No Easy Day, which was released hours ago, has already been making headlines for over a month. While the public at large has shown massive demand for the book, many foreign policy, military technology, American history and even legal gurus have been metaphorically foaming at the mouth to get their hands on a copy. The Department Of Defense on the other hand is much less enthusiastic about the book’s release. The Seal Time Six operator’s first person recollection of the events leading up to, and immediately following, Osama Bin Laden’s death is not only the first personal account of the operation made public but it is also one that has not been approved, reviewed or sanitized by the DoD before being released, a bold, rare and risky move by the author to say the least. Mainstream news sites have already been posted headline articles showcasing their biggest perceived “revelations” from the SEAL’s newly published book, yet almost all of these posts feature facts that were either already known or easily inferred. Of course the fact that Bin Laden was killed peeking out of his bedroom door and had no loaded weapons in his bedroom was the biggest revelation from this memoir, one that we have already discussed at length over the past few weeks, here are the other tidbits that stood out to me as interesting during the read, especially as it pertains to this site:
- The Black Hawks that delivered the initial assault force flew through the mountains to the north of Abbottabad, and infiltrated from the east, not the west. The book shows a map that depicts the helicopters low-level route, taking them fairly deep inside Indian airspace.
- The video intelligence obtained via drone, almost certainly the RQ-170 Sentinel, was not of high quality, probably due to its operating altitude and slant ranges, and it lacks color electro-optical capability apparently.
- It is possible that this raid would have never been ordered if persistent aerial surveillance was not available of the compound leading up to, and possibly during, the raid. In fact there are many references to streaming video intelligence throughout this account and its incredible utility during this whole operation. The RQ-170, or an even more advanced system, surely proved its worth during this historic event.
- The suggested cover story for the mission if the operators were captured by Pakistani forces was that the team was looking for a sensitive downed information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. Nobody on the team thought this was even worth thinking about as it would have been totally unbelievable. Who knows maybe commanders would have sent the RQ-170 orbiting above into the ground for a cover story.
- The special squad of SEAL Team Six operators assembled for the mission and their CIA case officers had aerial moving video showing “The Pacer,” a tall man who paced the inner walls of the compound almost neurotically. The Pacer was thought to possibly be Osama Bin Laden. During the planning and justification stages of the raid, the Pacer, nor the other residents of the house, reacted defensively to low flying Pakistani military helicopters. This was proven with aerial footage depicting such occurrences. This gave the planners and operators confidence that even though the noisy assault helicopters would negate their element of surprise the occupants of the Abbottabad compound appeared fairly desensitized to such helicopter noise. Also, it showed that the occupants were not very worried about being attacked via the air in general.
- A 60lb “black boxes” that could jam cell phone traffic in the area were not installed on the helicopters due to weight issues.
- The mission was delayed due to weather as Admiral McRaven wanted to make sure a drone, presumably the RQ-170, had eyes on the compound so that they could be certain nobody left while the force was enroute.
- The pair of reserve MH-47s were on standby, just minutes away, in a desolate mountain valley to the north of Abbottabad . One was prepared to respond to a contingency issue, like a downed helicopter, while the other was setup as a forward refueling point to be used by the initial assault Black Hawks upon their return to Afghanistan.
- A second pair of MH-47s were on standby at Jalalabad loaded with SEAL Team Six Operators as a contingency force for the contingency force. Basically, their job was to attempt an extraction if a battle broke out between Pakistani security forces and the assault team. Further forces backed up this force. Also, fighter jets and other aircraft were held in the air during the raid to be used if Pakistan’s response escalated.
- The MH-47 that came to pick up the downed crew and assault team from the damaged “Chalk 1” Black Hawk was so low on gas they had to fly an incredibly dangerous direct route back to Afghanistan after the raid.
- This same MH-47 was almost blown up as it was about to land at the compound to pick up the stranded “Chalk 1” assault team and aircrew as they had no idea the SEALs were just seconds away from demolishing the damaged helicopter. Only at the last moment was the approaching MH-47 crew told to break away from the ensuing blast. “Chalk 2,” the undamaged Black Hawk barely made it out of the blast radius on departure as well.
- The assault force in “Chalk 2” was supposed to hover over the compound and the SEALs were supposed to fast-rope onto the roof where they would enter through the third floor balcony. The pilots apparently aborted this option once they saw what happened to “Chalk 1” when it tried to hover.
- The SEALs on “Chalk 2” had no idea the other Black Hawk had crashed until midway through the mission.
- The pilot of the “Chalk 1,” the stricken Black Hawk that was propped tail high on the outer security wall of the compound, thought he may be able to takeoff with the chopper empty but decided against attempting such a maneuver as he could not assess the damage to the airframe with any certainty.
- The demolitions expert taken on the mission tried to set charges as high up on the tail of the helicopter as possible but could not slide his way up to the tail rotor as he was afraid the whole tail-boom could collapse.
- The White House situation room, watching the live drone video feed while being updated by McRaven’s team in Afghanistan, was confused as to why the raid’s plan had changed as they could not tell exactly that the helicopter had crashed due to the the low quality of video from the orbiting drone.
- Bin Laden’s body was flown aboard the more “survivable” Black Hawk to the remote refueling point and then back to Afghanistan aboard the same helicopter.
- Pakistan did scramble F-16s although they circled over Abbottabad for a while before widening their search for intruding aircraft. By that time the assault force was safe inside Afghanistan.
- A few days after the raid the assault team was flown to Fort Campbell to meet President Obama aboard a geriatric MC-130 Talon that was used during the tragically botched “Operation Eagle Claw,” a mission that would re-define the Special Operations community into the one that made it possible to pull off the Bin Laden Raid some 30 years later. In some ways it seemed like the ignorance and failures of “Eagle Claw” were finally made good with “Operation Neptune Speer,” at least that is my impression from this included fact.
