Here's What You Need to Remember: Helicopters are immensely useful for quickly inserting troops into hard-to-reach areas, but special operations impose challenging demands on them: the need to fly further, avoid detection and interception, insert and extract troops into tricky landing zones, and provide fire support while they’re at it.
According to various accounts, in the early hours of October 27, 2019, eight black MH-47 and MH-60 helicopters raced low over Syria’s Idlib province, carrying around seventy operators of the elite special operations troops of the 75th Ranger Regiment and Delta Force counter-terrorism unit.
While F-15E Strike Eagle jets covered the skies overhead, the chopper were carefully refueled midflight by two MC-130J Commando II tanker-transports. Then they swooped down on a compound near the Barisha, Idlib province about four miles from the Turkish border.
A half-dozen fighters outside opened fire on the aircraft. A specially modified Blackhawk helicopter zeroed in on the trench they were hiding in using an infrared camera, and cut them down them in a burst of 30-millimeter automatic cannon fire before proceeding to knock out a parked minivan.
Assault choppers then deposited the operators, who after calling for those inside to surrender, used explosives to breach a point of entry inside and killed four women and a man who offered resistance. They rescued eleven children and captured two ISIS associates.
A military dog then led the operators on the trail of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Upon being cornered at the end of the tunnel, he detonated a suicide vest, tragically also killing two children he had taken with him.
Following a 15-minute DNA test of Baghdadi’s remains, the operators scoured the compound for intelligence. Two hours later, they reassembled onboard the jet-black helicopters and evacuated the scene as Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs reduced the compound to rubble.
Like the 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the recent hit on the ISIS leader showcased the stealthy, long-range MH-60 and MH-47 helicopters modified to support dangerous commando raids—all uniquely flown by Army’s legendary 160th ‘Night Stalkers’ Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Blackhawk and Chinook
Helicopters are immensely useful for quickly inserting troops into hard-to-reach areas, but special operations impose challenging demands on them: the need to fly further, avoid detection and interception, insert and extract troops into tricky landing zones, and provide fire support while they’re at it.
After a helicopter collision brought a disastrous end to a 1980 hostage rescue mission over Iran, the Army decided it needed an elite helicopter unit specially trained for special operations. Thus the Army formed the 160th, soon furnished with first-generation MH-60A Blackhawks and MH-47D assault helicopters.
The MH-60 was based on the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk, a rangy twin-engine assault/utility helicopter introduced in the 1980s as a faster, heavier-lifting and higher-flying successor to the single-turboshaft UH-1 Huey of Vietnam War fame.
The MH-47 was derived from the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, a huge tandem-rotor heavy-lift helicopter that had been serving the U.S. Army since 1962. The beastly chopper was valued for its ability to carry over thirty troops, or heavy underslung cargoes such as Humvees, howitzers and patrol boats.
By the late 1980s, the second-generation MH-60K/L and MH-47E introduced new sensors and more powerful engines. The current generation MH-47G and MH-60M included additional systems that have proven so useful they’ve been integrated into standard models. The MH-47G “Golf” model’s improved T55-GA-714A turboshafts, for example, allow it to climb to higher altitudes in hotter weather—dramatically expanding where it can fly to in places like Afghanistan.
Both helicopters are crewed by a pilot, co-pilot, and two or three door gunners/crew chiefs. They also share Common Avionic Architecture System instrumentation, including color multi-function displays which can display maps, flight data, external video feeds, and even cue hovering and landing maneuvers.
Mobility and Flexibility
Getting from point A to point B by itself can be difficult, as most modern transport helicopters can fly only a few hundred miles—too short for a deep raid. Thus, the MH-60M and MH-47G have expanded internal tanks extending their range to over 500 and 850 miles respectively.
They also carry long aerial refueling boom which allows them to gulp down more fuel from Marine KC-130 or Air Force MC-130 tanker transports.
Both can even serve as ‘Fat Cows’ or ‘Fat Hawks’ pumped full of aviation fuel to refuel other landed helicopters from a forward location.
The helicopters are also equipped to perform resupply, search-and-rescue and medical-evacuation missions. As each carries six or seven specialized radios, including satellite-communication and jam-resistant types, they can also double as command-and-control hubs.
