The flight lead during the raid that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden, who was piloting one of the MH-47G Chinooks employed in that operation, says that a Pakistani F-16 Viper fighter jet "engaged" his helicopter three separate times as he flew toward Afghanistan during the exfiltration phase of the mission. The now-retired U.S. Army officer also says he was involved personally in two attempts during the Obama Administration to capture Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq. The Trump Administration decided to kill Soleimani, who had been head of Iran's Quds Force, in a drone strike in Baghdad in January.
Retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Douglas Englen offered these and other previously unreported details about operations from throughout his career with the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers, in an exclusive interview with journalist and documentarian Alex Quade for Military Times, which is worth reading in its entirety. He only decided to share his personal memories after prompting from former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta and retired U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, both of whom were heavily involved in the planning execution of the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, according to Quade.
"I’m telling it to you," Englen told Military Times. "There’s never been an accurate air piece conveyed on what happened that night."
Many of the basics of the operation are well established at this point. Famously, two heavily modified stealthy Black Hawk helicopters were first to arrive at the compound and inserted the main raiding force. One of these helicopters subsequently crashed after experiencing a condition known as vortex ring state. Englen says the ambient temperature was hotter than expected, which can also impact a helicopter's available lift, and the stealth Black Hawk had more fuel and personnel on board than initially planned, all contributing to the accident.
It has also been widely reported that the use of the helicopters was controversial among the personnel involved in planning the operation and that McRaven, then head of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), had been particularly keen to employ them. There are indications that the stealth Black Hawks had been key to securing the final approval from President Barak Obama to launch the risky raid inside the territory of an ostensibly friendly nation.
It's not clear where Englen fell on that debate. He makes clear in his interview that he was among those who advocated for letting the stealthy helicopters penetrate into Pakistan first, rather than sending in the two MH-47G Chinooks, including the one that he would be flying, first to establish a temporary Forward Arming Refueling Point (FARP) and be in position in case something went wrong.
So, when the Black Hawk crashed at the Abbottabad compound, Englen and the rest of the backup force in the Chinooks were still in the process of setting up the FARP at a site 30 miles to the north. He immediately got a quick reaction force into his MH-47G and set off to assist the main raiding party, while the other Chinook stayed behind to ensure that fuel would be waiting for the remaining force before it returned to Afghanistan.
“We just went into contingency mode,” Englen explained. "Didn’t know the severity – if it was crashed with casualties? If it crashed in civilian area? All we do is minimize our time and get there as quick as possible."
Englen says that infiltrating into Pakistan in the first place had been relatively easy and, while he said that it was clear from lights coming on in buildings down below that they were waking average citizens up, there did not appear to be any major response from the country's authorities. "Once we crashed the aircraft [the stealth helicopter], within the first 30 seconds of the mission, then that’s when we really woke up that entire valley," he said.
Special operators attempted to destroy the helicopter with explosives, which only drew further attention. Englen says that he was arriving right when the controlled demolition occurred and almost got caught in the blast.
“I was probably 100 feet from the aircraft when it blew up. It pushed our aircraft to the side," he said. "I had to actually fly away, make a tight circle and come back in, and land under the mushroom cloud. I landed to the east of the compound, right next to it. I mean like, right next to it."
As is well known, portions of the helicopter remained intact enough for recovery. Pictures emerged soon after the raid showing the tail section of the top-secret helicopter in particular detail.
After loading up Bin Laden's body and other items of potential intelligence value from the compound, the raiding force began to make its way back to Afghanistan. Englen does not say exactly when during the exfiltration it occurred or where, but he says that one of Pakistan's American-made F-16 Viper fighter jets was clearly hunting for the remaining helicopters and attempted to "engage" his MH-47G at least three times.
“It was as an electronic fight. A missile never left the rail. So I was able to evade him electronically. That’s all I’ll say," he said. "But, he was searching and hunting for me, and three times came very close to actually launching a missile."
