The Complex

Pakistan’s Air Force Learned About the Bin Laden Raid on TV

The Pakistani air force learned about the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden from a television news report about a helicopter crash in Abbottabad. Belatedly, they scrambled fighter jets. But by then, the Americans were long gone. In other words: Pakistan had virtually no chance of detecting U.S. choppers as they flew into the ...

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The Pakistani air force learned about the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden from a television news report about a helicopter crash in Abbottabad. Belatedly, they scrambled fighter jets. But by then, the Americans were long gone.

In other words: Pakistan had virtually no chance of detecting U.S. choppers as they flew into the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. And if they raid was done all over again, they still wouldn't catch the aircraft. That's according to a leaked report from Pakistan's independent Abbottabad Commission that was charged by the Pakistani government to investigate the raid.

The commission says the Pakistani military never saw the raid coming because of the American choppers' stealthy, noise-reducing equipment, the skill of their crews at flying below radar, and the fact that Pakistan's air defenses are focused on its border with India, not Afghanistan.

The Pakistani air force learned about the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden from a television news report about a helicopter crash in Abbottabad. Belatedly, they scrambled fighter jets. But by then, the Americans were long gone.

In other words: Pakistan had virtually no chance of detecting U.S. choppers as they flew into the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. And if they raid was done all over again, they still wouldn’t catch the aircraft. That’s according to a leaked report from Pakistan’s independent Abbottabad Commission that was charged by the Pakistani government to investigate the raid.

The commission says the Pakistani military never saw the raid coming because of the American choppers’ stealthy, noise-reducing equipment, the skill of their crews at flying below radar, and the fact that Pakistan’s air defenses are focused on its border with India, not Afghanistan.

The U.S. "was never expected to commit such a dastardly act," the commission’s report quotes the unnamed deputy chief of Pakistan’s air staff for operations (DCAS) as saying. The raid was so unexpected that the Pakistanis had no radars looking at the valleys along their northwest border with Afghanistan that the U.S. troops used to fly from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Abbottabad, Pakistan, according to the report, first published by Al Jazeera.

Even if it had positioned radars to monitor the border, they wouldn’t have made much difference. A separate Pakistani air force (PAF) board of inquiry into the raid concluded that "given the current inventory of radars, a repetition of a similar U.S. raid in the future would be difficult for the PAF to handle," the commission notes. "The U.S. was the only country in the world to have mastered stealth technology at an operational level, and the PAF did not have radars that could detect the intrusion of stealth objects."

Here are the key sentences in the report describing how the Pakistani air force learned of the raid, after it was over.

"The PAF first learnt of the Abbottabad raid at about 0207 on May 2" an hour and a half after the raid began and about 40 minutes after it ended, when, the DCAF told the commission, "’Pakistan TV channels started showing an Army helicopter crash at Abbottabad.’  After ‘completion of the operation [by the SEALs] in about 40 minutes’ the U.S. forces destroyed the crashed helicopter and ‘the other helicopters began their return at about 01110 hours and exited Pakistan airspace at approximately 0200 hours.’"

That means that SEALs along with Osama’s body were already back inside Afghanistan by the time the Pakistani air force even knew of the raid. Remember, U.S. officials apparently drew up plans for American troops to fight their way out of Pakistan in case they were intercepted by the Pakistani military.

Nevertheless, Pakistani fighter jets were immediately scrambled and over Abbottabad about 15 minutes after taking off. (Remember: early American news coverage of the raid that said the choppers were almost caught by Pakistani fighter jets.) The report goes on to note that the jets entered the space around Abbottabad with no intelligence on what they were supposed to be looking for.

So, Pakistan couldn’t stop the U.S. raid on its territory, period. Just another reason why the raid was "one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of Pakistan," the report quotes the DCAS as saying.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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