President Obama is going to thank some of those involved in Monday’s mission against Osama bin Laden during his visit to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on Friday. Whether or not the SEALs will be there isn’t known: they’re based 500 miles away, at Fort Bragg, N.C. But some key enablers live at the Kentucky base: the Night Stalkers of Task Force 160, the secret and elite Army helo unit that got the SEALs into bin Laden’s hideout and took the SEALs — and bin Laden’s body — out of it 38 minutes later.
The Night Stalkers fly the most sophisticated aircraft the U.S. military can afford. Designed for entering hostile airspace, they’re crammed with electronics to spoof enemy radars and missiles, smooth exteriors to elude radar, and all kinds of gizmos and gimcracks for improved communications and killing. While references to the unit’s capabilities are highly-classified, every once in awhile something slips out. Like this 2007 contract notice, for example, detailing the need for a better bullet “with a significant new capability to defeat hardened targets such as bunkers, buildings, or other structures consisting of up to 24 inches reinforced concrete or 4 feet of timber and earth.”
The pilots of what’s officially known as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) had to leave one chopper behind at bin Laden’s place after it suffered a hard landing while trying to maneuver into the compound and losing lift against its high wall. While they destroyed the bulk of the chopper with explosives, photographs quickly surfaced of its unusual intact tail, which showed it to be a heavily-modified UH-60 Black Hawk.
The outfit has been busy since 9/11, according to its lone webpage:
Since the devastating attack on our nation Sept. 11, 2001, the 160th SOAR(A) has been continuously and actively engaged in combat operations. Night Stalkers first deployed in support of the War on Terror in October 2001, for Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan, with a short period supporting OEF-Philippines. In spring 2003, the 160th deployed its first assets supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. As the organization continued maturing to meet the nation’s special operations aviation requirements, the Regiment stood up a fourth assault battalion, 4th Bn., 160th, at Fort Lewis, Wa., in December 2005. Following the deactivation of E Co., 160th, on July 31, 2007, the USPACOM area of responsibility was handed over to 4th Bn., which was formally activated in December 2007. On April 24, 2008, D Co., 160th, was officially deactivated with 3 Bn. assuming the responsibility of the USSOUTHCOM area of operations. Today, the Regiment maintains a sustained forward presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously providing increased training support to USPACOM, an in-extremis force for USSOUTHCOM, and maintaining a national mission alert force.
The aviation unit has been around for 30 years, and played a role in most major military ops since 1983’s invasion of Grenada. Its blackest days were October 3 and 4, 1993, when eight aircraft and five unit members were killed during a battle in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, that came to be known as Black Hawk Down. In addition to flying 12-troop Black Hawks and 50-troop MH-47 twin-rotor choppers, the unit also flies tiny and quiet two-man M-6 Little Birds.