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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stealth: Just Part of the Story?

By Andrew Drwiega

The problem with second-guessing special operations actions is that you don’t actually find out what really happened until much later. But why should those involved tell the world about their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) when they might have to use them again in a similar scenario in the near future?

With little information officially given to date about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group’s (NSWDG) raid to ‘get’ Osama bin Laden, and given that some of the ‘facts’ about the attack have even changed over the short time since it was carried out (he was armed, then he wasn’t/there was a firefight, there were few shots actually fired), a certain amount of what commentators think they know may be ‘intelligence noise’ to distract and cover up the true operational details (nothing wrong with this incidentally, as there are plenty more al-Qaeda operatives at large intent on continuing attacks). The most obvious talking point surrounding Operation Neptune’s Spear was the use of ‘stealth’ UH-60 Black Hawks—aircraft that have seemingly not been seen before and have remained secret and un-photographed by the veracious media and ‘spotter’ communities who are usually so sharp and recording every new type of aircraft. If the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (the Nightstalkers) is operating the type, then they would surely have been seen around the Fort Campbell area, the home of the Regiment, or another base throughout the country. Did nobody capture a picture of this aircraft—not even on a cell phone camera?

Much is currently being discussed about the ‘stealth’ characteristics believed to be incorporated into the Black Hawk helicopters that carried out this mission. Without any official confirmation, the only visual evidence in the public domain are images of the tail section that remained intact after the SEAL team was reported to have destroyed the rest of the airframe. Some of the design work in this surviving section does seem to resemble aspects of the designs incorporated into the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche that was canceled by the U.S. government in 2004 after nearly $7 billion was spent, but by then the program was seriously behind schedule. It’s safe to assume that successful aspects of this work and any advances in technology that had been achieved during the development phases of the Comanche would have been pushed forward and continued into subsequent mods and upgrades.

Looking at the Comanche’s Operational Requirements Document, published on the website of the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org), makes for interesting reading: “All RAH-66 Comanche survivability characteristics shall be optimized, balanced, and integrated... Susceptibility reduction (e.g., low glint canopy, infrared (IR) suppressing paint and materials, IR suppression of the exhaust gases, reduced visual and acoustic signature, reduced radar cross section) and passive countermeasures (CM) (e.g., radar, missile, laser warning and chemical detection) are required. Active CM (e.g., radar, IR jamming, flares, chaff) shall be applied as necessary to preserve the appropriate balance of passive and active systems necessary for susceptibility reduction.”

The points that seem to stand out regarding the raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, are that at least two Black Hawk helicopters and potentially two Boeing CH-47 Chinooks were involved. Following the ‘hard landing’ made by one of the UH-60s, possibly a ‘settling with power’ incident caused by a heavily loaded, modified aircraft, in hot and high temperature conditions, at some point other aircraft were called forward to extract some of the SEAL personnel. But why did an incident like this happen; was it an unavoidable technical problem or was it a flaw in the plan? If the Black Hawk was a ‘special’ version, had it been previously tested or was this its maiden outing, heavily loaded and flying into battle under extreme conditions with the pressures of none other than the Commander-in-Chief watching over its shoulder?

If the Black Hawks were indeed stealthy, how far did the Chinooks have to ‘stand-off’ during the insertion? (As the slab-sided CH-47 is not one of the world’s most radar defeating helicopters.) Nap-of-the-earth flying is likely to have been involved, communications and other jamming (perhaps even from an as yet unreported, high-flying fixed-wing aircraft or unmanned aircraft), subterfuge in terms of radio calls or transponder codes perhaps, and even the collusion of some in the Pakistan military who may have looked the wrong way at the right moment (given that the CIA was involved, not beyond the bounds of possibility).

Some of the above is speculation, but it seems that adding stealth properties to a couple of Black Hawks would not answer all of the questions concerning this masterstroke of a mission that ranks alongside the best that the world’s elite special forces have ever conducted.

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