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  • The Osama Raid -- The Story So Far
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 2:20 PM on May 02, 2011

    We're already considering our options at Ares this morning now that world peace is about to break out. Thank goodness I started out covering commercial aviation.

    Seriously...

    A more relevant thought is how the operation to kill Osama bin Laden is different from what could have been done in the world a decade ago, and what that may mean for the future of defense, security and global relations.

    Perhaps the first difference lies in the phrase "operation to kill Osama bin Laden". Assassination is now a declared option for nation states, according to a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States, even if the target is in a location where the US is not officially at war.

    The operation also indicates a willingness to take calculated risks on a scale that would have been unthinkable before 2001. A deep-penetration raid into allied territory, but territory full of potential hostiles, can go wrong in many ways. The risk of lowering troops from hovering helicopters into a walled compound -- a potential trap -- occupied by seasoned fighters who are well aware that you are not dropping in for tea, is high at any time. The odds can be improved by bulking up the force, but at the expense of covertness -- and the right balance appears to have been hit this time, with the operation surviving the loss of a helicopter.

    Sunday's success rests on a massive foundation of intelligence laid down in the past decade -- particularly human, and resting on an understanding of language and culture. If (a big if) preliminary reports are accurate, HUMINT was the key to locating Osama's compound, overhead intelligence was confirmatory, and the main role of signals intelligence may have been to determine that the site had no internet connection. (On that basis, they should have bombed my hotel in Rio a couple of weeks ago. But I digress.)

    Update:  The operation shows how much the armed forces are working today with a militarized intelligence community - a far cry from the complaints and problems of Desert Storm in 1991, or from the state of the art in 2001. What's happening in Pakistan has parallels with Laos and Cambodia in the Vietnam era - but with pilotless Reapers rather than T-28s and B-26s.

    The joint-service operation -- with a Navy SEAL team transported by Army helicopters, apparently -- would have been unlikely in 2001. The helicopters themselves were MH-47s and MH-60s, basically 30-40 year-old technology -- the lesson being that, when it really counts, what you need from a helicopter is reliability. Absent from the scene was the USAF CV-22B Osprey, designed and equipped for long-range special operations - but this could have been for a number of reasons, including the fact that troops rappelled into the compound.

    It is a safe bet that UAVs were involved, providing overhead communications and real-time imagery. That changes the command and control equation: rather than worrying about not knowing what was happening on the ground, the mission planners would have had to set ground-rules to avoid the rightly dreaded "8,000-mile screwdriver" effect. Interesting comment from the Los Angeles Times:  "During the operation, a photo of his face was transmitted to analysts, who confirmed the identification."

    Latest Reuters story on Aviation Week:
    Helo-borne Special Forces Take Down Bin Laden

    Tags: ar99, special-operations, osama

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