Operation Neptune’s Spear explained

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!

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

Comments are closed.