Operation Neptune’s Spear explained

May 06 2011 - 24 Comments

So far, with the help of Ugo Crisponi, I’ve been able to offer my readers a possible view of the Stealth Black Hawk involved in the Osama Bin Laden’s raid. However, although I’ve already underlined since my very first post on this topic that there MUST be much more flying assets involved in the complex mission, I think that it could be interesting to draw a possible “picture” of all the aircraft taking part in Operation Neptune’s Spear. This is obviously just one of the ways to piece facts together but it seems to me the more reasonable for a series of things I’ll briefly discuss. First of all let me stress a concept: the Stealth Black Hawk that crashed in the OBL (Osama Bin Laden) compund was not so stealth to be completely invisible. Indeed, to answer again to my famous Twitter friend @PrimorisEra (for an interesting comment on her intriguing “saga”, read here): I agree, no aircraft can achieve complete stealthiness; choppers in particular, with all those rotating parts, are not so easy to hide to radars.

Not being completely radar-evading, the choppers (I believe more than 2) were covered by some EW platforms, probably in the form of either EA-6B Prowlers from USS Enterprise or EA-18G Growlers from USS Carl Vinson, both currently in the North Arabian Sea. I’m pretty sure that a US supercarrier in the area played an important role in the entire operation: being involved in Operation Enduring Freedom, it launches on a daily basis its assets belonging to the Carrier Air Wing along the Transit Corridors to Afghanistan. Any activity along the TCs across Pakistan would appear absolutely normal to the Pakistani controllers. For the same reason, it is possible that at least an E-2C Hawkleye and a pair of Super Hornets (F-18E or F) launched by the Big-E were used to provide respectively AEW (Airborne Early Warning – air space management) for the entire operation and DCA (Defensive Counter Air): the mini-AWACS could detect any Pakistan AF fighter being scrambled against the formation of helicopters bringing the US Navy Seals to Abbottabad and the “Rhinos” could be directed against the interceptors to provide cover.

  1. Where did the helo depart from? Most probably, Jalalabad. The RQ-170 was seen at Kandahar so I assume it operated out of KAF.
  2. How many helicopters involved? More than 2, maybe 4 (plus spares?).
  3. How many were (let’s say) “stealth”? All of them. If one or two were stealth, both both those approaching Osama Bin Laden’s compound had to be stealth to ensure “stealthiness” of the formation.
  4. Which models? I think there are two possibilities: both were Silent/Stealth/Upgraded/Modified/etc. Black Hawks; or 2 were Stealth Black Hawks and Stealth Chinooks. I don’t believe that “normal” MH-47s were involved as some media speculated (for the above mentioned considerations on the stealthiness of the formation) so, I’m almost sure only new Black Hawks were used. However, since we now know that a Black Helicopter exists, I can’t completely rule out the possibility that, along with a Stealth Black Hawk, somewhere there’s also some sort of modified Stealth Chinook flying.
  5. Supporting aircraft? Many: KC-130Js provided air-to-air refueling to the assets (notice: all probe equipped), an RQ-170 provided detailed FMV of the target area, an RC-135 Rivet Joint performed SIGINT activity, an EC-130H provided EW jamming communication, Early Warning/Acquisition radar and navigation systems along with the above mentioned Prowlers/Growlers; an E-2 provided AEW, while an E-6 ABNCP acted as an airborne command post (Airborne Command, Control and Communications Platform). MV-22s (or C-2?) were waiting for the command to return to Jalalabad to carry OBL body on board Carl Vinson. MH-47s and other “back up” aircraft could be present as well, both on the ground and CAPping “on call”. BTW all aircraft orbited within the Afghan airspace.

As said, this is obviously just one of the possible descriptions of the mission. If I’ve missed something or if you think something must be fixed, just let me know. Even if I can’t be sure on the actual number of involved aircraft, I’m more than sure it was an extremely complex operation!

  • Slevin

    Interesting article once again, thanks :) What would be the costs of a operation like this?

  • Mark Brueschke

    The information coming out today about stealth kits on MH-60Ks says no in-air refueling probes are fitted when they have a stealth kit.


