Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Not your average Black Hawk

I get my plane geek on in this post. Be warned.

In amongst the wall to wall coverage of Osama Bin Laden's death, there is an intriguing little element of the story that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of play outside of specialist media, and it is to do with just why Pakistan in addition to not being in the loop anyway, didn't seem to notice the airborne part of the operation.

One of the helicopters used in the raid crashed on arrival (and it genuinely seems to be crashed rather than shot down. It happens), and apart from making me wonder if that was deliberate as it is a tactic that has been used before, the surviving wreckage that wasn't destroyed by the SEALs seems to have it's own suggestive story to tell.

The damaged helicopter was in theory destroyed so classified bits of it didn't circulate into the wrong hands, which isn't that unusual, even in supposedly friendly territory. The footage of the surviving wreckage from this angle that surfaced on Tuesday had me a little confused though when it came to figuring out what type it was:
The closest match I could come up with was the tail of a Black Hawk, but some of the details didn't match up. The image above is looking down on the wreckage in plan view; the rest of the helicopter would normally be at the top of the picture. For comparison, here is a representative what a Black Hawk family tail looks like (usually minus the serviceman):
The main thing that stands out is the horizontal stabiliser (the little 'wing'). On the regular Black Hawk it is unswept, but on the one above it is clearly swept forward. In hindsight a few other anomalies from the regular are obvious, but I don't really know the Black Hawk that well, so put it down to crash damage and moved on.

This morning though some more images came to my attention, and as an aviation enthusiast, got my attention:

Now without making any grandiose claims, I am pretty good with my casual aircraft recognition, but if this was genuine, it didn't look like anything I had ever seen. I had no idea what it was, which is unusual for me. More unusual though was that after having a look around a few aviation forums, mostly populated by people in a position to know more than me, nobody else seemed to know what it was either. Highly irregular. It looked like a Black Hawk tail, but not a version anyone without a need-to-know was familiar with.

The official story at the moment seems to be that a pair of MH-60 Black Hawks inserted the SEALs into the compound, with a pair of MH-47 Chinooks carrying more SEALs as an airborne reserve. Now the proportions and configuration of this thing match an MH-60, but the details are way different. It appears to have a five-bladed tail rotor compared to the usual four, but the main thing that sticks out is that it is stealthy. The normal MH-60 is not a stealthy design-this thing is. The shrouding and shielding of moving parts around the tail rotor, the fairing around the top and base of the fin, the silver-grey paint (yes, you can have stealthy paint), and possibly the non standard forward swept stabiliser are all stealth increasing features. You can't completely stealthify a non stealthy design (low observability is most effective when designed in from the start), and helicopters are harder to make stealthy than fixed wing aircraft, but on the face of it this looks like stealth modification. Not only was the helicopter destroyed to conceal classified material and equipment, it seems the helicopter itself was classified. If the tail looks this different, I wonder what the rest of it looks like (and also if the MH-47's were similarly modified). There is some reasonably informed speculation about exactly what it probably is here and here.

So if this is genuine (and there is no real reason to suspect it isn't), it is the inadvertent disclosure of a previously completely secret technology application. This doesn't happen very often. Stealth modified Special Operations helicopters have been rumoured apparently, but that was as far as knowledge went outside the operators.

That this previously secret technology was used in this context suggests the mission was considered important enough by it's planners that it was worth risking compromising secret assets for, when in theory at least other less secret assets could have been employed (by contrast there were at least two occasions in the 1980's when the then still secret F-117 was considered for live use, but not used for fear of compromising the technology secrets).

Another reason this kind of extreme high profile op isn't considered lightly, is that the fallout and political cost of failure is massive and far reaching, as witnessed by the Battle of Mogadishu and Eagle Claw debacles. No way did Obama authorise this to get a bump in the polls; the stakes are too high (ironically, in the run-up to the 1980 election, President Carter suffered in the polls not only for the Eagle Claw failure, but for not revealing the existence of then new stealth technology after he cancelled the first incarnation of the non-stealthy B-1 bomber in favour of the secret B-2).

The conspiracy theories started swirling about a minute after this operation was announced, but for my money the nature of the operation is pretty compelling evidence that it really was Bin Laden who was identified and killed there.

No comments: