Over the last few months there has been some talk about the possibility that Israel is using the same low-observable modified H-60 Blackhawks used in to the now infamous raid on the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan over a year ago (the Gizmodo article is linked below). We have heard all sorts of conflicting speculation about these helicopters over the last 13 months or so, including when they were supposedly built, how many of them exist and even talk about a follow-on clean sheet or semi clean sheet design featuring even stealthier attributes and more advanced sound and infra-red suppression techniques. You can read more about the “Stealthhawks” used in the Bin Laden raid and the related issues surrounding it by clicking on “Stealth Blackhawk & Bin Laden Raid” under the Categories & Topics tab to the right of this piece. To my knowledge, I was the first to go on record last year identifying the possible existence of a stealth helicopter used in that raid. The second a grainy picture of a tail laying against a wall was released I published it and went live on the Lars Larson Nation Radio Show to let people know that those were not MH-60s used on that fateful night. I hung my hat on this story, hoping I was not wrong but at the same time knowing that I was right, and it propelled this little website into the realm of the national press for the first time. Days later Aviationweek, CNN and other major outlets were on the story, but Aviationintel was still days ahead of them, having already dissected by then the imagery from the site, including identifying specific H-60 stock parts like the standard four bladed rotor head left at the scene, and making predictions about the value of the artifact now in Pakistani hands and the geo-political implications of the crash in general, which were all accurate to this day. In other words I have a great fondness and interest for this story and it equals great fun for me to be able to revisit it again.
What is interesting about the stealth Blackhawks used in the Abbottatbad raid is that we still have seen nothing more of them than what was left partially destroyed on and within Bin Laden’s compound wall. Look at the RQ-170 Sentinel for instance, that aircraft has had multiple sightings and high-resolution photos taken of it even before the unfortunate events that took place over Iran last winter. Further, the USAF has fully admitted to the Sentinel’s existence, going as far as releasing its designation, manufacturer, who operates it and from where they do so. We even know that its unique capabilities were used in the days leading up to and during the night of the Bin Laden raid. In fact it is almost totally certain that the White House National Security Team watched the raid and the subsequent crash of the “Stealthhawk” via the RQ-170’s streaming video feed. So in some ways these secretive aircraft, the RQ-170 and the Stealthhawk, have crossed paths at least once before, but in reality they probably have done so many other times before that we do not know about. These two exotic aircraft are in many ways the perfect team, the RQ-170 providing pre-assault surveillance of the target area while also listening for enemy communications in the area, then once the assault force arrives they can continue to provide real-time over-watch during the actual operation itself. Keep in mind it can do all of this while loitering deep over denied enemy airspace undetected.
While the RQ-170 may be the clandestine eyes and ears on high for America’s most elite special forces, the Stealthhawk is the vehicle that can deliver and pickup these special forces operators directly under the invisible RQ-170’s watchful eye. This unique combination of these cutting edge low-observable and high-utility assets may represent in some ways “special operations insertion and extraction 2.0,” a new small footprint, big results oriented method of combined arms integration used to support America’s best warriors on an increasingly inaccessible battlefield. In fact when you really think about it the symbiotic relationship between these two platforms is clear, the Stealthhawks would have to do their job at a much higher risk if the RQ-170 was never built, and the Stealthhawk gives the RQ-170 a indispensable mission to add to its business case and overall value to American military commanders.
When it comes to Israeli special operations both the RQ-170 and Stealthhawk would clearly be at the very top of the Mossad’s and the IAF’s wish list. But would the US sell them the Stealthhawk or even the RQ-170 Sentinel for that matter? A year ago I would have said absolutely not, but today, after both aircraft have been lost over countries that are very good friends with China, the RQ-170 being lost almost fully intact, the Stealthhawk burnt to a crisp minus and perfectly good tail section which in many ways is a “helicopter in a box,” I really don’t see why we would not sell, or even let them “barrow” these assets for missions of common interest. The technological risk is sadly quite low now as both aircraft have already been studied by our most ardent competitors when it comes to the geopolitical and military stage. Further, like any US sensitive military export, “buying” an asset like an advanced military aircraft does not mean you can take it apart and reverse engineer it, it simply means you can use it for the purposes it was originally intended, and even usage can have serious limitations defined by the US at the time of sale.
Lets just say such sensitive capabilities as stealth helicopters and drones, whether they have already been technologically compromised or not, were not allowed in any allies hands period. Could Israel just built their own stealth helicopter or RQ-170 like drone alone? The answer is yes and no. The RQ-170 needs a lot of communications architecture in place to make it work. Further the airframe and systems design and integration, as well as testing such a machine would cost hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. These factors alone make such an indigenous program like the RQ-170 highly doubtful for a country that has a defense budget smaller than that of NASA’s yearly allowance. Israel could possibly field a simpler “man-in-the-loop” low-observable drone, but something on the level of the semi-autonomous RQ-170 Sentinel would be highly doubtful.
