Evidence suggests the helicopters used in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden on Monday were previously unknown stealth variants of the Navy SEALs’ MH-60 Black Hawks. One of the helicopters had to be abandoned at the site. Although much of it was destroyed, parts of the unusual tail section survived intact.
The US military said two ‘Black Hawk’ helicopters were used on the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2. However, an unnamed retired special operations aviator told the Army Times that the helicopters that flew in the Navy SEALs were in fact stealth variants of the special operations MH-60.
“It really didn’t look like a traditional Black Hawk,” the aviator said. It had “hard edges, sort of like an … F-117, you know how they have those distinctive edges and angles – that’s what they had on this one.”
One of the helicopters reportedly clipped a wall as it landed in the compound and was so badly damaged it was unable to take off again. As a result, the SEALs destroyed it to stop their technology falling into the wrong hands – something that is common practice on such high risk missions, especially those in foreign countries. However, the tail section of the helicopter, including its tail rotor, landed on the other side of the compound wall and survived generally intact.
When photographs of the wreckage were distributed on the Internet, experts were baffled as they tried to identify the helicopter. The tail rotor does not resemble any official US military aircraft. It is clearly part of a stealth helicopter, the Shephard Group reports. A ‘hubcap’ on the tail rotor shields the rotor assembly from radar; multiple tail rotor blades provide for a smoother and quieter ride; the silver/white paint deflects heat, and the faceted and smoothed parts of the tail reflect radar signals away from the source antenna. The slightly forward-swept horizontal tailplanes also help to deflect radar returns. According to the Guardian, some of the witnesses living near bin Laden’s compound said they did not hear helicopters until they were almost directly overhead, meaning the helicopters may have had other acoustic dampening features.
The retired special forces aviator who spoke to the Army Times said it made sense that the helicopter did indeed have stealth characteristics as Pakistani authorities had no advanced warning of the mission.
The aviator said the helicopter stealth programme that led to the helicopters used in the bin Laden raid began with the modification of AH-6 Little Bird special operations attack helicopters in the 1980s. At the same time the US Army was developing the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche stealth helicopter, but this was cancelled in 2004 in order to focus funds on upgrading the existing helicopter fleet and developing unmanned helicopters.
During the 1990s, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) worked with the Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works division apply stealth features to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s MH-60s, the retired aviator said. USSOCOM awarded Boeing a contract to modify MH-60 Black Hawks to the stealth design “in the ’99 to 2000 timeframe,” the aviator said. He added that plans called for the stealth Black Hawks to be kept out of sight at a military facility in Nevada. “There were going to be four aircraft, they were going to have a couple of ‘slick’ unmodified Black Hawks, and that was going to be their job was to fly the low-observables.”
However, he told Army Times that SOCOM cancelled those plans “within the last two years,” but before cancellation, some helicopters had been delivered. “I don’t know if it was for money or if it was because the technology was not achieving the reduction in the radar cross-section that they were hoping for.” Apparently, Black Hawk crews from the 160th’s 1st Battalion Fort Campbell, Kentucky, would be sent to train on the stealth helicopters in Nevada.
So far, US military officials have not commented on the matter. “There are probably people in the Pentagon tonight who are very concerned that pieces of the helicopter may be, even now, on their way to China, because we know that China is trying to make stealth aircraft,” ABC News consultant Richard Clarke said Wednesday evening. Pakistan enjoys strong ties with China, and has developed military aircraft with its neighbor.
It is also alleged that the formerly secret RQ-170 unmanned aerial vehicle was also used during the mission. Flight Global reports that the aircraft may have provided surveillance for the raid. The stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel was developed by Lockheed Martin and operated by the US Air Force, and is deployed to Afghanistan.