  • Jim Dorschner

    Interesting conjecture, but off the mark, particularly in terms of emphasis on navy assets offshore and the likelihood that any US fixed wing support asets penetrated PAK airspace. Highly unlikely on both counts. More likely Bagram AB AFG was the main launch pad, with possible forward refueling at an FOB along the border – depends on the range capabilities of the helos involved. Likely CSAR/support group of 2x MH-47 depart first, following a northern low level arc track to their holding orbit approx 50nm nw of target, time to arrive in conjunction with the strike force. Faster 2×2-ship stealth helo strike force then follows more direct path to target at high speed low level. Support assets in AFG airspace would include AWACs, F-16 CAP, EA-6B jammers, tankers, and probably a pair of B-1s with JDAM as last resort tool. Additional QRF/CSAR assets (MH-47 & HH-60) also on standby at FOB’s along the border. After stealth crash, one or more MH-47 from CSAR/support group called in to extract personnel and material. MH-47’s and surviving stealths then depart in company direct to Bagram, covered by now-obvious-to-Paks US assets in AFG airspace and probably polite but firm broadcasts by AWACs etc. on PAK air defence nets to back off and/or sow confusion. No reports of any active jamming of Pak comms or radars – probably not required.

    • Hi Jim,
      thank you for your feedback. However, please consider that the assets in my “conjecture” cross the Pakistani airspace along TCs that have been established some 10 years ago. Then they reach their loitering area located within the Afghan airspace. Maybe it wasn’t clear enough in my description, but that’s the idea.
      Dealing with the Navy ops: it was a Navy Seals ops, with involvement of USS Carl Vinson (at least for sea burial) hence I think that indeed it was a mission with a strong “naval” involvement.
      Thanks again for your comments.

  • Jim Dorschner

    Several clarification points David: 1. It was a CIA-led, JSOC conducted operation, not Navy. JSOC being a joint component command of US SOCOM, itself an independent Combatant Command with global authority. Supporting service assets were provided by US Forces AFG – a theater command, and from CENTCOM in the case of USS Carl Vinson, and from other Regional and Combatant Commands as required. 2. At its closest point of approach offshore in the Arabian Sea the Carl Vinson would be 700-800 nm from the target, separated from it by nearly the entire n-s length of Pak, including some its most formidable air defence networks. By comparison Bagram AB in AFG is about 200 nm distant, mostly across thinly populated, mountainous terrain, with poor Pak radar coverage, with the PAK-AFG border being just a little over 100nm from the target. 3. There are very tight rules governing use of the TC’s in PAK, including provision of specific info, advanced scheduling, restrictions on a/c types and activities, etc. All TC flights are closely monitored by the PAKs, as are the whereabouts and activities of the Carl Vinson. While its always possible we could have used the TC’s for support a/c, its highly unlikely, and the CV BG itself probably played little role other than distant on-call back-up during the withdrawal or as part of the larger deception plan. Given routine employment of AWACs and EA-6B in AFG airspace and their reach from there, no need to employ E-2’s or other carrier assets in the TC’s, where they could offer little capability while substantially increasing operational risks. Also, we probably employed no active jamming of PAK radars or comm nets.

    All in all it will be a long time before most details emerge. Keep up the good work. You have a fine site here, very insightful and provocative. Cheers, Jim

    • Hi Jim,
      I know it was a joint ops. My answer was to your statement about unbalance towards Navy assets. I think there was a significant USN contribution. That’s it.

      Dealing with the carrier being too far, I think it’s not such a problem. I’ve visited USS Nimitz at sea during OEF/Westpac 09 cruise and I have had an in-sight into the contribution a carrier in the Fifth fleet AOR is able to provide for a 16 pages special story published here in Italy: CSG commander told me that on average between the 25 and 35% of all the sorties in the Afghan theatre.
      The Carl Vinson was within the usual range for any daily activity and launching 2 Rhinos and 1 Hawkeye was not a problem at all. For sure such activity would be coherent with any OEF ATO and would not be suspicious.

