The ears of Chkalovsky Russia’s Il-20M spy planes


Babak Taghvaee details the current disposition of the Russian Air Force Il-20M fleet, its modernization, and the key role the aircraft have played in Syrian war


Il-20M c/n 174011604 has always been forward deployed, occasionally together with 175011701, to Rostov-on-Don for operations over the Black Sea and eastern Europe. The aircraft recently received serial number RF-95687. Kirill Naumenko

One of the most top secret aircraft in the Russian Air Force arsenal is the Ilyushin Il-20M Coot-A, a signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) platform. Since 1994, the Il-20M has been used by the Russian Air Force in its war against Islamic terrorism. Since September 2015, the fleet of six Il-20Ms has played a key role undertaking multi-intelligence gathering missions. During such missions the aircraft were able to precisely detect a variety of terrorist facilities that included headquarter sites, communication centres, weapon storage facilities and even hideouts used by the leaders and commanders of various Islamic terrorist groups. The intelligence gathered by Il-20s was regularly used for the targeting of cruise missiles launched by the Russian Air Force and Navy.

On September 17, a Russian Air Force Il-20 was mistakenly shot-down by an S-200 surface-to-air missile launched by the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force when mistaken for an Israeli aircraft, which had carried-out an airstrike against Syrian industrial infrastructures in Latakia and Tartus. Tragically, fifteen crew members were killed, which led to a political crisis and the establishment of no-fly zones imposed by the Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to prevent further Israeli airstrikes.


After forty years of soldiering on with the Soviet and Russian Air Force, only general information is known about Russia’s secretive Il-20M. Among the details known about the types of systems installed are a multi-channel signal intelligence system designated SRS-4 or Romb-4 (Diamond-4); the Kvadraht-2 (Square-2) SIGINT system; the Vishnya (Cherry) COMINT system; two A-87PA LOROP (long-range operation) oblique cameras, and a side-looking airborne radar named Isla-1 (Needle-1) installed in a pod mounted under the aircraft’s forward fuselage.

The system is based on the Ilyushin Il-20 aircraft, 24 of which were manufactured by the Truda factory at Moscow-Khodynka between 1972 and 1976. Production ended in 1976 with the completion of the 24th aircraft c/n 176011708.

Work on conversion of the prototype aircraft (Il-18D c/n 186009403) started on May 6, 1987 and lasted until March 25, 1988 when it performed its first flight. Two years later the prototype participated in Exercise Dvina staged between February 4 and 10, 1970, but research and development of the systems continued until 1971 and 1972, when the Il-20M and Il-20M1 programmes were designated and defined. The Il-20 was developed for COMINT and SIGINT missions similar to those conducted by US Air Force RC-135s, 26 of which were in service in 1976; the American RC-135 was superior to the Il-20M in terms of capability and endurance. Both types remain in service today.

NATO first became aware of the Il-20M’s existence in 1978, when one was identified and intercepted by NATO fighters over the Baltic Sea after which the type received the NATO codename Coot-A.

The main Il-20 operating base is Chkalovsky near Moscow but aircraft have always been forward deployed to front line bases. One example was Sperenberg Air Base near Berlin in East Germany from where the 39th Separate Reconnaissance Aviation Detachment operated two examples, bort numbers 20 and 21 Red during the Cold war. Six examples were stationed at Pushkin Air Base near St Petersburg tasked with monitoring NATO operations by flying missions over the Baltic Sea during the 1980s.

Between 1979 and 1990, two Il-20s were always detached to Kacha, Crimea while two others were based at Tbilisi in Georgia to perform ELINT and SIGINT missions for monitoring Turkish and Iranian military operations, and finally two more were always based at Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East to monitor Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean military operations.

Il-20Ms also played an important role over Afghanistan to monitor Mujahedin activities and their local allies including Pakistan during the Soviet invasion and war in the 1980s. Il-20M missions from Khabarovsk continued after dissolution of the USSR. For example, on February 17, 1998, an

Il-20M violated airspace over the East Sea and the Republic of Korea Air Force responded by launching two F-4D Phantoms to intercept the Russian spy plane.