- During briefings leading up to the raid, a federal lawyer stressed that it was not an assassination mission, saying: “If he (Bin Laden) is naked with his hands up you are not going to engage him.”
- As predicted on this site a year ago, Heckler & Koch supplied the vast majority of the weapons that the assault team used, including the ones that killed Bin Laden, the H&K 416.
Here are a few other impressions from this book that are not necessarily related directly to the Bin Laden raid:
- The change in SEAL tactics and experience levels from the early 2000s to 2011 was stark. The force went from talented operators with limited operational experience to honed super-soldiers with hundreds of missions under their belt. Part of this saw their tactics go from loud blitzkrieg like assaults on targets, to slow, methodical and stealthy infiltrations. For instance, instead of flying directly to a target and raiding it guns blazing, by the late 2000’s SEAL Team Six operators often chose to hike or even climb silently to their destinations instead.
- A sign hangs over the supply window at the SEAL Team Six armory reading “you dream it, we build it.” Compared to the standard (oxymoron!) SEAL force, SEAL Team Six does not experience the constant “government issue” inventory controls and absurd attempts at cost savings. In other words, these guys get what they want, from multiple copies of the same weapon for different “deployment bags” to totally customized weaponry, including an incredibly compact sawed-off pistol grip grenade launcher called the “pirate gun,” and highly modified ultra compact H&K MP7 sub-machine guns.
- SEAL’s will tandem jump into an area of operations, even into water, with a support person strapped to them.
- By 2010 the war in Afghanistan was becoming a parody of itself. Instead of stealthy raids on suspected insurgent compounds, they would were forced to pull up outside and tell everyone inside to surrender via a bullhorn! Prisoners were first asked during interrogations if they were abused by the men who captured them. If they said yes it was a litany of paperwork that followed. Basically, the war become an exit operation in the author’s eyes.
I know what you are asking yourself here, “what about the stealth helicopters!?!?” Well, I have to tell you that there is absolutely no mention in this book of such an aircraft. Even the special operations Chinooks are just called CH-47s. In fact, there are times when you can clearly tell that the author has elected to leave small gaps in the story, the Stealth Black Hawks are just one instance of this. Furthermore, no mention was made about the countermeasures or tactics used to infiltrate into Pakistan via helicopter aside from low-level flight, mission timing and elongated routes. He even mentions the pictures of the stricken helicopter’s tail that appeared publicly after the raid yet he never mentions anything about the fact that the thing looked like it fell off a spaceship! The impression that the book conveyed to me was that flying in whatever aircraft they trained for the raid with, and subsequently flew into the target area on, was either incredibly unremarkable or so secret and important that he would not even acknowledge its existence in any way, shape, or form, although the DoD and the President has done so, and so has our own eyes!
Honestly, the whole book seemed to simplify the “James Bond,” or action movie aspect, of SEAL operations in general. Although the descriptions of the tactics and operating procedures used were well described, and personal impressions and preferences towards one tactic over another provided great “color” for such a narrative, there appeared to be a somewhat startling simplification of a SEAL’s unique trade and its associated cutting-edge tools and technologies. At times I felt like the author was possibly implying a little bit more than what the words themselves contained at face value, sometimes going as far as presenting somewhat unbelievable coincidences without explanation. The biggest being the mention that when they arrived on scene in Abbottabad the Bin Laden compound and the immediate surrounding area was all pitch black, blaming it on rolling blackouts. Again, once the mission was all but complete, and everyone hostile was dead in the compound, the lights amazingly came back on! The author just passed this off unbelievably, with no comment on the coincidental nature of such an event. Similar “holes” in certain aspects of the mission as described by the author surfaced a few times more throughout the book, which is normal for narratives about the sensitive aspects of modern warfare. Yet for a book that was hyped as being totally renegade in nature it seems anything but. The reality is that I am blown away with just how massaged and security conscious this “unauthorized” account of “Operation Neptune Spear” actually is, especially when it comes to sensitive technological capabilities that go beyond the obvious first person narrative. Was the author and publisher’s choice not to submit this manuscript for Defense Department review more of marketing ploy than a way to release “the true story?”
Another area where this book seemed “picky” regarding what areas of the SEAL life to address came in regards to the personal and social aspects of being a Navy SEAL. The reader ended up knowing fairly little about “Mark Owen,” the pen name for the now disclosed author, beyond his fairly broad accounts of being in the Teams and some quick trips down memory lane back to his childhood. Further, the true nature of being a SEAL, especially on a social level, seemed highly sanitized. Sure he discussed some fraternity like light pranking and some occasional locker room banter, but gone were the accounts of epic bar fights and teetering home lives. Simply put, compared to Chris Kyle’s American Sniper or Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, No Easy Day seems astonishingly self-censored, a bit superficial and maybe even a little rushed.
In the end I just don’t see much of anything in this book as being a major threat to national security, but then again I don’t work for the DoD or the CIA. Nor do I see it as a groundbreaking work on military technology, strategy or the soldier experience beyond some interesting insights into SEAL Team Six and the fascinating marquee account of the raid that changed history. Yet maybe this is exactly what the book originally aimed to do, before trying to copy successful and similar works that were as much auto-biographies as first hand historical accounts of particular military actions. The bottom line is that No Easy Day sets the record straight on exactly how Bin Laden was killed, having originated straight from the memory of an operator who literally pulled the trigger, and that in itself makes it an extremely worthwhile read. Beyond that, although I found the book entertaining, I would point readers elsewhere to really get inside the mind of a special forces operative in an attempt to truly understand the immeasurable challenges they face both in the field and at home.