05 May 2011

The Raid

The nighttime raid carried out by the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team 6 in Abbottabad, Pakistan will be studied for generations as one of the greatest special operations missions in history. By leveraging the massive U.S. intelligence system, mission planners were able to locate the safe house which was being utilized by Bin Laden deep inside Pakistan. Instead of obliterating the target with drones or cruise missiles, the SEAL Team was inserted by helicopter in a direct action operation to either kill or capture the U.S. Public Enemy No. 1.

In a mere 40 minutes, the inserted team was able to complete its mission and egress from the target area despite a mechanical problem with one of their helicopters. That helicopter was reportedly destroyed to deny any technical treasures on board to the Pakistanis who might have been tempted to sell them to their friends in China. As audacious as the raid itself, the act of flying the teams into and out of the target area, apparently undetected and unmolested by Pakistani air defense assets also points to the capability of the pilots and crew that ferried them in and out. Given that President Obama is making an appearance at Fort Campbell, Kentucky to meet and thank the members of SEAL Team 6, one has to wonder if the helicopter unit involved was the U.S. Army's elite 160th SOAR which is based there.

From what can be gleaned from the media reports, this was apparently a relatively small mission with very little room for error. The SEAL Team was brought to the target area in only a few helicopters and possibly without a larger security force on the ground to block any reaction from the local Pakistani garrison. While air assets were probably on call to assist if necessary, the team instead had to rely on completing the mission quickly and exfiltrating with speed before the locals were stirred up enough to try to interfere with the attack. Due to the lead up in intelligence work, the team benefited from the time necessary to study and train within a mock-up of the target house which enabled them to move quickly and decisively towards completion of their mission.

The media story regarding the death of Bin Laden seems to change on a daily basis. He was killed with a weapon, reaching for a weapon or after he surrendered depending upon which story you want to believe. A commentator on Fox News this morning went into a long harangue about why Bin Laden should have been taken alive - all convenient Thursday morning quarterbacking from the comfort of a nice television studio.

Could Bin Laden have surrendered and been executed ? I suppose it's possible. The SEAL team commander may have made the decision based on the fact that he already had one helicopter in trouble and the possibility that they would have to fight their way out through a force of Pakistani military units and unhappy civilians. Why take the risk when you can effectively accomplish the mission at that moment ? It's equally possible that Bin Laden tried to grab a weapon since capture for him would be as unappealing as it would have been for Hitler back in 1945.

The fact that the U.S. violated the airspace of a sovereign nation without (wisely) tipping off the Pakistanis to the plan, points to the amount of resolve necessary to execute the mission, diplomatic consequences be damned. The margin of error was tremendously small- what would have happened if the Pakistanis had reacted faster on the ground ? What if the Pakistani Air Force, which apparently scrambled fighters after the raiders departed, had shot down one of the helicopters ? What if it the entire mission was a dry hole and Bin Laden was not in the house ? What if Bin Laden had been tipped off and prepared an ambush for the U.S. forces ?

I have to give credit to President Obama for giving the go-ahead on a mission that had so many potential ways to go wrong quickly. I would surmise, however, that nearly 10 years of constant war has sharpened the capabilities of the SEAL Team, the various intelligence agencies that were involved, and the helicopter unit that ferried them to such a fine point that the mission was less risky than it would have been before the war.

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