For weeks now, plane spotters on the ground and those using online flight tracking software have watched the curious activities of a highly modified and effectively unmarked de Havilland Canada Dash-8 surveillance plane as it flies missions from U.S. Air Force bases in Japan. It’s not clear who is operating the aircraft or what it’s doing, but it is reportedly tied to the CIA, and from the plane’s routes and overall configuration, it may be involved in enforcing sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The aircraft, which carries the U.S. civil registration code N599XQ, but it otherwise overall white in color, first began appearing in Japan at Yokota Air Base outside of Tokyo in February 2018. It has since flown out of Kadena Air Base further south on the island of Okinawa, as well, primarily into the East China Sea. Units assigned to Pacific Air Forces, or PACAF, the Air Force’s top command for operations in the Pacific theater, manage operations at both of the bases.
A discreet maritime patrol platform
Covered in various antennas, humps, and bumps, the aircraft appears to be set up primarily for maritime surveillance, which fits with its recent overwater missions. Underneath the fuselage there is a large gondola, along with a sliding door and various antennas. There are what appear to be flat panel antennas on either side of the rear fuselage and on top there is a randome that almost certainly contains a satellite communications system so the crew to feed information from the plane's sensors back to base for exploitation in near real time.
For maritime patrol missions, the gondola would likely hold a surface search radar or synthetic aperture imagining radar with some type of moving target functionality. This would give the plane the ability to spot ships down below and produce imagery, even through cloud cover or smoke, or at night.
At the rear of the gondola there is also what appears to be a retracted able sensor turret, likely with some combination of electro-optical, infrared, or multi-spectral video cameras. Based on what we know from other similar aircraft, the trap door further forward may have another similar turret or conceal a fixed wide-angle still picture cameras, or some form of multi-camera wide-area surveillance system. Other Dash-8s set up for maritime surveillance or coastal patrol have similar sensor arrangements.
Combined with the radar, these cameras would give the crew additional options to examine targets they've spotted in order to try and positively identify them or monitor the activities of any crew above deck in a more persistent fashion. Since they produce images based on the electromagnetic signature of an object, which can offer details about what it is made of or the presence of certain substances on its surface, hyper- or multi-spectral cameras may also be able to gather even more information about a specific target.
A US Customs and Border Protection Dash-8-based maritime patrol aircraft with a similar large ventral radar and forward mounted sensor turret.
The various ventral antennas could point to various types of signals intelligence systems, which could give the aircraft the capability to track and monitor radio and cellphone communications. It may have the ability to geo-locate targets based on those transmissions, as well.
In a maritime role, the aircraft likely carries a receiver to pick up transmissions from “automatic identification system" transponders, which all commercial cargo ships over 300 tons displacement and all commercial passenger ships of any size are supposed to carry to help avoid accidents and otherwise aid in safe navigation. If a ship matching that description isn't sending out those signals, its a possible indication of illicit activity.
Another feature that offers evidence of an overwater mission set is an air deflector near the rear cargo door. This helps protect anyone standing in the doorway during flight and reduces turbulence that could cause trouble when throwing something – such smoke flare to mark an area or target of interest or some sort of rescue kit – out of the airplane. A number of maritime patrol or coast guard Dash-8s have the same feature for exactly this reason.
Based on this configuration and its orbits in the East China Sea, it seems very likely that this plane is in someway involved in looking for instances where North Korea is violating of international sanctions. The United Nations Security Council has approved these steadily more extensive regulations on North Korea's imports and exports in response to the country's provocative ballistic missile tests and nuclear weapons program.
Among the many methods it uses to get around these restrictions, the government in Pyongyang has adopted the novel practice of having North Korean-flagged ships transfer goods to other neutral vessels at sea. Since November 2017, the United States and Japanese governments have both publicly released aerial surveillance and satellite imagery confirming this practice.
Chinese vessels and shipping concerns are heavily implicated in these activities and in 2017, the United States specifically sanctioned of individuals and businesses in China for enabling Pyongyang’s activities. China's government has repeatedly denied that it aiding North Korea in this endeavor as a matter of state policy, but it remains an ally of Kim Jong-un's regime and recently hosted the brutal dictator for meetings with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and other senior officials.
