For Neptune Spear the Navy SEALs wanted heavily armed MH-47 Chinooks but stealth Black Hawks were used instead. Here’s why.

For Neptune Spear the Navy SEALs wanted heavily armed MH-47 Chinooks but stealth Black Hawks were used instead. Here’s why.

By Dario Leone
Apr 28 2024
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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The Black Hawk

The Black Hawk is the military’s most versatile helicopter, suited for a variety of missions, including command and control, air assaults, medical evacuations, and lift operations. Capable of carrying four crew members (two pilots and two crew chiefs) plus a fully equipped 11-person infantry squad, the Black Hawk can also hold a 105 mm howitzer or a Humvee suspended below the aircraft during sling-load operations.

The Black Hawk serves with the US military and the armed forces of 28 other countries worldwide as a tough, reliable utility helicopter.

More than 4,000 Black Hawks of all types are in service worldwide today. The US Army is the largest operator with 2,135 H-60 designated aircraft. The same aircraft sold internationally direct from Sikorsky acquires the S-70 designation.

The EH-60As with DFE kits, the first stealth Black Hawks

Sikorsky even produced the EH-60A QUICK FIX, a very special version of the Black Hawk. The EH-60A Quick Fix consisted of a UH-60A helicopter modified to identify, locate and jam ground based electronic communication transmissions.

EH-60A
EH-60A

As explained by Peter W. Merlin in his book Dremland The Secret History of Area 51, in 1987, the chief of Army Aviation Systems Command directed the Army Aviation Engineering Flight Activity (AEFA) at Edwards Air Force Base to participate with Sikorsky in a flight evaluation of a EH-60A fitted with the Direction Finding Enhancement (DFE) kit. The DFE kit was actually a collection of structural components and materials that could be temporarily installed to reduce the chopper’s RCS.

Between 1988 and 1991 several DFE kits were produced and fielded with the 101st Airborne Division, 17th Cavalry Regiment, at Fort Campbell. Operational aircrews found that the add-ons resulted in performance limitations and proved a headache for maintenance technicians.

The RAH-66 Comanche

The evolution of stealth rotorcraft continued in 1988 when Sikorsky and Boeing teamed to develop and build the RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter.

The Comanche featured an all-composite fuselage, fully integrated digital flight controls, and advanced navigation and weapons systems. It was designed to provide U.S. forces with accurate, timely tactical intelligence.

First deliveries were scheduled for 2006, with the Comanche program reaching full production by about 2010. Plans were to manufacture 1,213 RAH-66s for US Army service. The Army canceled the program in February 2004 as a part of a reorganization of Army Aviation.

Low-observables kit used on the MH-60K

For Neptune Spear the Navy SEALs wanted heavily armed MH-47 Chinooks but stealth Black Hawks were used instead. Here’s why.
RAH-66 Comanche

By this time, the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) had contracted the Boeing-Sikorsky team to leverage its combined experience in a renewed effort to modify the Black Hawk into a stealthy configuration.

According to a retired special-operations aviator, the classified project had two aims. The first was to reshape the aircraft and cover it with RAM to lower its RCS, and the second was to make it significantly quieter. The result was essentially an improved version of the low-observables kit used on the EH-60A, but this time applied to the MH-60K model. “It really didn’t look like a traditional Black Hawk,” he said. “[It had] hard edges, sort of like an . . . F-117, you know how they have those distinctive edges and angles.”

The source further explained that initial plans called for building four of the stealthy helicopters for use with a new special-operations aviation detachment located at a military facility in Nevada. The USSOCOM planned to assign as many as thirty-five to fifty personnel to the unit, under the command of a lieutenant colonel. “The intent was: always to move it out wests where it could be kept as a covert capability,” he said.

Those plans were eventually canceled, but not before two of the low-observable helicopters had been delivered. In the meantime, Black Hawk crews from the 1st Battalion, 160th SOAR, rotated to Nevada to train on the stealthy choppers. Additional test and training activities took place at China Lake Naval Weapons Center in California and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

Stealth Black Hawks instead of heavily armed MH-47 Chinooks

By 2011, it had become clear that although the modification kits provided the Black Hawks with stealth, it also hampered them with weight penalties that made the choppers hard to control under certain conditions, especially in a hover. During planning for Neptune Spear, the Navy SEALs expressed a preference for using the larger, heavily armed – but nonstealthy- MH-47 Chinooks that the 160th SOAR had flown into some of the most hostile combat zones in the world.

For Neptune Spear the Navy SEALs wanted heavily armed MH-47 Chinooks but stealth Black Hawks were used instead. Here’s why.
One of the proposed configurations for a low-RCS Black Hawk helicopter featured a faceted, wedge-shaped fuselage but did not include any changes to the main tilt rotors.

At one point, according to defense journalist Sean Naylor’s book Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, they went so far as to test the Chinooks against radars near Groom Lake that mimicked those used by Pakistan’s air defense system, and data showed they would have a good chance of survival by using traditional infiltration techniques such as nap-of-the-earth flying. According to Naylor the SEALs’ protest went unheeded both by the CIA and Admiral William McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command.

In January 2011, Army helicopter crews and Navy SEALs practiced their assault techniques at a hastily constructed mockup of bin Laden’s compound deep within the CIAs Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity in North Carolina. On Apr. 18 the commandos flew to Nevada for another week of rehearsals over a stretch of desert terrain with elevations equivalent to those in northern Pakistan.

Stealth Black Hawks: a pretty good degree of surprise

Aircrews plotted a flight path simulating the route from Jalalabad to Abbottabad, and spent several nights practicing the attack. On the fourth night, a plane load of VIP guests arrived at Groom Lake to observe one of the dress-rehearsal missions. Among them were Adm Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash.

Following a briefing inside one of the hangars, Mullen took the time to meet each of the special-operations-forces personnel and wish them luck. The visitors were issued parkas and night-vision goggles and driven to a forward area to observe the demonstration. Bash recalled, “We all went out to the observation post and looked out over the ridge and waited for the helicopters to emerge.”

To his surprise, the stealthy choppers appeared without warning, not from behind the distant ridge but directly behind the viewing stand. “It reinforced how these aircraft could come with a pretty good degree of surprise,” said Bash.

Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

For Neptune Spear the Navy SEALs wanted heavily armed MH-47 Chinooks but stealth Black Hawks were used instead. Here’s why.
A highly modified EH-60A Black Hawk with DFE kit installed sits on the ramp at Edwards in 1990. The chopper was equipped with two external fuel tanks, each coated with radar-absorbent paint.

Photo credit: U.S. Army via Dremland The Secret History of Area 51 by Peter W. Merlin / Schiffer Military and U.S. Army


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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