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RQ-170 Stealth Drone Used in Bin Laden Raid

by John Reed on May 18, 2011

And here we go, U.S. intelligence officials are starting to acknowledge that the stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone was indeed used to provide ISR support for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad this month.

We’ve long figured that the “Beast of Kandahar” had to have been the UAV that Pentagon officials said supported the Navy SEALs and other commandos who carried out the raid using stealth helicopters to avoid Pakistani air defenses. It only makes sense that if the raid was sensitive enough to use at least two stealth choppers to ferry in the initial assault team of 24 SEALs (and a dog named Cairo), the other aircraft involved would have to be low-observable, also.

The Sentinel did several key variety of tasks during the raid such as providing real-time imagery of the compound to the President and other authorities in DC to monitoring Pakistani military communications, all while orbiting overhead undetected, according to the Washington Post.

It could also have jammed Pakistani radars and beamed its footage of the compound to the SEALs in their inbound choppers

The Post is quotes several “current and former” intelligence officials as acknowledging that the CIA used the Air Force’s RQ-170 in Pakistan for months to monitor bin Laden’s house which lies within Pakistan’s air defense intercept zone that surrounds the capitol city of Islamabad.

Using unmanned planes designed to evade radar detection and operate at high altitudes, the agency conducted clandestine flights over the compound for months before the May 2 assault in an effort to capture high-resolution video that satellites could not provide.

The aircraft allowed the CIA to glide undetected beyond the boundaries that Pakistan has long imposed on other U.S. drones, including the Predators and Reapers that routinely carry out strikes against militants near the border with Afghanistan.

All this paints a picture of a raid that was indeed carried out without Pakistani knowledge (or, to give Islamabad plausible deniability with regard to the raid, for you skeptics). The remaining question is; were there really only two stealth helos used in the operation? Why use a stealth drone and two stealth helicopters and then send in two-to-three MH-47s that can be detected by radar deep into Pakistan to retrieve the SEALs and collect evidence? How did they do that without being detected?

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff May 18, 2011 at 11:56 am

Maybe I'm missing something… as best I could tell Abbottabad was 20 minutes into Pakistan for a Chinook at top speed. Is that generally considered "deep into Pakistan?"

Second the nearest Pakistani airbase that could threaten the operation, is 18 minutes away for their fastest fighter. I imagine at this point we have intelligence on Pakistans radar positioning… I think it'd be reasonable to assume our pilots would have come through at the most ideal place. That said if our 26 minute scramble time on 9/11 is any measure of modern expectations and capabilities, I imagine Pakistan is much worse off… thus what was a 40 minute battle would have been adequete time for a non-stealthy MH47 to get in and out.


anon May 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm

The 9/11 26 minute flight time assumed that no aircraft in the area were airborne with weapons and enough fuel to intercept. I'd be surprised that the Pakistanis would keep their aircraft on the ground unloaded and unfueled, especially considering how often they have gone at it with India. Or use aircraft against opponents in NWFP.

During 9/11 there was momentary confusion because nobody plans for a mass aircraft hijacking that ends in airplanes flying into buildings. If you have an unknown aircraft that shows up on radar, the response is immediate: contact aircraft and send aircraft after it. Multiple post-9/11 incidents with aircraft in the vicinity of Washington DC demonstrate much more proficient intercept procedures.

I wonder if POTUS had a discussion about legalities of using a CIA team versus DEVGRU for the assassination. Once OBL was found and fixed, his death/capture was probably guaranteed no matter which group was sent to kill him.


crankthatskunk May 30, 2011 at 3:34 am

You made two fundamental mistakes in your comments. Abbotabad is over an hour flight by both BH and Chinooks. Provided they fly at full speed. Considering they used ground hugging and flown around the mountains rather than climb higher above them, the travel time could be even more.

It is also reported in Pakistani media, the helos landed in "Kala Dhaka" for 40 minutes. Why and what they were waiting for?

This stretched the timeline with 40 minutes operation to over two to 2 1/2 hours, add another hour+ for return back to border, you are looking at 3 1/2. You really think even if we consider 20 minutes for Pakistani jets to scramble how long would have taken the F16 at mach 2 to catch the helos?

Something is rotten in this story. Please do a bit more research, before making comments.


@Earlydawn May 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

More operational details revealed after Gates and crew discuss their unease with such leaks. Who is helming this ship? SHUT UP ABOUT IT.


lucita May 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm



anon May 20, 2011 at 9:07 am

Look at the number of people in the room during the "waiting room" picture. Each person probably has subordinates, their own assistants, and their subordinates have aides.

