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 rotor comparison made along with great analysis here:

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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