Penetrating Enemy Airspace
But how are helicopters to penetrate hostile airspace without being detected and destroyed? Helicopters fly a lot slower and lower than airplanes: the MH-47 and MH-60 typically cruise at 120 to 140 miles per hour, and no higher than 20,000 feet. This leaves them vulnerable to rapid-firing cannons and heavy machineguns and man-portable surface-to-air missiles.
The best defense is to remain undetected. Both the MH-47 and MH-60 use noise-reduction systems to quiet the din produced by their rotors.
Furthermore, they’re modified to fly extremely close to the surface—preferably at night or in other low-observability conditions. That minimizes the range at which they’re detected, because ground-based radars have difficulty peering over mountains and buildings to spot low-flying choppers.
The Blackhawks used in the Bin Laden raid were apparently an exotic stealth variant incorporating radar-absorbent materials, sculpted surfaces and shrouded engines to evade Pakistani radars.
Of course, skimming the surface under low visibility conditions is really dangerous, so pilots use SilentKnight multi-mode radars in terrain-following/terrain-avoidance mode to avoid collision, as well as ZSQ-2 infrared/electro-optical sensors mounted in a chin-bubble to see through night, rain and fog. For a good measure, cockpit instruments are designed for compatibility with night-vision goggles.
But sometimes stealth fails, and it becomes necessary to evade enemy fire.
Both choppers carry AVR-2 systems designed to alert the crew if they’re being painted by a laser targeter, and Common Missile Warning Sensor to alert them of incoming projectiles.
Against radar-guided threats they additionally employ ALQ-211 Suite of Integrated Radio Frequency Countermeasures (SIRFC), which includes a radar-warning receiver, a radar-jammer and a special decoy launcher.
And to foil heat-seeking missiles, the Blackhawk has an ALQ-144 “disco-ball” jammer which pulses infrared energy to confuse heat-seeking missiles. The MH-47, meanwhile, has a suppressor to minimize the hot exhaust from its turboshafts.
As a last-ditch defense, the helicopters can also spew chaff and flare decoys, including special XM-216 ‘Dark Flares’ that lure away infrared-guided missiles while remaining invisible to the human eye.
Inserting the Operators
Upon arriving at the drop zone, the choppers must get their operators on the ground as quickly as possible—quite likely while under fire. Worse, they may need to insert and extract troops from confined landing zones that can’t accommodate the weight of a helicopter.
As a result, the MH-60M and MH-47G are equipped with Fast Rope Insertion or Extraction System (FRIES)—in which a thick wool rope is used to swiftly winch operators down to (or backup from) the drop zone.
To insert/extra even faster there’s also SPIES, in which a team of up to eight soldiers in harnesses clip themselves onto a single rope and get plucked away together, as you can see in this remarkable video.
If there are casualties or civilians in need of evacuation, the choppers also have electrically powered hoists to reel them up.
Stealthy Fire Support
Since special operators can’t cart tanks and artillery with them on lightning raids, they instead rely on helicopters to provide fire support.
MH-60s and MH-47s are armed with two M134 six-barrel miniguns mounted on each side door which can hose out up to a ridiculous 6,000 7.62-millimeter rounds per minute. An MH-47 can also mount two additional M240 medium-machineguns on each side of the cargo bay ramp.
However, bullets won’t cut it against entrenched enemies and armored vehicles. For that purpose, there’s a gunship model of the MH-60 called the Direction Action Penetrator.
Instead of carrying troops, the MH-60 DAP lugs similar weapons to those found on the deadly AH-64 Apache gunships on stub-wings called the Light Armament Support System, including up to two M230 30-millimeter cannons, as well as optional miniguns or .50-caliber Gatling guns.
The MH-60DAP can blast light vehicles and personnel targets with rocket pods stuffed with nineteen 2.75” rocket, or fire laser-guided Hellfire anti-tank missiles from quad racks to destroy hard targets like bunkers and tanks. They can even engage aerial threats with AIM-92 Stinger short-range air-to-air missiles.
The 160th regiments fields 71 MH-47Gs and 72 MH-60Ms and MH-60 DAPs, with additional MH-47Gs on order. Demand for the unit’s shadowy helicopters is only growing as Pentagon increasingly relies on special operations forces to spearhead anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations across the globe.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared in 2019.