In that room alone at least a few dozen leak opportunities arise. And the lower-ranked you are, the easier it is to get away with this kind of thing, because there are more guys lower in the food pyramid, privy to low-level details than there are high-level guys privy to high-level details. And the only detail that needs to leak is: "We know where OBL is". Then it's time to move…


Marcase May 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Perhaps the MH-47s were used to 'hide in plain sight' – as a visual and aural cover/diversion for the stealth helos. US helicopter and C-130 flights are restricted, but allowed over Pakistan (there's a treaty covering that) within certain corridors.
So knowing that US helicopters were in a certain area wouldn't be *that* big a surprise.


Foreign.Boy May 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I doubt they had a lot of time to take care of the terrian. Obviously lots of planning to give them an idea what they could do. Low flying? How low to stop rotor wash and radar detection? I doubt the 'stealth choppers' would be totally radar invisible. I mean even stealth planes are visible at some point, but their speed gives them some safety. A slow flying chopper wouldn't have that luxury.

Since there aren't a lot of stories about the choppers flying over roads (an area that radar operators may not be paying attention to) I'd bet they may have flow in radar black zones. Its also possible maybe there was a sort of 9/11 type conspiracy where maybe there was a gap in people paying attention to their radar due to a snafu in radar operators schedule… a known meeeting time (everyone goes out for smokes).

They said during the Iraq war that Muslim countries build lots of radar redundancy. Big money is on the Pakistani government working with the US but it is so politically volatile (or their leaders risk assassination) that Admiting to working with the Americans would result in their dismissal through elections or other means. Keep your eye on Pakistani politics :).


Foreign.Boy May 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Also, remember the Twitter'r said they're told to stay inside their homes while the choppers were deploying the seals. (my impression). They mentioned power and phone blackouts and were restored once they choppers left. Obviously some very high power stuff going on… or some sort of co-operation.


SJE May 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I suspect that this information about the stealth drone is to send a message to Iran and Pakistan.
For Iran: we could be monitoring you now and can mess you up and you wouldnt even know it.
For Pakistan: guess what we saw over the last few months? What cars were driving between UBL's house and the army base. Now: how about behaving, and return that helicopter.


Nadnerbus May 18, 2011 at 5:27 pm

This was my thought as well. It's nice to have secret capabilities and all that, but it's also nice to be able to leverage those capabilities in the real world. Every country that is adversarial to the US is doing a major rethinking about how far they should take any provocations against us right now, and that is probably a strategically worthy payoff for the cost of losing some secrecy.


anon May 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

We've shown off our stealth omelette-making pan. The eggs are running in fear.


David Smith May 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

That "pie tin" over the antitorque rotor isn't gonna do crap for sound. All that shaping of the horizontal stab and tailboom either.


IFB May 19, 2011 at 6:51 am

You couldn't be more wrong about the pie tin.


David Smith May 20, 2011 at 4:52 am

How? I can see increasing the number of blades, reshaping them, and slowing them.


OMEGATALON May 18, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Why is the US military still developing the X-47 when they already have this aircraft, the RQ-170 Sentinel, which has been used by the CIA in Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly Iran.


Kristian M Lewis May 18, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Do some research about the differences between the RQ-170 and the X-47 and the reason will be obvious.


Rocky May 18, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I have a suggestion, why don;t we give all our enemies our intelligencde while we are at it,.. and give these dunbass "intelligence officials" medals… what a BUNCH OF JACKASSES!!!!


Tracker May 19, 2011 at 9:11 am

For an administration that Freaks out about wikileaks, they sure don't have any problems releasing potentially harmful or compromising information themselves!


@Earlydawn May 19, 2011 at 10:05 am

Ain't it the truth.


SJE May 19, 2011 at 10:33 am

It does not want uncontrolled release of information, but controlled release of information is all part of the game. This goes way back.

For example, Stalin was invited to the first A-bomb test, perhaps as part of a demonstration of US power and a reason not to mess with the US after the end of WWII. Of course, Stalin already knew about the A-bomb, because of the Rosenbergs. Thus, the difference between controlled and uncontrolled information flow.