On the stealth helicopter side of things I don’t see how building their own design would be a huge challenge for Israel. Actually, such a project it is right up their alley so to speak. Israel has long been known for modifying commercially available weaponry to their exact needs and specifications. Seeing as Israel already operate multiple transport helicopter types (Bell 412, UH-60, CH-53, Jet Ranger, Dolphin) what is not to say that they have not done what Sikorsky and the DoD did probably over a decade ago- take the basic structure, drive-train, and flight-controls from an existing helicopter platform and build a body kit for it that will make it very hard to detect using radar, infra-red, or acoustic devices? Basic stealth design is no longer a widespread secret, even the RAH-66 Comanche program was a highly public undertaking with detailed pictures and cutaways available in mass to anyone who was interested. Further, Israel is an advanced country when it comes to weapon system design and technological production, so they could have created a stealth Blackhawk or even a modification of the Dolphin or Bell 412 totally on their own. Seeing as the country has finite defense resources and the threats it currently faces from terror groups and peer states that surround it are very real, while also taking into account their continuing focus on special operations and counter-terrorism capabilities, a stealthy penetrating helicopter makes a lot of sense both operationally and investment-wise. When you also throw Iran into the mix, a country that Israel is operating inside of in clandestine ways, it almost makes perfect sense that such a machine would be one of the Mossad’s highest priorities.
So do I believe that Israel is truly sending highly trained operatives across the border between Northern Iraq/Kurdistan or from other origins via stealth helicopters into Iran to spy on and sabotage their nuclear and ballistic missile programs? Sure why not? They have to get their folks in and out of that country somehow and this might merely be just another method of doing so. Do I think the helicopters and their stealthy kits are of American origin? Sure why not? Although this is probably a new capability as I don’t see the US exporting something like this until after its secret cover was blown. I do think it is more likely that Israel simply came up with a similar solution on their own years ago as there are many missions and many “aggressively peaceful” countries surrounding the tiny Jewish state that would require such an exotic airframe to infiltrate. Who knows, maybe the whole “stealth Blackhawk” project was an Israeli funded one which America co-opted and purchased a few airframes for itself. That would explain the lower-end stealth used in the design and the choice for modifying an existing platform to make it more affordable and technologically usable without massive risk to US stealth secrets.
Regardless of what you have heard from the “experts” even the Stealthhawk that went down over Bin Laden’s suburban hideout, the aircraft used a standard four-bladed H-60 rotor-head, not a new one with extra blades and such. You can see it for yourself in my detailed photo analysis. What this shows us is that these aircraft to not represent a total redesign of the H-60, just of the H-60’s “shell.” Metaphorically speaking this is like a Ferrari bodykit installed on Camero’s frame. Although there would be performance and signature tradeoffs by going down such a route, it would substantially lower the cost of such a weapon system as well as the time it would take to produce and test it. This all puts a stealth helicopter modified from existing conventional airframe stocks well within Israel’s technological and economic grasp. Once again, this highly modified machine would pay some decent penalties when it comes to speed, range, and maneuverability due to it’s stealth exoskeleton, and the aircraft would look much more like a bad sci-fi move prop than an operational Blackhawk as we are use to seeing them. I realize there has been lots of drawings moving around the net and on other defense oriented sites trying to depict what this machine would look like, some even claiming that they have “inside knowledge” or tips on exactly the true Stealthhawk’s configuration. I get emails related to these drawings all the time, often asking me what I think of them, my reply is always the same- if there are standard refueling probes, winches, IR suppressors, terrain follow radar pods and antennas hanging off of the aircraft in the renderings in question than toss them away totally and don’t expect whoever is offering that picture up to be a good source when it comes to low-observable technology or very accurate when it comes to any of this conjecture for that matter. Taking the time and money to design and build a stealthy helicopter body to the degree shown in that tail left behind at the Abbottobad compound and then hanging all this “stock” Blackhawk crap off of it would be a total waste and contradictory to the design’s inherent goals. All those little parts and pieces reflect radar energy, some in tremendous ways for their superficial size, so no they would not be installed on such a machine unless they too were made low observable by design. Once again, visually speaking think cheap sci-fi movie prop or proof of concept demonstrator as opposed to an operational helicopter. Clean, curved or faceted surfaces, very few windows, and lots of shrouds and additional volume would be the norm not the exception for a design like this.