      E-3 are not so routinely present in the AFG airspace to such an extent that NATO deployed some of its E-3 in the region this year. When a carrier is in the Indian Ocean / Arabian Sea, as I was explained by crews of the VAW-115, considering the total lack of air threats, E-2s are used for Air Space Management and Tanker coordination tasks acting as information sharing hub within the dynamic joint battlespace. So, IMHO, they were needed, at least for the latter task.

      TC are only pre-approved routes to the Afghan airspace. So assets capabilities had to be exploited elsewhere, not necessarily during transit along corridors.

      Jamming of PAK radars and comms nets was required to keep the operation secret (this seems to be certain unless one day we’ll discover that Pakistan was informed of the operation). A sort of black out of comms and electricity was reported by media at Abbottabad. What if not jamming?

      I’m not ruling out the possibility that Bagram was used as main FOB for the entire operation. You might be right. However I think that it was easier, despite distance, to use aircraft carrier resources.

      Anyway, I want to stres one thing: I don’t want to persuade you that my report is correct since it is based only on guesses, unconfirmed reports, etc. It’s just an hypothetical scenario (as the majority of those I’ve been reading these days) maybe worth a Tom Clancy’s novel. Hence I truly appreciate the debate and comments, especially when they come from an authoritative source as you are.

  • Devin K.

    Best coverage I have found on this, with in depth analysis is here:
    You guys should get together, combined its a perfect picture. He mentions that F-22s were in the region for no real reason and would of been a no brainer with a bunch of other explanations. I emailed him telling him I was posting this. He will probably comment here in response. Great work on all sides here!

  • subfly

    The UH60 drawing resembles very (too) much the ill fated Sikorsky stealth, except for the tail rotor, which obviously had to keep the original drive. The dishes on the hub does not seem a full fairing, just simple shapes to hide the “doppler glinting” of the rotating components from most lateral views: I worked at another Helo manufacturer and we had a design for a much more “inclusive” fairing for the main rotor which would have covered all aspects, but it looked as a maintenance nightmare (of course not a problem for special ops, but for a normal service machine…). Unless there is a “soft” shroud between the dishes, but from the pictures I see no signs of something like this.

  • the lack of inflight refueling for the stealth hawks indicate a forward area rearming and refueling point.

    which adds to another point of interest (at least to me)…what were the ground units involved?

    • Sparky

      Internal Robertson extended range fuel tanks can take the place of the rear row of seats and double the range of the aircraft. We looked at them before the ESSS/ERFS became common when I was in the 101st. The distance from Jalalabad to the compound is only 137nm straight line distance (never been there, so I don’t know the route). So you’d have close to 500-600 nm worth of range for a mission requiring 275-300nm.

  • Jim Dorschner

    Roger dodger David, certainly will be interesting to get the full story…someday. Keep up the good work!

  • Michal


    Firstly I would like to say that it is extremely valuable and nicely written weblog with a huge amount of in-depth information. I really enjoy reading it!

    However in case of Bin Laden’s raid I’m not so sure about so many assets involved. I would rather say, that it was done in much low level profile. I think that so much air activity even involving active jamming would only alert whole Pakistani Air Force and could easily lead into nasty dogfight with unprecendent political consequeces. It rather think(and everythink what I have read until today seems to confirm) that it was performed mainly with the help of theterrain(Abottabar is not so far from Afghan boder and terrain is very good for low-level speed raid with helos if piloted by skilled pilots) and apparently with stealth technologies. For sure there were some drones and recon assets in the air and some heavily armed fighters and jammers on alert that would have intervened in case of any problems, but I really don’t think that they tried to jam them from the begging. Have a good day!

  • Rob Allen

    I am so proud of our military and its members. Too bad the glory hounds in the Government and the media.Have to censor and mislead as usual. Oh well Vote wisely…

  • Devin K.

