Shortly before US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin sat down to discuss the Syrian crisis at UN Headquarters in New York, early Saturday, Sept. 26, at least two Ilyushin-20 (IL-20 Coot) super-surveillance planes stole into Syrian airspace, to provide a major upgrade for the Russian air fleet of Sukhoi-30 fighter jets, cargo planes and attack helicopters gathering for combat in Syria.
This was revealed by DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources.
The IL-20s, the Russian Air Force’s top-line intelligence-gathering aircraft, was deployed until now in the Baltic Sea region. Its exceptional features include four turboprop engines which enable this flying intelligence platform to stay airborne for over 12 hours, using its thermal and infrared sensors, antennas, still and video cameras, and side-looking airborne (SLAR) radar to collect a wide range of data from long distances, day or night, in almost any kind of weather.
The Coot-20 collates the data gathered and transmits it to intelligence or operational command centers in Moscow, Latakia or Tartus, by powerful jam-resistant communications systems, satellites and other methods.
The IL-20 spy plane in Syria can also blanket Israel
Over Syria, the IL-20 can supply Russian forces and commanders with a complete, detailed picture of the situation on the ground. But its close proximity to Israel enables this wonder plane to scoop up a wealth of data from across the border – not just on IDF military movements on the Golan, but also to eavesdrop on electronic activity and conversations in Jerusalem, Military Staff Headquarters in Tel Aviv, Air Force bases in southern Israel and even the nuclear complex in Dimona in the Negev.
Putin kept mum about the Coot-21’s arrival in Syria when he met Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sept. 21. The prime minister was attended by Israel’s chief of staff and head of military intelligence. Had the Russian leader revealed its presence, their conversation on bilateral coordination for coordinating Russian and Israeli air force operations in Syria might have taken an entirely different direction.
Its deployment in Syria is an intelligence game-changer for the entire region.
For lengthy, secret missions, the Russian pilots “darken” their aircraft to make them invisible, in breach of international regulations. They switch off the transponders that give their identity, location, direction and speed.
In the past year, at least two incidents involving IL-20 aircraft nearly ended in disaster: a near collision with an SAS airline flight carrying 132 passengers and crew near Malmo airport in Sweden, and another near miss with a Canadian passenger jet on a flight between Germany and Sweden.
Remarkable capabilities – a pot of gold for Syria and allies
The IL-20 was presumably detached from the Ukraine battle arena and pressed into service in Syria to serve the functions performed against Kiev: to identify the precise locations of Islamic State fighters and infrastructure. The intelligence map it can chart in a few passes over any battlefield will be a pot of gold for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Hizballah allies.
Before the go ahead, for instance, for a combined attack on Aleppo – or any other Syrian location chosen by Moscow – the IL-20, flying high out of the range of the Islamic State fighters’ shoulder-borne missiles, will project a minute picture of the layout on the ground to Russian, Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah field commanders and headquarters in Damascus, Tehran, Beirut.
The data will reach Baghdad, where a Russian-Iranian-Iraqi coordination war room was established this week.
The effective collection range of the IL-20 is estimated at several hundred kilometers, depending on mission, flight direction, distance, altitude and other factors.
And so, this flying intelligence base operating just a few dozen kilometers from Israel’s northern borders represents a clear and immediate threat to the security of Israel’s defense, political and civilian facilities, all the way from the Golan down to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Dimona.
The IL-20 Coot has no rivals in the region
The following are the capabilities of the IL-20 Coot:
SIGINT: Signal Intelligence
Location, pinpointing, recording, analysis and decryption of civilian and military cellular communications Recording of communication signals between military control towers and fighter planes, or of civilian or naval communications
Identification of unconventional weapons, such as atomic, biological and chemical weapons
ELINT: Electronic Intelligence
Collection, recording, analysis and decryption of all types of military communications across the entire spectrum of frequencies
Location and recording of satellite telephone conversations and other communications using satellites Identification and pinpointing of radar and electronic warfare systems that broadcast electromagnetic signals Pinpointing of the placement of artillery batteries, armored units or any other military unit with communications, observation or imaging systems that emit electromagnetic signals.
Pinpointing the location of naval ships and submarines.
VISINT: Visual Intelligence
High-altitude, high resolution imagery from a high altitude able to read off license plates on a vehicle on the ground below and identify the kind of weapons carried by infantrymen
Imagery of airports, reactors, power stations, bridges, dams and other strategic facilities
Mapping of roads, highways, military bases, fences, etc.
Thermal imagery of the ground’s surface for detecting underground bunkers, tunnels and areas where digging is underway.
Exceptional capabilities boosted by UAVs
The unparalleled capabilities of the Russian super-surveillance plane are further boosted by input from drones, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. During the last few days, dozens of unmanned planes and helicopters have been swarming through Syrian skies, using still and video cameras for visual intelligence (VISINT) data on Islamic State and other terrorist group targets, marked first by human or signal intelligence (HUMINT or SIGINT).
There is no definitive information on the type of drones being used by the Russian Air Force for reconnaissance or warfare in Syria, but apparently one of the most important is the just-developed KA-135 that can carry up to 100 kilograms of imaging and communication equipment.
The drones’ contribution to the Russian campaign was demonstrated by a brief video (https://youtu.be/PyZa68ec-r0) released by the Russian Defense Ministry on September 30, which showed the results of one of the first Russian bombing raids over Syria earlier that day. The scene appears to have been filmed by an apparently unmanned helicopter hovering overhead.
All in all, in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence experts, the Russian IL-20 is a wonder spy plane in that it has no equal in the hands of any Middle East or Gulf power.