Englen does not say what type of electronic warfare systems he employed to evade the fighter jet. It is known that the MH-47G has some form of radio-frequency countermeasures system, in addition to infrared and laser missile warning receivers. Quade also says that the 160th's Chinooks had just received new electronic warfare equipment before the raid and that Englen had helped certify those systems and training crews to use them. The Night Stalkers Chinooks are without a doubt the most heavily modified and best-protected versions of that helicopter anywhere in the world.
The retired Chief Warrant Officer also says that he employed evasive maneuvers and a very low-level nap-of-the-earth flight profile to help get away from the F-16. "We pulled every technique and tactic out of the book. And it worked," he said.
“Now, in retrospect, we could have done it with two Chinooks, the entirety," Englen added. "And more than likely – I don’t want to ever second-guess anybody – but in this condition, we would not have crashed, because we [the Chinooks] have the lift."
However, his experience with the F-16 raises questions about whether using only non-stealthy MH-47Gs would have created unacceptable risks. It has long been understood that there was a real danger that, if any of the raiding helicopters were detected, that the Pakistani Air Force, which is on a perpetually high state of alert in case of attacks from India, might have tried to shoot it down.
This interview would only seem to confirm that this was very much the case and came closer to actually happening than has been previously known. At the same time, it also appears to indicate that the Pakistani Air Force did not swing into action until the crash at the compound, suggesting that the country's air defense radars did not pick up any of the helicopters, regardless of their stealth features, during the initial inflitration.
Interestingly Englen does say that this was not the first time during his career with the 160th that hostile combat jets threatened his helicopter, but he did not provide any further details about any other similar incidents. There are reports that three years later, U.S. special operators again rode in stealth Black Hawks during a raid into Syria, though primarily due to concerns about ground-based air defenses, rather than hostile combat aircraft.
The very real vulnerability of conventional helicopters, as well as non-stealthy tilt-rotors and fixed-wing transport aircraft, to more advanced air defense networks has prompted work on stealthy helicopters and transport aircraft for decades now. The War Zone has explored many years worth of relevant programs extensively in the past.
Beyond these and other interesting details about the Bin Laden Raid, Englen also says that he directly took part in two attempts to capture Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, once in 2013 and again in 2016. These are significant revelations given the ongoing debate around the Trump Administration's controversial decision to kill Solemani outside Baghdad International Airport in January and its legal justification for doing so. For years, Solemani ran Iran's Quds Force, which conducts various covert overseas operations overseas and provides different levels of support to various proxy forces throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Now-retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal has said that he declined an opportunity to kill the Iranian officer in Iraq in 2007. McChrystal was head of JSOC at the time. The following year, President George W. Bush reportedly shot down a joint proposal from the CIA and Israel's Mossad to assassinate Soleimani in Syria.
That President Barack Obama was willing to try to capture Solemani is certainly an interesting addition to the discussion and it's not clear what the justification would have been for doing so. In 2011, the Obama Administration had sanctioned the Iranian officer over a Quds Force plot to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.
"It wasn’t ‘capture or kill,’ so if we couldn’t guarantee a capture, then we couldn’t take it to the next level," Englen said in his interview with Military Times. "But we were minutes behind him and his vehicles in Iraq, and we could’ve gotten him. But our rules of engagement was, 'capture only.'"
As already noted, the first to Englen's interview with Military Times is well worth reading in full. Englen was involved in some of the earliest U.S. military operations in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including the mission to save Hamid Karzai, who later became president of the country, from getting captured by the Taliban. He also took part in the opening phases of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
With 34 deployments under his belt in total, equalling six years and nine months of total time spent in combat, including 2,500 sorties just in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has certainly seen and done a lot. Over the course of his career, 90 percent of the missions he flew were in support of so-call Tier One special operations forces, a term for the most elite and secretive units, such as the Navy's SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Delta Force.
Quade says that this may be both the first and last time Englen shares this level of detail about his experiences. Still, he is due to get inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame in April, at which time we may learn even more about his years as one of the Army's most elite aviators.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org