Spy Planes Play an Indispensable Role in Mission .

Posted: May 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan represents probably the biggest success so far of a revolution in military technology: the ability to relay vast amounts of digital imagery through the unblinking eye of robotic aircraft or other spy gear.

Details about the surveillance equipment that may have been hovering overhead, or carried on the ground by Navy commandos, remain undisclosed. But the known state of the military’s technology and the insights of informed military insiders suggest that real-time images of the elaborately scripted raid were likely broadcast in situation rooms and command posts halfway around the world.

“That’s the real game-changer here,” said retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force, referring to the tools of long-term surveillance. “Those capabilities not only resulted in the killing of bin Laden, but also forced him to be virtually incommunicado for years.”

Photos released Monday showed President Barack Obama and senior officials in the White House situation room watching a screen during the tense moments of the 40-minute operation. John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said Mr. Obama and senior officials “were able to monitor the situation in real time,” though he provided no details about what kind of images they were able to view from the scene.

On the ground, troops may have carried small, portable receivers that allowed them to watch the video feed being shot by an aircraft overhead. Some of those receivers look something like a rugged iPad; others can be worn, with small monocular screens that clip onto helmets.

That real-time approach can have its hazards, including enabling senior decision-makers to micromanage operations from a distance. “That’s the way it is now, and if you don’t like it, you’re in the wrong line of work,” said a retired military officer, adding that special-operations forces “seem a little more comfortable with that than other branches” of the military.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the service’s former chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said planning for this kind of operation would likely not have been successful without remotely piloted aircraft, which can circle overhead and “stare” at a particular location or group of people for hours. Unmanned aircraft, he said, “can do it in a way that you can’t do with satellites. And you can’t do it [only] with people on the ground.”

The attack on the compound, he speculated, was likely “preceded by thousands of hours of analyst time, and probably hundreds of hours of [aerial] surveillance time.”

Gen. Deptula said the operation in some respects mirrored the U.S. attack in 2006 that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq. In that case, imagery collected by Predator drones was combined with information from informants on the ground and other intelligence to get a precise fix on the location of the target.

A 2008 article in Joint Force Quarterly, a professional military journal, said that attack was preceded by more than 600 hours of imagery shot by Predators. The strike against the Zarqawi network “was merely the most publicized of hundreds of successful counterinsurgency operations” that used these new tools and methods, the article stated.

The U.S. has for years operated remotely piloted aircraft such as the Predator to strike al Qaeda targets in remote regions along the border with Afghanistan, with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. But there were crucial distinctions in the raid on bin Laden’s compound, principally that it took place in Abbottabad, not far from the capital of Islamabad, in an area that is an administrative center for the Pakistani military. And, unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. does not control Pakistan’s airspace.

Officials have not confirmed whether unmanned aircraft were operating in the vicinity of Abbottabad, either during the raid or in the weeks and months preceding it. But the U.S. military does have pilotless surveillance aircraft capable of flying undetected.

In late 2009, the Air Force acknowledged that it was operating a new robotic aircraft, the RQ-170 Sentinel. The capabilities and mission of the small, bat-winged aircraft, which resembles a pint-sized version of the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber, were a subject of speculation in the defense press after the aircraft was spotted at a coalition military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

An Air Force fact sheet, one of the few sources of official information on the aircraft, confirmed it was a “low observable” aircraft made to be less visible to radar. Aviation experts were also intrigued by its deployment to Afghanistan: Taliban insurgents have no radars, but a stealthy aircraft might be useful for flying undetected in the airspace of countries such as Pakistan or Iran.

“Low-observable air vehicles are mostly useful for airspace you don’t control,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consultancy.

Such an aircraft could have been used in the raid and remain undetected by the Pakistanis. U.S. officials have described the operation as “unilateral,” meaning that they gave no advance notice to the Pakistani government before the raid.

Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the RQ-170 Sentinel, directed questions on the aircraft to the Air Force. The Air Force would not comment on aircraft used in the raid.

Osama bin Laden Kill Protest Photos 



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