As many as 14 Il-20Ms remained in service in the years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but over time and with the advancement of technology and new radio systems, the Il-20M fleet needed to be upgraded. Upgrade programmes were defined by the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War, but the USSR’s dissolution caused delays so that any substantial upgrade work was not restarted until the mid-1990s. The first upgraded Il-20M prototype, bort number 90 Red (c/n 173011501), received a new mission system in 1999, but some aspects of its mission were initially downgraded because its Vishnya COMINT system was removed but was later modernized again. Between 1999 and 2006 it flew with the Russian civil registration RA-75923.

RF-93610 on take-off from Kubinka Air Base on March 21, 2014. The aircraft was shot down by a Syrian surface-to-air missile at 18:00 Moscow time on September 17, 2018, with the tragic loss of all 15 crew members on-board. Maxim Skantevich


Since September 30, 2015, the Russian Air Force has conducted hundreds of combat sorties mainly against ISIL, the Nusra Front terrorist groups and so-called moderate Jihadist groups with Mi-24Ps, Su-24M and Su-24M2s, Su-25SMs and Su-34s.

All aircraft were relocated to Bassel al-Assad International Airport, near Latakia between September 15 and 28, and before they were used in anger for the first time, an Il-20M was flown to Syria on September 24.

During initial operations the aircraft gathered signals intelligence about ISIS hideouts near Idlib as well as the Free Syrian Army near Homs before returning to Russia. Five days later, another Il-20M was deployed to Syria, which conducted another surveillance mission in collaboration with an Il-22 airborne combat command post with fighter escort provided by a pair of SyAAF MiG-29Bs and a pair of Russian Air Force Su- 30SMs.

In October 2015, the Russian Ministry of Defence admitted use of the Il-20M in the Syrian war for the first time, stating that while UAVs and satellites were used for visual reconnaissance and the detection of terrorist hideouts and bases, the Il-20Ms played a key role to locate and track terrorists by monitoring and tracing their radio communications.

The aircraft’s crew comprised not only of radar system operators but also a group of linguists, all experts in the Arabic and Chechen languages and their different accents, able to detect and identify fighters of various groups, terrorist leaders, rebel commanders and their hideouts; information used to direct airstrikes against individuals and groups alike.

Based on lessons learnt during Il-20M operations in the first Chechen war, the ten Il-20Ms underwent modernization of their communication, radar and electronic intelligence systems during scheduled overhaul by Aircraft Repair Plant 20 at Pushkin. Analogue systems were mostly replaced by digital systems designed and developed in Russia to be used for monitoring NATO radar and radio signals.

On the morning of October 7, 2015, a Russian Navy Gepard class frigate and three Buyan-M class corvettes, assigned to the Caspian fleet, launched 26 Kalibr-NK cruise missiles from the southwest Caspian Sea at eleven targets belonging to ISIL in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo. The missiles flew 1,500km (832 miles) through Iranian and Iraqi airspace to reach and destroy their targets precisely, though at least one missile crashed in Southwest Iran due to technical failure.

An Il-20M forward deployed to Hmeimim Air Base, Syria played a key role in this operation by tracing and identifying radio communications, which led to the detection of ISIL communication centres, two headquarters, and weapon storage facilities within only three days of intelligence gathering missions.

This close up shot of Il-20M c/n 173011504 shows the large size of the pod-mounted Isla-1 side-looking radar under the aircraft’s forward fuselage, and a side-mounted dielectric panel part of the Romb-4 multichannel signal intelligence system. Kirill Naumenko

Monitoring NATO and Israel over the Med

Since the Russian Navy’s first cruise missile strike against ISIL, the Il-20Ms have played a crucial role before, during and after any major offensive by Russian and Syria’s armed forces. Not only that, Il-20Ms protect the Russian Navy ships underway in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and Hmeimim Air Base, Syria to collect radio and electronic signals of American, British and French ships and aircraft in the proximity.

Back in February and March 2018, the Syrian Arab Army planned to launch an offensive for the liberation of Idlib province, which is considered a paradise for Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups.

However, to launch the offensive, Syrian and Russian commanders required the rebel held areas in Damascus and the ISIL controlled parts of Syria, in the south of the country close to the border with Israel, and Golan Heights, to be cleared of anti-Assad groups.

The Idlib offensive was finally planned for September 2018, but due to the possibility of NATO-led strikes against Assad’s facilities, the Russian government launched the largest Russian Navy exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea since the Cold War between September 3 and 8, and by doing so demonstrated a considerable show of force and established no-fly zones around Syria to foil any possible NATO-led airstrike.

