North Korea Suspected of Upgrading Russian Il-76 Cargo Plane for Advanced Surveillance

Alleged Upgrades Raise Concerns Over North Korea's Military Capabilities Amid Regional Tensions
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  • 01:06 PM, December 18, 2023
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North Korea Suspected of Upgrading Russian Il-76 Cargo Plane for Advanced Surveillance
Apparent modifications on North Korean Il-76 bearing the hallmarks of a new early-warning capability @via X

New satellite imagery has revealed potential modifications to a Russian-made military transport plane in North Korea, indicating the conversion of the aircraft into an airborne command center equipped with a powerful radar.

The suspected modifications were identified by an open-source intelligence analyst who observed the Soviet-designed Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane at Pyongyang's international airport on November 30.

Decker Eveleth, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, analyzed satellite photographs from imagery provider Planet and noted the presence of a large object newly affixed to the top of the plane's fuselage. This hardware, according to Eveleth, could be a mount for a rotating radar dome, commonly associated with an airborne early warning and control (AWACS) system.

NK Pro, a specialist news and analysis service focused on North Korea, confirmed that the installation was underway last month, suggesting that the project might have commenced in late September when construction began on a barrier around the plane's parking spot.

While the Ilyushin Il-76 has been in use since the 1970s and is utilized by governments worldwide, including China, Russia supplied three heavy-lift aircraft to North Korea's national carrier, Air Koryo. Of these, only one appears to be undergoing the AWACS upgrade.

The potential introduction of an airborne early warning aircraft into North Korea's fleet could significantly enhance its air defense network, which currently relies on older, stationary radar sites, according to Eveleth.

This development comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea's successful spy satellite launch, a move criticized by South Korea and the United States for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Seoul's intelligence service suggested that Pyongyang likely received assistance from Moscow. However, Eveleth expressed doubts about North Korea's technical capacity for such an undertaking, stating, "There is no evidence as of yet that the Russians have transferred this technology to the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]."

Eveleth emphasized the significant nature of the undertaking, considering North Korea's radar technology and the fact that one of their few Il-76s is being used for this mission. Earlier this year, North Korea launched reconnaissance drones believed to be based on U.S. models, including the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.

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