Is Russia secretly helping North Korea's Early Warning Aircraft project?

On December 14, 2023, according to satellite imagery analysis reported by Decker Eveleth from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), a North Korean IL-76 aircraft is currently undergoing modifications at Pyongyang International Airport. These modifications suggest the potential conversion of this aircraft into an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) or Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) platform.

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North Korea early warning aicraft 925 001 The imagery, captured on November 30, 2023, reveals a modified Il-76 with a possible rotodome mount, a feature typically associated with AWACS and AEW&C aircraft. (Picture source: Twitter/Decker Eveleth)

The imagery, captured on November 30, 2023, reveals a modified IL-76 with a possible rotodome mount, a feature typically associated with AWACS and AEW&C aircraft. The Il-76 platform is widely known for its use in such roles within the Russian Air Forces and also for missile telemetry during testing. However, there is currently no concrete evidence to confirm the transfer of this technology to North Korea, despite the recent decommissioning of some Russian missile telemetry aircraft.

This development has raised questions, particularly in light of North Korea's known limitations in radar technology. The potential construction of an AWACS or AEW&C aircraft could represent a significant improvement in North Korea's existing capabilities. The allocation of one of North Korea's limited Il-76 aircraft to this project underscores the importance of this modification.

As of 2022, reports indicated that North Korea possessed only three IL-76 aircraft, along with an undisclosed number of Ilyushin Il-28 'Beagle' bombers used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. These Il-28 variants are believed to be licensed Chinese versions, known as the Harbin H-5. The addition of an AEW&C or AWACS aircraft would significantly enhance North Korea's ISR capabilities.

As reported by Army Recognition on September 15, 2023, North Korea decided to provide substantial military equipment support to Russia amid the ongoing Ukraine conflict. This support includes artillery shells, potentially numbering up to 10 million, as well as potentially valuable military assets such as the KN-09 300mm Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the KN-25 600mm MLRS, or the M1989 Koksan 170mm self-propelled howitzer.

This increased military cooperation between North Korea and Russia suggests that North Korea may have granted Russia access to its military equipment. In return, it opens the door to the possibility of North Korea acquiring Russian military knowledge and advanced equipment, which could potentially include modern aircraft and technologies.

The potential access to advanced military equipment and technology could offer North Korea several advantages, including the acquisition of modern aircraft, similar to recent acquisitions made by Iran. It could also pave the way for the development of its own version of the Russian Beriev A-50 and A-100 Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft, which is based on the Il-76 platform – the same platform being used in the North Korean modification project, which could potentially be either an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) or Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

North Korea may be in the process of exploring the possibility of receiving assistance from foreign partners, such as Russia, in developing and operating AEW&C or AWACS aircraft, as this country has experience in this field and could potentially provide support or technology transfers to bolster North Korea's defensive capabilities. This is especially important as South Korea continues to build up its military arsenal, relying on the most modern technologies, both defensively (L-SAM, for example) and offensively (NG-MBT, for example).

Both AEW&C and AWACS aircraft are equipped with advanced radar systems that offer comprehensive surveillance and early warning capabilities. These systems can detect approaching threats, including enemy aircraft and missiles during the initial stages of a conflict, at greater distances from North Korea's borders, providing additional time for preparation and response.

Furthermore, the possession of such aircraft could be seen as a signal of North Korea's military capabilities and readiness to potential adversaries. The need for constant mobility and operation from unexpected locations becomes imperative in a conflict, especially to counter preemptive strikes. The AEW&C and AWACS aircraft are flexible and mobile platforms, enabling deployment to different regions as needed, which can complicate predictions about their location and potentially enhance their survivability and effectiveness.

North Korea A 50 Beriev 925 001Russia uses the Ilyushin Il-76 as a base for its Beriev A-50 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, which could also serve as an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft (Picture source: Yandex)

In the first hypothesis, the possibility of developing an AEW&C aircraft holds significant strategic advantages for North Korea. Data collected by the AEW&C aircraft can be shared with surface-to-air missile operators, enhancing defensive operations.

Moreover, AEW&C systems have proven effective against low-flying cruise missiles, which often evade detection by ground-based radar systems. An airborne radar system's 'look-down' capability enables the identification of such targets amidst ground clutter and is less affected by terrain compared to ground-based systems. Given the perceived threat of cruise missiles by North Korea, the detection capability of an AEW&C system is of considerable value.

Considering the limited number of countries that have developed fully functioning AEW&C systems, it is worth noting the complexities involved in achieving such capabilities. Russia and China, for instance, have utilized the Il-76 platform for their AEW&C aircraft, respectively the Beriev A-50 and the KJ-2000. There is speculation regarding Russia potentially aiding North Korea in its pursuit of IL-76-based AEW&C capabilities, given their recent alignment following the Ukraine conflict.

The other hypothesis, the potential acquisition of an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft by North Korea, would bring strategic advantages to the country's military. AWACS platforms function as mobile command centers, facilitating centralized coordination of military operations. This improved command and control capability could streamline decision-making processes and support synchronized responses to changing battlefield conditions, particularly during periods of crisis or conflict.

AWACS aircraft also serve as force multipliers by guiding and directing fighter aircraft during air combat. North Korea's air force would benefit from real-time information and guidance, potentially enhancing the efficiency of its limited aircraft resources, which could be potentially enhanced in the future, remembering Kim Jong Un's visit to a Russian fighter jet factory in September 2023, where Su-35 (which was bought by Iran) and Su-57 fighter jets were showcased. The AWACS platforms are also effective at detecting stealth aircraft and low-flying threats like cruise missiles, contributing to North Korea's overall defense capabilities.

AWACS platforms can also collect electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT), allowing North Korea to monitor enemy communications and electronic emissions. This intelligence-gathering capability could provide valuable information for decision-making and responding to adversary actions, especially if coupled with its recent spy satellite launch.

North Korea A 100 Beriev 925 001

Russia also uses the Il-76 as the base of its A-100 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft. (Picture source: Yandex)