An elite team of Navy SEALs and CIA operatives used two militarized Sikorsky UH-60s to storm a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan Sunday and kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But the exact variant has come into question following the release of photos yesterday in the UK’s Daily Mail Online showing wreckage of the helicopter that experienced a “hard landing” and was thought destroyed by the U.S. personnel. Reports have surfaced that the military employed a top-secret “stealth-configuration” of a Black Hawk.
Photos appeared on the UK’s Daily Mail Online early this week showing the abandoned helicopter.
The White House will not confirm or deny which type of helicopter or military unit was used, with initial accounts pointing to the MH-60 Sea Hawk. According to reports, the special ops team planned to rappel down from the two H-60s, but one experienced a mechanical failure and suffered a hard landing. Other sources have noted that two Boeing CH-47 Chinooks served in a backup role. Considering the nature of the mission, if true this would point to the involvement of the Army’s 160th Special Ops Aviation Regiment, which flies both rotorcraft types (Black Hawks and Chinooks).
The operation originated from the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea, where the helicopters took off and headed for the compound. According to sources, the helicopters entered Pakistan low to the ground and during the early morning hours when moonlight is at its dimmest, a time called “low loom.”
The White House confirmed that one of the helicopters experienced mechanical difficulties and landed within the compound walls. None of the crew or operatives received injuries in the landing. There are conflicting reports as to whether the helicopter sustained enemy fire and was forced down; one news account noted that the Black Hawk had difficulties hovering over the compound due to the high walls and “lack of air.” Once the helicopter landed, it could not come up. The crew made the decision to destroy it, and cleared the area before detonating explosives. The entire operation took about 40 minutes, as operatives moved from room to room in the compound, engaging in firefights and killing two Al-Qaeda “couriers” and “ a woman caught in the crossfire” until they found bin Laden, shot him and took his body back to the helicopter.
This photo was circulated on the web on Tuesday.
President Obama made the decision to use a helicopter strike force for the risky mission due to the nature of the moderately populated area surrounding the compound and the desire to preserve evidence of bin Laden’s death. Military officials determined that an air strike would level the compound and potentially impact neighboring civilian homes. The White House and CIA were able to monitor the assault through live video coming from a camera mounted on the Black Hawk, and reports surfaced Wednesday that remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellites also aided in the real-time feed.
During a press conference Monday, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, noted an “anxiety-filled” period of time as President Obama and his advisors watched the assault unfold via the real-time updates in the Situation Room at the White House.
“The minutes passed like days,” he noted. A reporter followed up with a question about the tension involving the disabled helicopter and concerns about the Pakistan military scrambling jets in response, since they were not informed of the mission.
“We were concerned that if the Pakistanis decided to scramble jets or whatever else,” he said, “they had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else. So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace.”
Another reporter asked what was the highest-anxiety moment. Brennan responded by saying that any time there’s a deviation from the pre-planned series of steps, like with the helicopter landing hard, “it causes anxiety. So when that helicopter was seen to be unable to move, all of a sudden you had to go into Plan B. And they did it flawlessly. They were able to conduct the operation as they were preparing to do.”
He continued: “But seeing that helicopter in a place and in a condition that it wasn’t supposed to be, I think that was one—at least for me, and I know for the other people in the room—was the concern we had that now we’re having to go to the contingency plan. And thankfully, they were as able to carry out that contingency plan as they were the initial plan.”
Brennan also noted that the military studied the compound “intensively and there were certain assessments made about where individuals were living and where bin Laden and his family were. And they operated according to that.” He said the special ops team “didn’t know when they got there exactly what some of the internal features of it would be, but they had planned, based on certain observable features of the compound, how to carry it out.” In other words, the military determined that a helicopter-supported mission gave the unit the best chance to succeed.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted on Tuesday that officials are reviewing whether more information will be released in coming days and weeks.
“We’ve made a great deal available to the public in remarkable time; we’re talking about the most highly classified operation that this government has undertaken in many, many years,” he said, adding the government will continue to “make decisions about the appropriateness of releasing more information as that review continues on.” —Senior Editor Andrew Parker and Associate Editor Chris Sheppard contributed to this report.
Additional wreckage photos from the Daily Mail Online: