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. 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.

  2. 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?

    • 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.

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

  4. Hi,

    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!

  5. 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…

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