    Interesting rotor comparison made along with great analysis here:

  • Alan Smithee

    I’ve heard mention of a Chinook approx. 20% smaller fitted with baffles, anyone else? Seen a very small pic, don’t know much about it

  • Tried to work back from reports of 79/80 total raid personnel together with what we know about the Linda Norgrove rescue raid of last October and got this scenario for the assault itself:

    — 2 “Stealthhawks” with the “roughly” two dozen SEALs and crew of 6/8 split between the two. They fast-rope into the compound, inside the walls, one loses lift, lands hard, possibly damaging the tail rotor. (I do not believe that either of the MH-60s was ever intended to touch down.)

    — 2 Chinooks with a Ranger platoon of 42 split between the two craft. This explains the “fight out” option that has been mentioned in several dispatches. One of the Ranger units of two squads fast-ropes down from a Chinook to secure a landing zone in the fields adjacent to the compound. The other is probably held in reserve throughout the mission. Because they do not assault the compound itself, they may not need any stealth upfits and rely instead on the EW craft to “mask” their presence from govt units.

    — Once the compound is secure, the Chinook lands to pick up the SEALs and bin Laden’s body. With a capacity of up to 55, the numbers still work and keeps the number of birds on the ground to a minimum.

  • Great job on the write-up. I spent 6 years in the NAVY and forgot most of the jargon so this brings back a lot of memories. If anybody’s interested, check out the Website link which goes to a “Thank You Team Six” site for cool Operation Neptune’s Spear t-shirts.

  • ramjet

    Many reports says that Pakistani radar detected aircraft along the Afghan-Pakistan border near Jalabad, before the imminent raid (half a dozen they say); they tracked a AWACS plane and five F-18s.

    About the possibility presence of fighters and awacs coming from a carrier along the transit corridor. More likely, in my opinion, I think that due to the proximity of the area of operations, was the aircraft over jalalabad that did the task You speculated.

    The nature of the corridor requires the aircraft to follow a roughly straight route; this does not fit well with a CAP or a loop course tipical of an awacs plane. This behavior would have certainly attracted attention by the Pak air defence

    Maybe 1 awacs to coordinate, 2 growlers to jam and 2 hornet to zoom in if any pak scramble was detected. Or maybe only to divert the attention.
    About this, I don’t know if the elctronic suite of the EA-18G is so advanced to jam a radar without let him to be aware; if yes, it could be the reason why many other aircraft and helos present on the area have not been detected.

  • Don

    Everyone misses the obvious. To fly a body out of Afghanistan to Arabian sea you have fly almost all the way over Pakistani airspace. How could that be done, and we would have had to land on Pakistani territory to transfer body to helicopter that could land on carrier. This whole thing is a lie and completely made up, Pakistan would have had to be in on the whole thing, or no body was ever flown out of afghanistan.

    • Roland Lawrence

      I always thought he died in 2002! Awesome black ops thou.

  • Joe

    I don’t think anyone has also mentioned that the CIA/US Army had ground teams observing the house prior to the raid, these were most likely ISA activity guys who prep a site for the raid, they made the call and trigger the go ahead for the president and made sure bin laden was actually in the compound for the night. These ISA teams would have ballsy job of traveling into PAK days before the raid undercover as civilians, mark the landing zone with IR strobes etc and then observer and report afterwards. These guys would be dressed as PAK nationals and would speak the language. After the missions completed they would leave quietly.

  • Pingback: Tactical-Life.com » “Breakdown of the Takedown”: Another bin Laden raid infographic.()

  • GWetzel

    Very interesting but the Vision Air Wing does not contain a Growler squadron. Originally CVW 17 was to have VAQ-138 but they were assigned an expeditonary mission.

  • Rich

    Hi David,
    The E-6B acting as ABCCC first deployed to Stuttgart which is nothing out of the ordinary. It then, the day of the raid repositioned to RAF Mildenhall and took off during the evening (I was there watching it – and listening to its orderwire). It was to provide command and control to two B-2A Spirits which crossed the Atlantic and through the Med Sea. These were “backups” if the primary assets failed. The B-2s were to obliterate the compound.
    The B-2As were picked up by HF monitors and in communication with the E-6B throughout the mission period. They turned around once mission was a success and air assets were flying back into Afghanistan (Jalalabad).