACH-47A

Guns-A-Go-Go; The Boeing Vertol ACH-47A

The histories of the US intervention in Vietnam generally start in March 1965, when US Marines stormed ashore at Da Nang…to be met by a bevy of Vietnamese beauties holding signs saying: “Welcome Gallant Marines”. But in fact, the United States had been deploying...

Myanmar Military Reeling From Attacks by Anti-Coup Forces

Myanmar Military Reeling From Attacks by Anti-Coup Forces

Well, it is kicking off in Myanmar. Big time. I have occasionally reported on the ongoing conflict in that bighted for years, indeed I’ve even conducted humanitarian work in some of the conflict areas in the country. But I have never seen anything close to what is...

The Long War Pt.5; The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army

The Long War Pt.5; The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army

As the conflict in Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, has seen a lot of important developments recently I thought it might be useful to resume this series on the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) fighting against the military junta who seized power in a coup in 2021....

Globemaster Mini Me; The McDonnell Douglas YC-15

Globemaster Mini Me; The McDonnell Douglas YC-15

In my previous “Forgotten Aircraft” article I covered Boeing’s YC-14 and talked about how in the early 1970’s the United States Air Force (USAF) had expressed an interest in acquiring a replacement for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. For this they initiated the Advanced...

Meet the Ratel S Anti-Tank Drone

Meet the Ratel S Anti-Tank Drone

A few years ago I wrote an article, followed up later by a video, about the need for a cheap guided  anti-vehicle-and-position weapon for infantry. My reasoning was that for many years now most militaries have ended up resorting to using anti-tank missiles for this...