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On that Helicopter in the Bin Laden Raid

- May 10, 2011

If you’re like me, you can’t get enough details about this bin Laden raid.  (The dog, people!)  This piece over at Wired’s Danger Room talks about a mysterious helicopter used in the raid and suggests that it was primarily designed for stealth — i.e., to avoid Pakistani radar.  A colleague of mine who studies military strategy and tactics isn’t so sure.  Via email:

bq. The end of this article makes much of the fact that this helo’s stealthy traits were key to avoiding Pakistani detection. While the helo is for sure more stealthy than the normal 60, I’m a little dubious of that as the key motive for using this modified design. First, it is just very hard to reduce the radar cross-section of a helo; by its very nature, with that swirling rotor, it is very likely to be detected by Doppler, even with special surface features like radar-absorbing paint and a smooth skin. And second, Pakistani detection by radar would not have been a very big concern with respect to this operation anyway, even for a normal Black Hawk. The Pakistanis simply do not have an integrated air defense system with look-down, AWACS-style capabilities (though their F-16s do have a look-down radar, obviously, but those wouldn’t be on the patrol on some random night looking for a helo). Otherwise the Pakistanis are just using ground-based air defense radars that aren’t going to find some helo flying nape of the earth.

bq. What this means is that reducing sound was probably a far bigger concern for a) going undetected en route and b) achieving tactical surprise on the target. So my best guess is these mods were about reducing sound, and possibly about increasing speed as well, rather than producing stealth. In fact, the apparent shroud around the tail is similar to a helo the Army (well, Rumsfeld) cancelled back in ’04, the Comanche; and that shroud, again, was for muffling noise.

bq. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, and it could have all of these features with only some of them being particularly relevant to this operation, but I am wary of those who infer a lot from the Pakistanis’ amazing air defense defenses not detecting these helos. I am also skeptical of those who say that this is some totally new special aircraft, mainly because the people in the JSOC community (especially Mike Vickers, now the newly confirmed undersecretary for intel, but previously the ASD who oversaw JSOC) have been pushing hard for stealthy transport for years, for doing missions exactly like this. Why would he waste his time and political capital pushing for that if he had a perfectly good super secret dedicated helicopter that could already do the mission perfectly?