However, Russian Air Force aircraft started bombing positions occupied by Al-Qaeda affiliated Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir Al- Sham groups in Idlib and Hama on September 4. Assad’s ground offensive was launched on September 7 but shortly after, Russia President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a de-militarised zone between Syrian rebels and government forces in Idlib.

Each day of the Russian Navy exercise, the sole Il-20M based at Hmeimim Air Base, serial number RF-93610, gathered radio and electronic intelligence on the operations and activity of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) comprising warships HMCS Ville de Quebec, HNLMS De Ruyter, ESPS Cristobal Colon and HS Elli. The NATO warships were in turn monitoring Russian Naval activity in the area. After the exercise, the SNMG2 and the French Navy frigate Chevalier Paul (D621) continued to monitor Russian naval activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, which in turn led the Russian Air Force to monitor NATO activity using RF-93610 on nightly 12-hour missions.

Shoot down

At 18:00 Moscow time on September 17, 2018, RF-93610 and its 15 crew members were assigned to another 12-hour intelligence gathering mission to monitor radio and electronic transmissions and signatures of NATO and Israeli naval warships over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. But at 22:07, while they were flying within 35km of the Syrian coast over the Mediterranean Sea, an S-200 surface-to-air missile launched by the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force shot the Il-20M down with the loss of all crew members on board.

Minutes before the accident, four Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufas from Ramon Air Base had carried out air strikes on four sites; an airfield, a Syrian Ministry of Defence aluminium factory, a military base and an oil storage facility. The strikes involved GBU-39 small diameter bombs and resulted in heavy explosions to the west of Latakia and near Tartus.

Simultaneously during the airstrikes, other Israeli Air Force aircraft operating in the area employed electronic countermeasures to protect themselves from a huge number of SA-2, S-200 and Buk M2 surface-to-air missiles, which were being launched at them repeatedly. The heavy jamming in the area confused the Syrian Air Defence Force S-200 surface-to-air missile site, which led to the launch of a S-200 missile at the Russian Air Force Il-20M, which was mistaken as an Israeli aircraft.

The following day, Russia’s Ministry of Defence released an official statement blaming Israel for the tragic accident. Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu claimed the four Israeli F-16Is took advantage of the Il-20M’s presence in the area and masked themselves behind the aircraft on their return to Israel. But the Israeli Ministry of Defence rejected the allegation in an official statement.

According to the Israeli statement, the Israeli Air Force F-16Is targeted a Syrian military facility, which it claimed was manufacturing “accurate and lethal weapons,” which were “about to be transferred, on behalf of Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

The statement also claimed that when the Il-20M was targeted all four F-16Is had returned to Israel.

However, the Russian Ministry of Defence was not convinced by the Israeli statement and ordered four Su-35S, eight Su-30SMs and four Su-34s to Hmeimim Air Base, which at the time of the shoot down had only four Su-35S fighters, eight Su-34s and eight Su- 24M2s assigned.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called Russian President Putin and convinced him that the Il-20M was shot-down by accident.

Despite the conversation between the two leaders, the Russian Ministry of Defence decided to block international airspace over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea just to the West and Northwest of Israel up to 19,000ft (m) citing its no-fly zones were in place to protect everyone from firing exercises underway by 14 Russian Navy cruisers, frigates and corvettes armed with a variety of missile systems including the S-300F and Osa-M. According to NOTAMs issued on September 18, the no-fly zones were planned to remain in place until September 26.

The first Il-20MS 174011603 modernized under Programme Retsenzent at Zhukovsky on February 28, 2014. Artyom Anikeev
Il-20M c/n 175011706 on take-of from its home base, Chkalovsky near Moscow in January 2012. Kirill Naumenko

Russia’s no-ly zones disrupted international lights in and out of Israel and Lebanon resulting in delays to light arrivals at Beirut and Tel Aviv international airports. Furthermore, the no-ly zones also posed a tactical problem to any Israeli military aircraft tasked with lying in the area to potentially ly above 19,000ft and thereby exposing them to a variety of Syrian Air Defence Force mediumand long-range surface-to-air missile systems; a Russian counter to any further airstrike against Latakia and Tartus.

