There was something odd about the photos. It was the day after U.S. Navy SEALs from Joint Special Operations Command had swooped in on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with bullets to the head and chest. No Americans had died in the raid, but the Pentagon admitted that one of their Blackhawk helicopters had suffered a mechanical failure and had to be destroyed where it settled inside the compound.
But images depicting the helicopter wreckage, filed by the photographers from the Associated Press, Reuters and the European PressPhoto Agency, showed a shrouded, five-blade tail rotor, forward-swept stabilators and an apparent infrared-suppressing silvery paint job.
If the downed bird was a Blackhawk, it was a special version of the venerable Sikorsky utility chopper that had never been seen by the public and never acknowledged by the U.S. government. The tail’s design elements hinted at a chopper with a reduced noise, infrared and radar signature — putting it in the same category as the U.S. Army’s RAH-66 Comanche scout helicopter, canceled on cost grounds in 2004.
The revelation of the stealthy chopper — dubbed “Silenthawk” by the press — wasn’t the only “stealth” surprise from the Abbottabad assault. The mission to kill bin Laden possibly confirmed suspected capabilities of the mysterious RQ-170 Sentinel drone flown by the U.S. Air Force.
“RQ-170 drone overhead. JSOC spotters on ground,” National Journal reporter Marc Ambinder reported on social-networking Website Twitter in the hours after the White House went public with bin Laden’s death.
The Air Force admitted to the Lockheed Martin-built RQ-170′s existence in 2009 after several fuzzy photographs had emerged showing the flying-wing robot operating from Kandahar air field in southern Afghanistan.
The Air Force would only say the Sentinel provides “reconnaissance and surveillance support.” Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman, who gave the Sentinel the nickname “Beast of Kandahar,” examined the photos of the large, stealthy Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and concluded that it might carry an electro-optical sensor, among other possible payloads. Ambinder’s note, plus reports indicating U.S. President Barack Obama watched real-time video of the raid, seem to back up Sweetman’s assertion.
The Silenthawk’s explosive debut is arguably more portentous, as the stealthy helicopter was previously unknown, and now its wreckage is in the hands of Pakistani agents who might be feeling vindictive toward the U.S. following the attack on their territory. Indeed, that the Pentagon was willing to risk the Silenthawk and Sentinel is indicative of the high stakes and heated politics surrounding the attack.