The top-secret "Stealth Hawk" helicopters aboard which elite US Navy SEAL operatives travelled into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden were by no means the most sophisticated aircraft available, according to a new book on the operation. Apparently, even stealthier "Ghost Hawks" - also known as "Jedi rides" - were kept out of the mission as it was feared that the secrets of their advanced technology might be revealed to other nations.
The suggestions come in the new book Seal Target Geronimo, by Hollywood scriptwriter and author Chuck Pfarrer. Before becoming a writer, Pfarrer was himself a Navy SEAL in the 1980s, and served with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (aka DevGru, or formerly SEAL Team Six - the specially chosen "Tier One" elite-within-an-elite whose operatives made up most of the team sent against bin Laden's Abottabad compound).
Pfarrer claims that Seal Target Geronimo is based on interviews with the SEALs who carried out the Abottabad raid. It's already causing controversy as it claims that various elements of the official US story of the raid are untrue: for instance Pfarrer's account has the SEALs entering bin Laden's house having been dropped on the roof, and killing the al-Qaeda chief almost at once without any prolonged gunfight. The Pentagon and the CIA say that the choppers landed on the ground, and that the SEALs had to fight their way into the building from that level.
The tail end of the story
Such details aren't of much technology interest, but it was also widely reported at the time of the raid that one of the helicopters in which the SEALs had arrived was damaged on landing and had to be abandoned. The departing frogman-commandos blew it up as they left, in an attempt to prevent its advanced technology from falling into foreign hands, but this was only partially successful: photos of the untouched tail section were soon circulating widely, offering tantalising details of its abilities, and it was later reported that the Pakistani authorities had allowed Chinese experts to inspect the wreckage.
It appeared that the chopper had been an extensively modified H-60 Blackhawk, with many alterations aimed at reducing its radar and (probably even more so) its noise and infrared signatures.
Now we learn from the Telegraph, which has been passed an advance copy of Seal Target Geronimo as part of the publisher's publicity efforts, that the "Stealth Hawk" was selected for the mission in place of still more sophisticated "Ghost Hawk" aircraft, apparently nicknamed "Jedi rides" in the US spec-ops community, which "emit zero electromagnetic radiation and are invisible to radar".
Reportedly the Ghost Hawks were pulled after the White House declined to authorise overhead cover by US strike jets for the operation and "it was deemed too much of a risk that the Ghost technology would fall into enemy hands". This presumably indicates that planners would have wanted to destroy any downed Ghost Hawk with heavy aircraft ordnance as opposed to demolitions charges that SEALs could carry with them, so doing a more thorough job of destruction.
So what kind of kit might be on the as-yet-unseen "Ghost Hawk" choppers?
The phrase "invisible to radar" doesn't mean much when used by a non-aerospace journalist describing a screenwriter's book. It will signify that the secret super-copters - if they really exist in a distinct sense - have more and better low-observable radar tech than the downed Stealth Hawk. However, even multi-hundred-million-dollar stealth fighters aren't actually invisible to radar and the job of concealing a helicopter is hugely more difficult than hiding a jet. The Ghost Hawk might, like the Stealth Hawk, have special blades, and shields over particular radar traps such as rotor hubs. It might perhaps make use of special radar-absorbent coatings, not particularly in evidence on the Abottabad wreck. But like any other helicopter the Ghost Hawk's primary means of avoiding detection by radar will be flying extremely low, below the horizon of ground radar stations.
Not blowing hot air, well, not that much
"Zero electromagnetic radiation" could mean that Pfarrer believes the Ghost Hawk doesn't emit heat, which would be useful if true for evading detection by infrared-search-and-track (IRST) networks or the seeker heads of shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. However total suppression of heat signature in an aircraft which must be powered by turboshaft engines is impossible. It might be, however, that the Ghost Hawk uses specially designed exhausts - and perhaps dumps some heat into its fuel, like a stealth fighter - to cut its thermal signature significantly below that of a normal chopper.
However the "zero electromagnetic radiation" comment is at least as likely to refer to various other cunning stealth technologies developed for the latest US fighters and bombers, allowing them to communicate and use radar without giving their presence away. In order to achieve this, radars and communications aboard such aircraft as the F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit make use of various fiendishly cunning frequency-hopping techniques. Without this sort of tech, achieving a stealthy design isn't very useful as an enemy with electronic-warfare receivers will still be able to pick up your transmissions even if he can't see you on radar or IRST.
It is in this lesser-known field of stealth technology that the US advantage is thought to be greatest: other nations can build an aircraft with a stealthy shape - this is comparatively simple, and has much more effect than coatings, materials and infrared suppression - but nobody can make silent radars and radios like the secret boffins of the USA. Special-ops choppers need radar as well as comms, as it is used to avoid crashing into the ground when flying low-level at night or in poor visibility: this is admitted in the case of the publicly avowed MH-60K special ops Blackhawk. An undetectable ground-following radar would be an obvious piece of kit for the US spec-ops command to request.
All in all, then, the "Ghost Hawk" probably doesn't look much different to a "Stealth Hawk" and doesn't have any radically different design features. It probably isn't really accurate to describe it as a different aircraft at all, really: any more than an MH-60K is really that much different from an H-60. Indeed both the Ghost and Stealth Hawks are probably regarded officially as no more than different marks of MH-60, with the former carrying the very latest in stealthy avionics.
And all that, of course, assumes that Pfarrer's book truly is based on interviews with today's DevGru SEALs and is correct in its remarks on the helicopters. The Pentagon and CIA spokesman George Little are adamant that at least some of the book is wrong, and the SEALs on the raid have reportedly told their superiors they did not talk to Pfarrer.
The Telegraph report is here. ®