Saturday, May 21, 2011

WIRED: Was a stealth Chinook used in Obama raid?

By now we know that the two helicopters that deposited the 23 U.S. operatives (and their dog) into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 were no standard-issue Army rotorcraft. Rather, they were stealth modifications of the MH-60 Blackhawk, optimized to reduce their noise, infrared and radar signatures.

But there’s a growing belief that other stealthy choppers might have been present, as well. It’s the latest in a series of revelations regarding the sophisticated tactics and techs behind the high-stakes raid.

We know about the pair of radar-evading Blackhawks because one of the elusive birds — dubbed “Silenthawks” by the media — crashed inside the bin Laden compound, leaving behind an intact tail rotor that photographers documented the following morning and aviation geeks used to infer the aircraft’s overall configuration.

That crash, plus the dicey politics surrounding the CIA-led assault, offer up circumstantial evidence of an even more secretive “silent” helicopter: a possible variant of the twin-rotor MH-47 Chinook, sporting the same stealth treatments as the Silenthawk and operated by the same 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

As he did with the Silenthawk, aviation journalist David Cenciotti commissioned artist Ugo Crisponi to produce concept art depicting this alleged copter. (See artwork, above.)

Early reporting, including our own, proposed that Chinooks likely participated in the raid, for purely mathematical reasons. Twenty-four Navy SEALs and one dog would max out the capacity of a pair of H-60s. A single H-47, never mind two, could carry the whole assault force with room to spare.

That assumption was challenged on May 3, when CIA chief Leon Panetta said the assault birds were definitely “Blackhawks.” The same day, the photographic evidence surfaced of those choppers’ special mods. From that, observers concluded that the operation was conducted without Pakistani approval, and indeed against their wishes, using H-60 helicopters capable of slipping past Islamabad’s radars.

That seemed to definitively rule out the big, loud, radar-reflecting Chinooks. “I don’t believe that ‘normal’ MH-47s were involved,” Cenciotti wrote on May 6, owing to “considerations on the stealthiness of the formation.”


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