Some would say that sound suppression was more important in the Stealthhawk design than radar invisibility. I highly doubt that. Just the four bladed rotor tells us that this aircraft was built to evade radar as much as suppress sound and IR energy. Further, you do not have to totally redesign an aircraft’s shell that flys below 200kts anyway to mitigate acoustic signature, you do it with muffling techniques, shrouded rotors, the installation of multiple rotors and possibly even sound cancelling devices. Also, I do have to note, the H-60 is not that loud of an aircraft to begin with. I have had Pavehawks fly 30 feet overhead and I was till able to maintain a conversation.
America also must be prepared for what is no doubt a booming, although a clandestine marketplace for stealth transport helicopters. The world knows that America sees fit to own these things and has successfully demonstrated their fantastic potential for all to see in the most high-profile operation in decades. We have also made it very clear that the barrier of entry for such an exotic capability really is not that high economically or technologically speaking. I can guarantee you that after America’s stealth helicopter was outed to the world after the Bin Laden raid many militaries around the world immediately went to their industry partners and asked them to estimate what a it would take to make a handful of their Mi-17s, UH-60s, or Dolphin helicopters “disappear” from radar. In other words America will not “own” this technology for long, especially seeing as they left a perfect sample of it behind in Abbottabad. We can only hope that as speculated the two “Stealthhawks” used in the Bin Laden raid were indeed forerunners to a clean-sheet or more heavily adapted design that America currently has fielded. If not I highly recommend the good folks at X-Works get to work fast and hard on the next great stealth helicopter technological leap as our allies and enemies alike are almost certainly gaining on our heals.
With all this in mind one has to ask themselves- why aren’t all special operations helicopters stealthy? I mean when you think about it why is there not a stealth Blackhawk or larger sized helicopter flying in mass with units like the 160th SOAR or the USAF Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) folks? Having to race into enemy territory during an actual war, where everyone is on alert, to pluck out a downed pilot is a very risky mission, wouldn’t stealth technology give these vulnerable crews a little bit more edge over the enemy? My only answers to this questions are cost and footprint. On the cost end of things maybe fielding a clean sheet or highly modified design in mass would be out of the realm of current budgets and seeing as we only need assets like Combat Search And Rescue aircraft when we are at war there simply is not enough direct need for them to be fielded right at this time. On the footprint side of things, commanders know that if they send in a Pavehawk to pluck a pilot out of harms way they will most likely also send in jamming aircraft, A-10 Warthogs for direct fire support and fighters for top cover along with many other support aircraft. These are all very non-stealthy assets so although a stealthy CSAR platform would help it would not exactly make your operational intent invisible. Or then again would a stealthy CSAR helicopter need any of these assets for help at all? Maybe fielding such a machine in mass could actually save money and lower overall risk during a real time of war. Regardless, the Combat Search And Rescue crews are still flying worn out Pavehawks, the brass has probably figured that they will be used in times of clear combat anyways so there is no need to take their mission into “low-observable” territory. Further, the upfront cost of procuring such a fleet, around 100 helicopters, would be damning right now for the USAF.
Conversely, if you go into the totally denied territory of a government that you are not technically at war with you cannot deploy any of those supporting assets to keep vulnerable helicopters protected. Instead you have to rely on the helicopter itself to keep itself undetected in order to make it in and out of hostile territory alive. This is why deep penetrating helicopters such as the MH-60, HH-60, MH-47 and CV-22 are equipped traditionally with terrain following radar, advanced navigational avionics, and cutting-edge jamming equipment. Yet it would now seem that when being sent on the most sensitive of missions, deep into an enemy’s or allies’ airspace proliferated by modern integrated air defense system components, that those “legacy” techniques to avert detection are no longer preferred and the “stealth” bar has now been set publicly whether we like it or not. This then brings about the question- if stealth helicopter transport technology is fully available is it fair to send a team not equipped with it deep into denied territory unannounced and unsupported? Should we be buying less $70M+ CV-22 Ospreys and more stealthy helicopters in their place? Maybe this decision has already been made as there has not been many “medium” helicopters added to the special operations inventory in the last decade or so in any large numbers. Could the limited supply of “conventional” MH-60s be offset by many more second generation stealthy Blackhawks currently lying low in the Nevada desert? Who knows, but it is an intriguing thought. The funny thing is that if that aircraft did not crash down on Bin Laden’s backyard over a year ago we would almost certainly still have no clue that such an exotic machine actually exists…
*Top art credit ~Josje144 who makes some badass art that you can check out here, bottom picture credit Gizmodo, other pictures via IAF and open sources