On May 6, 2011, few days after Osama Bin Laden had been killed, I published an analysis of Operation Neptune’s Spear, with the assets involved in the raid, known and unknown facts (and some speculations).
Although “No Easy Day” does not provide much details about the Stealth Black Hawk exposed by raid, the U.S. Navy Seal Team Six operator’s first person recollection of the raid contains some interesting details about the way the operation was conducted, the most important of those is that the radar-evading choppers did not approach Abbottabad from the west, but from the east, with a presumed violation of India’s airspace.
“Presumed” because we can’t be sure New Dehli was not informed of the raid (even if it is quite unlikely, considered the secrecy surrounding the raid).
An interesting review of the book with the most interesting aviation-related details can be read on Aviationintel website.
Anyway, based on the details revealed by “No Easy Day”, I’ve asked Ugo Crisponi to update the first Neptune’s Spear infographic, and here’s the latest view of what has happened the night Bin Laden was killed.
1) A pair of reserve MH-47s (maybe Stealth Chinooks?) were on stand by at a Forward Air Refueling Point (FARP) north of Abbottabad. They carried personnel and material to set up the FARP as well as a team for the eventual Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) mission.
2) The two MH-Xs flew to Abbottabad using callsigns “Chalk 1” and “Chalk 2”
3) One of the MH-47s flew to the compound to pick up the crew of the downed helicopter.
4) After recovering the crew of the crash landed MH-X, the MH-47 flew directly to Jalalabad
5) and 6) Both the MH-47 and the MH-X returned to Jalalabad from the FARP (the latter had made a fuel stop there after the raid).
7) the SEALs Team Six was flown from Jalalabad to Bagram in an MC-130
It shows a U.S. soldier posing in front of a seemingly radar-evading helicopter that doesn’t remind me any known type of American helo.
The image file seems to be genuine and includes seemigly valid EXIF data (see below for details). I’ve just blurred the nametag and face of the U.S. Army serviceman (until I’m able to contact the user who uploaded it to ask him some questions – so far I’ve got no answer) just in case the image was leaked by accident on the Internet for anyone to see, share, download etc.
However, since it’s hard to believe that anyone would post a picture of a secret chopper online posing next to it, the helicopter in the image, with some typical stealth features (including an F-117 type of nose as the one designed in 1978 for the stealth UH-60), could just be a full scale model used for a movie.
Indeed, a new movie titled Zero Dark Thirty, is due out Dec. 19. It will recall the chronicle of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. Here’s the film’s teaser trailer.
Is the one in the picture the fictional chopper used in the new movie or something else?
Even if the main U.S. media outlets have already published it, I still think the paper shown below deserves some attention: it is the memo by the (then) CIA Director Leon Panetta, giving the go ahead to the May 1, 2011 raid, dubbed “Operation Neptune’s Spear” that killed Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Received phone call from Tom Donilon who stated that the President made a decision with regard to AC1 [Abbottabad Compound 1]. The decision is to proceed with the assault. The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out. Those instructions were conveyed to Admiral McRaven at approximately 10:45 am.
The U.S. willingness to use Stealth Black Hawk helicopters during the Osama Bin Laden raid shows the importance of a mission involving Special Forces, aircraft, ships, drones, satellites and who knows how many new/unknown technologies, deep inside a foreign country’s territory, as if Pakistan was the worst American enemy.
As we know, President Barack Obama gave the go ahead to the operation on Apr. 29 at 08.20AM, in the Diplomatic Room, before leaving for Alabama. According to the reports, he had met his “national security adviser Thomas Donilon, counter-terrorism adviser John O Brennan, and other senior national security aides to go through the detailed plan to attack the compound and sign the formal orders authorising it”.
In the cyber age, this memo shows that handwritten papers are still an effective way to exchange secret orders or other classified information.
As hypothesized last year, when the footage showing Obama “stealthily” exchanging pieces of paper with Air Force General Ed Wilson on arrival at Cape Canaveral, Florida, few hours after authorizing the raid, fueled theories according to which the President of the U.S. gave the Air Force General, Commander of the 45th Space Wing, and Director, Eastern Range, Patrick AFB, Fla., information that could be related to the OBL raid.
The first thing I did when Lee Armstrong told me to give a try to Planefinder‘s new search feature was to look for some E-6Bs, which are among the most interesting military planes to advertise their position on the Web using full ADS-B. They can be seen flying around the main operating base of Tinker AFB, or near the two alert bases on the West and East coasts (respectively, Travis AFB, California, and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland) under the bogus callsign “GOTO FMS”.