Russian authorities were very dissatisied with the 60-second notice given by the Israeli Air Force prior to the airstrike; a fraction of the time given by Israel prior to previous airstrikes in Syria.

Complementary spy plane

With the loss of aircraft RF-93610, the Russian Air Force has just ten Il-20Ms remaining in service and two of those are modiied as testbeds for future Tu-214R and Il-20MS radio and electronic intelligence systems and sensors under Project Anagramma and Program Retsenzent (Reviewer).

Only one of the eight other aircraft, serial number RF-90924 is conigured to izdeliye 17MS standard; an upgrade undertaken by EMZ Myasishchev under Programme Retsenzent (Reviewer) during overhaul by the 20th Aircraft Repair Plant at Pushkin between 2010 and 2013.

Sixteen years ago on November 29, 2002 the KAPO (Kazan Aircraft Production Association) plant in Kazan was contracted to develop a new ELINT aircraft equipped with a radio electronic intelligence gathering suite named Fraktsiya-4. The system was installed on a Tupolev Tu-214 as replacement for the ageing leet of Il-20Ms. Over seven years later the first Tu-214R (izdeliye 411), registration RA- 64511, made its maiden light on December 24, 2009. A second example, registration RA- 64514, rolled out on October 31, 2014.

Both aircraft were used for factory and then state tests before delivery to the Russian Air Force in 2013 and 2015 respectively.

Aircraft 64514 deployed to Hmeimim Air Base for the first time between February 16 and 29, 2016 to operate alongside an Il-20M on deployment.

In that short period of time, the Russian Air Force had the opportunity to test the aircraft’s sensors and systems in combat situation not only against ISIL but also to monitor NATO forces. As a result of the lessons learnt from that deployment, 64514 underwent a small systems upgrade, after which it was again deployed to Hmeimim on several occasions between July 28 and December 9, 2016.

Each Tu-214R is equipped with an MRK- 411 multi-intelligence suite comprising two side-looking array radars (SLARs), one on each side, a third radar housed in a circular dome located underneath the fuselage, and a communications interception system. The SLARs can locate and trace ground targets at very high speed using two operating modes; ground moving target indicator and ground penetrating radar. The communication intelligence systems are jamming proof, operate in three frequency ranges (L, X and VHF), and can cycle 1,000 frequencies in just two seconds.

Furthermore, the Tu-214R is equipped with an electro-optical tracking system (dubbed OESVR) named Fraktsiya developed and manufactured by TPK Linkos. The system has a 1,750mm focal length camera, a 373mm focal length infrared camera, and a 10 to 100mm TV camera with a ield of view of +/- 80° in the transverse plane and +/- 15° in the longitudinal plane. The OESVR system can scan terrain either automatically using preprogrammed data or manually, and can run continuously for eight hours in temperatures between -50° and +60°C.

However, the leet of ten Il-20Ms has an average age of 43.5 years which might seem outdated compared to the brand new Tu-214Rs, but recent operations of both aircraft in Syria proved that the Il-20M still ofers advantages compared to the Tu-214R. Consequently, it’s necessary for the Il-20Ms to be modernised so they can remain in service until at least 2030.

Despite the fact that the Il-20M’s Ivchenko AI-20M turboprop engines are manufactured by the Ukrainian Motor-Sich company and sanctions do not allow Russia to buy new engines or even spare parts directly from the supplier, the Russian Air Force is fully intent on keeping the aircraft in service.

Russia’s current fleet of operational Il-20Ms

RF-75936 (c/n 174011602)

A former Chkalovsky-based Il-20M was overhauled by ARZ.20 at Pushkin last time between 2015 and 2017, during which its navigation systems were upgraded. The cost of its overhaul and upgrade work was RUB 49 million.

RF-95687 (c/n 174011604)

Based at Rostov-on-Don, RF-95687 had its last overhaul done at ARZ.20 in 2016 and 2017 with its first functional check flight logged in April 2018. Its navigation system was upgraded based on IATA/ICAO standards, but due to a lack of budget, it was not modernized to Il-20MS standard.

RF-95979 (c/n 174011605)

Based at Chkalovsky, Moscow RF-95979 had its last overhaul completed at ARZ.20 in 2013 and will be operational until at least 2022 when its MTBO will be reached.

