U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes
- U.S. helicopters in the al-Baghdadi Raid belonged to the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
- The 160th was set up after the failure of the U.S. hostage rescue mission in Iran.
- The 160th operates a number of specialized helicopters in both transportation and attack roles.
The helicopters that took part in this weekend’s raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid were from an elite U.S. Army helicopter unit created to transport American commandos on high risk missions. The MH-60 and MH-47 helicopters were from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers.”
Since their inception in the early 1980s, the Night Stalkers have participated in a number of high profile missions, including the attempted capture of Somali warlord Mohammad Farah Aidid chronicled in “Black Hawk Down” and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
According to a Pentagon briefing by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, Abu Bakr al-Baghadi was located approximately 4 miles from the Turkish border in Idlib province in Syria. The raiding force, according to the Washington Examiner, consisted of soldiers from the U.S. Army’s elite commando unit, Delta Force, plus U.S. Army Rangers. The raiding party discovered al-Baghdadi in a tunnel, where he detonated a suicide vest before he could be captured alive. According to The New York Times, the CIA provided intelligence and “reconnaissance information” on the ground. The force was transported by eight helicopters from the 160th SOAR.
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was formed in the wake of the failed mission 1979 to rescue American hostages in Tehran, Iran. The U.S. Army realized it needed a permanent force of highly trained helicopter pilots—and highly specialized helicopters—available for special, high risk missions. The result was Task Force 160. Task Force 160 was originally formed from pilots selected from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the largest helicopter unit in the Army. Later selection was opened up to pilots from other units, and the task force became a full-fledged regiment.
The helicopters involved in the al-Baghdadi raid were likely MH-60L/M medium helicopters and MH-47 aircraft heavy lift helicopters. Both the MH-60L and MH-47 are specialized versions of helicopters used by the rest of the U.S. Army, heavily modified to support long distance special forces raids at night and in bad weather.
The MH-60L is a specialized version of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. According to Globalsecurity.org, the MH-60L features an “updated cockpit, additional avionics, precision navigation system, forward looking infrared (FLIR), aircraft survivability equipment, external tank system. Survivability equipment includes radar and missile warning systems and IR jammers.” The helicopter has an external rescue hoist for winching people and objects from the ground in a hover state.
The MH-60L is designed to transport up to a dozen commandos, at night and in adverse weather. Rare among Army helicopters, it is capable of receiving fuel in flight from tanker aircraft. It is also fitted with two 185 gallon internal fuel tanks. It is also capable of fitting two 230 gallon external fuel tanks. Two 7.62-millimeter six-barrel miniguns provide suppressive fire against threats on the ground. A newer version, the MH-60M, recently entered service as an older version, the MH-60K, was phased out.
The 160th also flies a gunship variant of the MH-60L/M. The MH-60 Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) adds a pair of stubby wings to a MH-60, turning a transport helicopter into a heavily armed gunship. These wings provide mounting points for a variety of weaponry, including M230 30-millimeter chain guns, GAU-19/A three-barrel .50 caliber Gatling guns, 70-millimeter Hydra rockets, and even Hellfire anti-tank missiles. DAPs can even carry Stinger air-to-air missiles if there is an air threat. The MH-60 provides a heavily armed escort for a helicopter raiding force, then direct air support for ground troops at the objective.
Another aircraft that was likely on this weekend’s mission is the MH-47 Chinook. The MH-47, available in -E, -F, and the latest -G model, is designed to transport larger numbers of special forces troops, or heavy equipment and light vehicles. The MH-47 is equipped with long-range fuel tanks, an aerial refueling probe, multi-mode radar and floward-looking infrared sensors. The MH-47 also has a rear ramp for loading and unloading troops and cargo. Alternately, troops can fast rope from the rear of the aircraft. The helicopter has a crew of five and up to four machine guns, including two 7.62 millimeter miniguns and two M240 medium machine guns.