On May 2, a team of navy seals managed to sneak past Pakistani air defenses aboard two helicopters bound for the town of Abbottabad. Although its mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden was a hugely celebrated success, one of the helicopters crashed during the operation, giving the world its first look at a stealth helicopter deployed in a live military operation.
It will be years (if ever) before the public learns exactly how the Army managed to conceal the whomp-whomp of helicopter rotor blades, but photos of the wreckage offer clues. Defense experts say the helicopters were modified H-60 Black Hawks—workhorses of the U.S. Army—swathed in a suite of closely held stealth technologies that probably migrated over from the prototype RAH-66 Comanche, a stealth helicopter program canceled in 2004 after costs spiraled. Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a defense and aerospace consultancy based in Fairfax, Virginia, says the Black Hawk probably had a reshaped body to reduce radar reflections and limit escaping noise and heat, redesigned or additional rotor blades to dampen the signature rotor noise, and some kind of radar-absorbing “skin.”
None of these technologies is particularly groundbreaking on its own, Aboulafia says, but reconfigured to fit a Black Hawk’s frame and mission profile, they collectively represent a major leap forward in evasive technology, turning a notorious noisemaker into a secret weapon. “It’s the best kind of technology story,” Aboulafia says. “This is art-of-the-possible stealth—making do with what you’ve got. Given the limitations of defense budgets, it’s a strong template for the future.”
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Defense contractor BAE Systems field-tested an invisibility cloak in July that can make a tank look like a car, a boulder, or even a cow. Onboard infrared cameras scan the surrounding scene, and thermal tiles covering the tank display that imagery, causing the vehicle to blend in with its environment.