In Sean Naylor’s new book Relentless Strike: The Secret History Of Joint Special Operations Command previously unknown details about the stealth Black Hawk helicopters that were used on Bin Laden raid in 2011 are discussed. According to Naylor, the exotic helicopters were test articles from a defunct program that has now been reborn in improved fashion following their use during Operation Neptune Spear.
In the book, Naylor claims the classified project that resulted in only two examples of the exotic Black Hawks being built had two aims. The first was to reshape the aircraft and cover it with radar absorbent material (RAM), to lower its radar signature. The second was to make the aircraft significantly quieter.
As a rule, the larger the airframe, the farther out the target could hear the helicopter. The 160th wanted to reduce the time between an enemy hearing the helicopter approaching and it arriving overhead by as much as possible. “Even cutting fifteen seconds is huge,” said a 160th veteran. “And thirty seconds is amazing, because then you can be on top of the target and fast roping people down.”
Apparently, the stealth Black Hawks became a significant rumor within the special operations community around 2000. One operator likened them to unicorns. By the middle of the decade, Naylor reports that the program picked up speed and funding, with 1st Batallion of the famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), otherwise known as the “Night Stalkers,” sending a pair of crews to train on two prototypes of the exotic helicopters.
Naylor goes on to state that although the program was based out of Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, training on the Black Hawks occurred at Area 51 in Nevada, China Lake Naval Weapons Station in California, and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The idea was to build four of the helicopters to start a new special operations aviation detachment in Nevada, but this never happened. By 2011 the program was largely cancelled, although two airframes existed and were flown occasionally by 160th SOAR personnel.
According to the book, the two stealth Black Hawks had questionable performance, with the weight penalties resulting from their stealth modifications making them hard to control under certain conditions, especially in a hover. Naylor states multiple times that the aircraft were not of the SEALs choosing and that they were pushed on the elite special operators.
The SEALs wanted to use the large, heavily modified and well armed MH-47 Chinooks that the 160th SOAR is so well known for and has flown into some of the most hostile places around the globe. In fact, the book claims they tested the Chinooks against Area 51’s radars that mimicked those used by Pakistan’s air defense system and the data showed they would have a good chance of survival by using traditional infiltration techniques like nap-of-the-earth flying. Even still, their protest was flat-out denied by the CIA and Admiral William McRaven, the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, himself.
That sort of thing actually happened multiple times over, including right before the mission was executed. The White House was sold that the stealth Black Hawks were invisible to radar, and as such, the SEALs would infiltrate their way into Abbottabad, Pakistan using them. The fact that they were totally unproven in combat and nearly experimental nature was just a factored risk.
The book also mentions that the SEALs looked at jumping into Bin Laden’s compound. This idea was supposedly shot down by McRaven because of the power lines and phone wires in the area. The book does not detail how the SEALs would infiltrate so far into Pakistani airspace as to hit their target via vertical envelopment. If this was as serious an option as the book states, it highlights the possibility that Special Operations Command may have a stealthy fixed-wing platform that could have dropped the SEALs from high over such well defended airspace. It is also possible that such an action could have been facilitated via a C-17 or C-130 acting like it was on an international route over Pakistan.
During the raid, the book claims that the stealth Black Hawk that made a hard landing in Bin Laden’s courtyard was in such good condition that the pilots wanted to attempt to fly it out. Instead the decision was made to destroy the helicopter. The blast famously sheared off the helicopter’s out-of-this-world looking empennage, which became its own sensation and scandal in its own right.
Pictures of the tail quickly made their way around the globe, and eventually an enraged and embarrassed Pakistan gave China a hands-on visit with it before giving it back to its owner, the U.S. government, many weeks later.
I’ve long said that if that modified Black Hawk had not crashed, and even if the tail was destroyed during its demolition, we would not have known about the Bin Laden operation for weeks or even possibly months after it occurred. The Pakistanis would have had every reason to cover up the whole event, but it is pretty hard to deny the burnt out carcass of an H-60 and the untouched tail section hanging over a suburban courtyard wall that looked like something right from Area 51, which it was.
Relentless Strike goes on to detail how on July 3, 2014 stealth Black Hawks were used once again on a deep penetrating raid on a terrorist hideout in Syria. This time the target of the raid was a group of western hostages, including American journalist James Foley.
According to Naylor, the once-defunct stealth Black Hawk project had been brought back to life after the Bin Laden raid, with new and improved airframes being constructed and a new unit being formed to operate them. Naylor claims that 40 personnel support the program at Nellis Air Force Base, just north of Las Vegas.
Although Naylor is most likely correct in writing that the program may exist at Nellis, the helicopters almost certainly do not operate from there. Tonopah Test Range Airport, once the secret home to the F-117 Nighthawk, is a much more likely operating location for such a unit and Special Operations Command has had a strong presence there for years.
During the Syrian raid, the stealthy helicopters punched 200 miles into Syrian airspace, where operators stormed the target facility while an armed drone provided over-watch. A firefight ensued, and although the facility matched the descriptions that intelligence had garnered relating to the hostages’ location, they were nowhere to be found. After close to an hour on the ground, the helicopters returned to their forward operating base in Jordan without their prize.
The only U.S. casualty during the operation was one of the helicopter pilots, who had been shot in the leg during the assault.
Talk of a follow-on stealth Black Hawk program is not exactly new, although this is the first time it has been so finely described in print. And although it’s not the first piece of in-depth writing that has given us unique details about the stealth Black Hawks used on the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden (see here and here), Relentless Strike is full of many other unique details about Special Operations Command’s shadowy and winding history.
But it still makes you wonder about all the things we don’t hear about.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com
Photo credits: MH-47 via ERIC SALARD/wikicommons, Stealth Black Hawk tail- Public domain, top H-60 silhouette shot via AP, all others via US Army/DoD