RF-95688 (c/n 175011701)

The second Rostov-on-Don based Il-20M. It had its last overhaul at ARZ.20 back in 2017 and was delivered back to the Russian Air Force in April 2018. Total cost of overhaul and upgrade of this aircraft and RF-95687 was RUB 103 million.

RF-75931 (c/n 176011707)

Based at Ulan-Ude until mid-2009 when its MTBO was reached at which point RF-75931 was flown to Pushkin for overhaul, which was completed in November 2010 after which the aircraft was deployed to Voronezh. Since 2014, it has been regularly deployed to Khabarovsk and operated in the East of Russia. It is now based at Chkalovsky.

The first Russian Air Force Il-20MS 90924 on take-off from Zhukovsky for a 4-hour, 20-minute test flight on July 25, 2014. Sergey Krivchikov

Project Reviewer

Compared to the Tu-214R, the Il-20M is more reliable, provides a 12-hour endurance (the Tu-214R offers eight) and lower operating costs. Furthermore, if a Tu-214R logs 1,095 hours per year, its 9,000-hours meantime between overhaul (MTBO) could be reached in just eight years, but an upgraded Il-20M could fly without restriction for a duration of ten years before its MTBO is reached.

Assigned service life of an Il-20M is 42 years or 40,000 flying hours and 18,000 cycles. Therefore, the calendar lives of all the Il-20Ms have been reached and continue to operate thanks to life extensions of five to ten years, carried out by ARZ 20 in Pushkin. The designated service life of a Tu-214R is 15+5 years, 24,000 hours and 8,000 cycles.

In 2009 when the KAPO plant completed the first Tu-214R aircraft, the Russian Ministry of Defence was all too aware that the Tu-214R was not going to replace the Il-20M anytime soon. Consequently, a decision was made to modernize the fleet to temporarily solve the problem of a lack of a replacement.

On February 1, 2011, Myasishchev was contracted to modernize an Il-20M (c/n 174011603) under Programme Retsenzent (Reviewer).

Aircraft 174011603 was overhauled by ARZ.20 at Pushkin in 2010 at a cost of RUB 262.2 million, and became the first Il-20MS (izdeliye 17MS) prototype which was rolled out of the JSC Myasishchev Design Bureau installation at Zhukovsky on April 28, 2014. It logged its first flight earlier on February 28, 2014 under the control of test pilot, Nikolay Kuimov.

Some components of the MRK-411 multi-intelligence gathering suite have been installed in the Il-20M’s fuselage and it has two new digital LOROP cameras replacing wet-film A-87PA LOROP oblique cameras.

The Il-20MS 360-degree self-protection suite comprises a radar warning receiver, an NV9 infrared missile approach warning system, and a pair of chaff /flare dispensers installed on both sides of the aft fuselage; each dispenser carries 26mm cartridges (32) and 50mm cartridges (14).

The upgraded variant is also equipped with a new BKSS-17 communication system and a new auxiliary power unit.

Aircraft 174011603 was still under factory and state tests at Zhukovsky, Moscow when this article was written.

Before Program Retsenzent, in the early 2000s OJC Myasishchev developed two other upgraded versions of the Il- 20M under Programme Anagramma and Programme Monitor.

Programme Anagramma used Il-20M (c/n 176011708, later serial number RF-91819) as a test bed or flying lab for several purposes including research and development for the Tu-214R’s ELINT systems.

Programme Monitor, a space project involving an earth surveillance system consisting of several satellites and several communication relay aircraft including Il-20M (c/n 175011706).

On October 25, 2013, the Anagramma aircraft flew over the Sea of Japan close to Japanese airspace. During that flight all of the new and modernized ELINT and SIGINT systems installed, including its new multifrequency radio systems, new side-looking radar (later installed on the Tu-214R) were tested. Two Japanese Air Defense Force F-15Js intercepted the aircraft.

Modernization of two more Il-20Ms, which are currently stored, are planned to start once testing of the first Programme Retsenzent Il- 20MS prototype are complete. The remaining five examples will also be modernised by 2025. By then the Russian Air Force will have a fleet of eight Il-20MS aircraft and at least six Tu-214Rs for communication, electronic and signals intelligence gathering.

RF-93610 was intercepted by Aeronautica Militaire Typhoons on March 2, 2018. Aeronautica Militare