The CIA used unmanned stealth aircraft to provide surveillance imagery of bin Laden’s compound months before the raid took place, according to American officials. The Washington Post reports that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used stealth drones to fly undetected across the Afghan border into Pakistan to obtain video that satellites could not provide.
Pakistan does not officially allow American drones to cross into Pakistan to pursue Taliban militia and has objected to incidences when American Predators and Reapers attacked militants along the border.
“It’s not like you can just park a Predator overhead – the Pakistanis would know,” a former official told the Washington Post on condition of anonymity. The CIA also used satellite imagery and eavesdropping equipment located in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was discovered and killed.
The Washington Post says the stealth UAVs provided imagery on the night of the raid and were also used to monitor electronic transmissions.
Flight Global reports that the formerly secret RQ-170 unmanned stealth aerial vehicle was the aircraft used during the mission. The stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel was developed by Lockheed Martin and operated by the US Air Force, and is deployed to Afghanistan. It was only officially acknowledged in 2009, two years after it was first sighted at an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The United States feels that Pakistan is not doing enough to combat Taliban militia and was asking ‘tough questions’ about how bin Laden could remain undetected in Abbotabad, which is home to a large Pakistani military base.
US Senator John Kerry this week told Pakistan that it was necessary to keep the country in the dark before the bin Laden raid on May 2 to ensure its success, and asked Pakistanis to “see this in its historical, critical light.” No one in the Pakistani government or military was notified beforehand, infuriating and humiliating the army and government.
Bin Laden’s compound was located near military and nuclear facilities, making it imperative that the operation go undetected. To protect such sensitive sites, Pakistan’s military invested heavily in radar and other aircraft-detection systems. “They have traditionally worried most about penetration from India, but also the United States,” David Albright, a nuclear weapons proliferation expert at the Institute for Science and International Security said.
“It’s a difficult challenge trying to secure information about any area or object of interest that is in a location where access is denied,” retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, who served as head of intelligence and surveillance for that service, told the Washington Post.
Pakistan sees the mission, as well as other drone attacks against militants (which were stepped up after May 2) as a violation of its sovereignty, Reuters reports.
The fact that the Taliban do not have radar facilities is one indication that the aircraft is being used to spy on Pakistan or Iran, experts like Bill Sweetman believe. In December 2009, South Korea’s JoongAng Daily newspaper reported that the RQ-170 Sentinel had been test-flown in South Korea for the past few months and that it was expected that they would be permanently deployed to replace Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, Bill Sweetman argued that the Sentinel’s deployments to Afghanistan and South Korea were probably undertaken to monitor Pakistan and North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.
The Abbottabad raid revealed another secret US stealth platform when one of the helicopters made a crash landing at the compound and was destroyed by US forces. However, a large tail section survived the SEAL’s explosives and revealed a previously unknown stealth design. Experts believe it may be a modified UH-60 Black Hawk.