What appears to be aerial surveillance imagery of a North Korea ship exchanging cargo at sea with another vessel to avoid international sanctions.
Online flight tracking software has shown N599XQ flying obvious search routes in the East China Sea, which would be the most likely route for North Korean ships to meet up with vessels operating from Chinese ports. On March 28, 2017, the aircraft appeared over international waters off the coast of Shanghai, one of China’s largest maritime trading hubs. The month before, Japanese authorities said one of the country's own P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes had spotted illicit North Korean activity in that same general area.
Prior to receiving the N599XQ registration, this Dash-8 belonged to Path Corporation as N505LL. Advocacy groups looking to expose details of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program cases, which covertly transferred suspected terrorists to secret prisons or their home countries where they were subsequently tortured in many cases, have tied this Delaware-headquartered company to the agency’s activities. In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the new registration, which officially belongs to a “Bank of Utah Trustee,” another apparent shell company.
But whatever Path Corporation’s ties to the rendition program might have been, this particular aircraft appears to have been configured for aerial surveillance missions since at least 2003, when a plane spotter grabbed a picture of the then N505LL, with an overall white paint scheme with a blue cheatline, at the main international airport in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
At that time, it had two sliding doors underneath its fuselage to cover sensor systems when not in use and no ventral gondola. It also eventually received mission launch detection sensors indicating that whoever the operator was expected the aircraft to go into potentially hostile areas. Those remain on the aircraft to this day and the addition of a small black retractable turret underneath suggests that its self-defense suite may now include a directional infrared countermeasure system, or DIRCM, to confuse incoming heat-seeking missiles.
There is no clear indication from those early pictures that the aircraft carried any additional sensors for overland surveillance, but it may have had some ability to spot and monitor hostile communications without the need for a large, visible antenna farm. Various types of similarly-sized U.S. Army intelligence aircraft have had and continue to employ equally discreet systems.
A graphic showing the internal configurations of the Army's three types of Airborne Reconnaissance Low (ARL) aircraft, including the ARL-I with a retractable sensor turret and the ARL-C with a communications intelligence suite and limited external antennas. These aircraft used the older, four engine de Havilland Canada DHC-7 platform.
A multiple camera arrangement, especially one including dedicated systems able to capture persistent imagery across wide areas, is already particularly well suited to developing so-called “patterns of life” in relation to small groups or specific individuals. This can allow analysts the better understand their routines and movements, connecting them to other subjects of interest or determining when it might be best to strike at or capture them with the smallest amount of risk to innocent bystanders.
Being able to also intercept their communities only helps intelligence personnel build a more complete understanding of those activities. An aircraft with these capabilities would have been a essential for the CIA’s own efforts in early the War on Terror, which have continued and may now be expanding again, often tangential to covert U.S. military special operations forces operations.
The aircraft also lacked the deflector at the rear cargo door, but it still would have been suitable for low-profile missions to insert, extract, or resupply covert teams. The plane in its present configuration may also have this kind of special operations support capability.
It's also worth noting that after the registration change to N599XQ in 2016, the aircraft retained more or less the same configuration, but received a new paint job with a red instead of blue cheatline, which eventually gave way to the overall white scheme. This is how it arrived in Japan earlier in 2018 and it only emerged with the new maritime-focused sensor suite in late February after having flown what appeared to be extensive training sorties around Yokota.
Why send this plane to Japan?
It’s not entirely clear why this type of mission would require the services such a secretive aircraft. The sanctions against North Korea and enforcing them are a public matter with an international mandate from the United Nations.
As we at The War Zone have noted before, there is an impressive array of U.S. military intelligence and maritime reconnaissance aircraft in and around the Korean Peninsula at any one time, as well, that could provide similar capabilities. The U.S. Navy’s P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon patrol planes in particular are purpose built for similar overwater missions.
Part of the issue there may be that military aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance resources are already stretched thin trying to monitor North Korea’s missile- and nuclear-related activities along with existing routine duties, including challenging Chinese territorial claims, monitoring foreign naval surface and submarine activities, and being on call for search and rescue missions. Earlier in March 2018, U.S. Admiral Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees all American military operations throughout the Pacific region, pointedly complained to members of Congress about his lack of aerial intelligence capacity.