It is entirely possible that the Obama administration is not too upset about Wikileaks, as it shown the US in a good light, especially compared to others.


choia May 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Obama was too interested in taking a victory lap to worry about what information was released afterword. SEAL Team 6 has real concerns now. In addition, how our guys operate is being broadcast everywhere.
But really, do you expect politicians to remain quiet during re-election time? Not lately.


anon May 20, 2011 at 9:05 am

And you do realize "how our guys operate" would come from retired operators collecting paychecks as consultants and experts for the media. How does this reflect on Obama again?


Josh May 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Retired operators aren't giving press briefings on classified hardware and details on the execution of the raid. That's been solely from White House officials.


anon May 20, 2011 at 8:19 pm

The media is spending their time preening about DEVGRU to pull attention off the "tech" aspect. Even the /dog/ is getting pressed up to divert attention from the RQ-170 and the stealth helicopter, to the point that very little actionable information has come out about either.

I think they've done a good job on diverting focus from stealth helicopters and drones by focusing on the controversy of penetrating Paki airspace and FOX is helping by dumping helpful controversy about whether or not OBL is dead. At this point, nobody is asking for info about drones and stealth helicopters when there is flag-waving, DEVGRU and war dogs. I commend their public affairs guys for it.


FactChecker December 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Really? We gave away secrets? Then what radar frequencies do Pakistan radars use? What is the radar cross section of the UAVs? What frequencies and codes are used in our transmissions? Oh, you know that there is a SEAL Team 6. Big deal.


Peter Bensen May 19, 2011 at 2:39 pm

My understanding, early on was that MH47s were to be back-ups at a distant standoff area. Part of President Obama's decision was for the MH47s to be much closer as back-up. (A great idea considering!) I also subscribe that less stealthy craft are diversionary as well. Sound and radar signatures, comms support, and other tactical reasons also may apply.


DrSique November 27, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Yeah right, Prez Obama made ground level tactical decisions based on his heroic military experience. What kinda crap are you smoking? Even if Obama was qualified to give his two cents, I doubt he would pick Team Six and then arm chair quarterback the mission. They have done this kind of thing before.


anon May 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

It does. Though if the Pakistanis were willing to turn off their radars, they probably were at a very low state of alert. Of course one must plan for the worst…


Josh May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Sorry, try again. From the press admiting the staged the photo in the situation room to SecDef Gates having to publicly tell the adminsitration to shut up about the technical details of the mission this has been classic amateur-hour Obama.

The decision to execute the raid was 100% correct and he rightly deserves the credit for green lighting it… but the actions of him and his underlings afterwards has been a mess.


marko May 21, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Enough already!
What else have they used? Stolen technology from downed UFO?
You could have sent Chuck Norris ten years ago and save hunderds of billion of tax-payers $ you spent on so-called "wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention loss of life or permanently disabled 20yr-olds.


Rana June 26, 2011 at 1:41 am

Very simple, Pakistani rented Generals Involved in all game, In fact, osama was either not their or Generals of Pakistani Army made osama a deal for saving themself, for future war crimes, done by pakistani army in FATA, as USA tops often reminder war crimes and massacres committed by Pakistani army.


David June 29, 2011 at 7:46 am

How about the Israeli raid on Syria? My understanding is that Israeli hackers gained access to the Syrian radar system and essentially played-back a dummy 'recording' of air traffic to the controllers. The controllers look on the scope and see what they expect to see.


Jerry December 4, 2011 at 11:13 am

Dumb and Dumber folks…do you really think we have been given the facts? And, what about the murders of Seal Team Six after their supposed Osama victory? Did Seal Team Six know too much? Could a standard Soviet RPG7 actually bring down the chopper that was ferrying Seal Team Six? Just asking folks…


Nick December 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm

While I find that hard to believe, what I would believe is that the deaths of these seal team 6 guys was fabricated to allow them to reestablish classified identities. If this sounds like a stretch, then understand that they do this sort of thing regularly for CIA field agents who become to exposed within the agency or to the public. (Taken from Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars)


Flagrante Delicto May 18, 2011 at 11:13 pm

yeah, right…. and the easter bunny lays eggs.


anon May 20, 2011 at 9:08 am

How dare they leak this! Now India will know they can attack at will! Whoever says this is making treason against glorious Pakistan!


Mastro December 4, 2011 at 11:43 pm

The CIA/Military could have known about the "off" periods- either from monitoring or from a friendly Pakistan radar guy.

I doubt the Pakistanis go crazy trying to monitor the Afghan border airspace. Everything flying is American- they would pay more attention to the Indian border/Kashmir.


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