Since I found four of them overflying the U.S. I ironically tweeted:
There are at least four E-6B doomsday planes over the US now. One of them on an intriguing route across Nevada (Tonopah range -> Las Vegas)
Many of my followers reacted to my tweet with questions and retweets. I explained them that the E-6B TACAMO (“TAke Charge And Move Out”) is not only used transmit instructions to the fleet ballistic missile submarines in case of nuclear war but that they are also used as back up of the four E-4Bs NAOC (National Alternate Operations Center), operating as ABNCP (Airborne Command Post) platforms.
Everybody know E-4Bs are extremely important. In the event of a war, a terrorist attack, an alien invasion and so on (hence the “doomsday plane” nickname), these aircraft are destined to keep the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other “decision makers” alive to direct nuclear (and conventional) forces, by receiving, verifying and relaying EAM (Emergency Action Messages).
One aircraft is usually airborne every 12 hours, with another one ready for departure with a 5-minute notice. If national command centers on the ground are attacked or unavailable, an E-4B is immediately scrambled: that’s why a “doomsday plane” was seen orbiting above Washington DC minutes after a hijacked plane had crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.
The E-6B Mercury can do the same job. Built on the Boeing 707 airframe and using a B737 cockpit, this aircraft has a range of 5,500 miles, and accommodates 23 crew members. The U.S. Navy has a total fleet of sixteen E-6Bs. It can perform the so-called Looking Glass mission (mirroring the ground-based C3 center at Offutt AFB and relaying orders), it can talk to submarines trailing a 26,000 ft wire antenna, it can launch commands to ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) via Airborne Launch Control System, and can perform C3 (Command Control Communication) operations to forces operating in theatre. For this reason they are often deployed abroad: they were monitored in Iraq and have been deployed to the UK in the past.
An E-6Bs flying over the UK when Osama Bin Laden was killed
Even if I was sure that an E-6 had taken part to the raid at Abbottabad as an ABNCP platform (to such an extent that I had put one these planes in the “crime scene” of my Operation Neptune’s Spear explained article) I had never realized that the one over UK could be linked to the Osama Bin Laden raid. Actually, I wasn’t even sure that the plane deployed to RAF Mildenhall since Apr. 28 was flying when the raid took place.
However, once again I thought that Planefinder could be of some help. Its new playback feature gives you the opportunity to monitor the traffic from Apr. 1, 2011 onwards. I gave it a try and found that “Iron 18” (registration 164409 – “GOTO FMS” on the Mode-S transponder – a VQ-3 “Ironman” airframe based on its callsign), was flying at 310 Kts, FL260 one of its 8-hour round robin missions (made of some counter-clockwise laps) over the UK around 19.0o UTC on May 1, 2011, at the same time when the Stealth Black Hawk had landed at the Bin Laden’s compound.
Two screenshots showing Iron 18 orbiting over the UK on May 1, 2011 (the previous days’ tracks are not purged by Planefinder’s playback feature so also the inbound track from the US is still visible)
Interestingly, the same aircraft had flown the same mission profile on the previous days, landing more or less at the same time it did on May 1 (at 20.26 UTC), as if it had performed a couple of work up sorties at the same altitutes, speeds and times.
Actually, these kind of orbits over the UK have been flown from some years and communication relay missions take place nearer to the area of operations. However, the mysterious E-6B presence in the British skies while the most important US military operation of the recent time took place can not be a coincidence. The Mercury is capable to communicate on virtually every radio frequency band, on commercial satellites and on the Internet, using also a secure VOIP system.
What if it was orbiting over the UK to exploit a particular geostationary satellite or to act as a back up ABNCP another E-6B flying in the vicinity of Abbottabad?
There’s also another intriguing hypothesis: “Iron 18” was performing command and control relay to two stealth B-2s that were flying somewhere in the vicinity of the Pakistani airspace, ready to bomb the compound in Abbottabad if the Navy Seals raid on board the Stealth Black Hawk failed to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. In fact, we know for sure that, in March 2011, Obama authorized the U.S. to bomb Osama bin Laden’s compound using two B-2 bombers but changed his mind when he learned the compound would be wiped out and there would be no DNA proof of his death. But we can’t rule out the possibility that an air strike with 2,000 lbs GBU-31 GPS-guided bombs would be the “Plan B” if the Navy Seals raid failed.