Speculation is rampant when it comes to the secret copters used in Bin Laden raid

The U.S. raid to finally get Osama bin Laden; dead or alive, is going to be one of those historic moments we will all talk about for years to come. Opinion on whether to release the photos of Bin Laden’s death is raging and the identities of the incredible Navy SEALS team who pulled off the impossible is still a secret.

But there is one other part of this story that has been getting its own special kind of attention. I am of course referring to the helicopters that were used in the raid. While much of the main stream media is centered around the Bin Laden aspect of the story there is a group of aviation and intelligence experts that have been captivated by what little information that has been glean from a few images of the helicopter which malfunctioned during the raid and was blown up.

David Axe at Wired’s Danger Room blog has a great post that explores the subject with some great detail but it seems that the general consensus is that these helicopters were either specifically reconfigured machines for this job alone or are quite possibly a helicopter we haven’t even seen yet, let alone heard whispers of.

Considering the proliferation of bewildering photos from the crash site, the conservative viewpoint seems unlikely. Equally, the notion of a brand-new “black” helicopter seems far-fetched, especially considering the Army’s long history of heavily modifying existing rotorcraft for secret missions.

That leaves an upgraded, stealth-optimized MH-60 as the most likely candidate — a conclusion that jibes with CIA director Leon Panetta’s assertion Tuesday that the 25-man strike team was “carried in two Blackhawk helicopters that went in.”

A story by ace reporter Sean Naylor in Army Times, published just minutes after the initial version of this post, supports this conclusion. Naylor quotes a retired Special Forces aviator saying the special Blackhawk, modified by Lockheed Martin, has “hard edges, sort of like an … F-117″ stealth fighter from the same company.

According to a source who spoke to our own Spencer Ackerman, the modifications might have taken place with the help of a mysterious Army organization called the “Technology Applications Program Office,” located at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

David points out in his post that if this is indeed a more stealthy helicopter that has proven how well it works, as evidenced by this raid, then the implications are possibly very big.

In any event, the implications are potentially enormous. For one, the existence of a stealthy helicopter means we must revise upward our assessment of U.S. Special Operations Forces’ ability to strike fast and unseen, all over the world.

Second, we should take with a grain of salt all the recent hand-wringing over the supposed decay in the American military rotorcraft industry. If we really have already fielded the world’s first radar-evading helicopter, there’s less reason to worry that the United States might have lost its chopper-making skills.

Third, the fact that the Pentagon was willing to risk its most secret whirlybird “shows the importance of the mission in the eyes of U.S. commanders,” according to Aviation Week‘s Bill Sweetman, who was, as usual, among the first to report on the new chopper.

Here is an artist’s rendering by aviation artist Ugo Crisponi, based on current information, of what these secret helicopters could look like compared to its brethren already in use.

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