The weather was good, so what brought down the Marine V-22 in Yemen?
by TOM DEMERLY
Additional information has emerged about the U.S. commando raid that targeted an alleged Al-Qaeda installation in the Yakla region of Baida province in Yemen on Jan. 29, 2017.
The costly special operations mission was apparently the first of U.S. president Donald Trump’s new administration.
While details of the raid remain classified, it’s increasingly clear that the U.S. Navy SEALs lost the element of surprise. “It was as though Al Qaeda knew the SEALs were coming, and were ready,” a source told ABC13 News Now reporter Elise Brown on Feb. 2.
U.S. Navy chief petty officer William “Ryan” Owens, a 36-year-old from Illinois, was killed in action during the operation. Three other U.S. personnel were wounded during the raid and three more were injured during the hard landing of a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor.
American forces destroyed the damaged aircraft to prevent its capture.
While it is likely the raid involved a composite task force of U.S. special operations personnel, Owens himself was a member of an East Coast SEAL team from Little Creek, Virginia. Media outlets have reported that Owens was part of the specially-trained Task Force Blue — a.k.a. SEAL Team Six.
The U.S. Navy’s Task Force Blue includes Red, Gold, Blue and Silver Squadrons — all four are operational “raid” squadrons — plus Black Squadron, an intelligence-gathering and analysis asset. It’s unclear which squadron Owens belonged to.
Official statements indicate that the primary objective of the raid was to seize physical intelligence such as electronic media, computer hard drives and documents that American analysts hope will “provide insight into the planning of future terror plots,” according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The target was a notorious terror cell. “The local Al-Qaeda unit [in Yemen] organized the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris in 2015 and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners,” Mohammed El Sherif reported for Reuters in Cairo.
The raid resulted in a “one-hour firefight,” according to local sources. While reports of casualties have varied, most media outlets suggest between 17 and 30 people died. Not all of them were Al-Qaeda fighters. U.S. Central Command conceded that civilians were “likely killed” in the raid and that “casualties may include children.”
The Jan. 29, 2017 operation was planned “well in advance” based on intelligence gathered during previous months. “There were operational reasons why it happened when it did,” a military source said. A contributing factor may have been the moon phase. The raid took place during a new moon, when lunar illumination is at its lowest, providing maximum darkness.
Satellite images of the region reveal hilly terrain surrounding encampments and small cities at elevations usually below 1,500 feet. This suggests high-altitude vortex ring state was not a factor in the V-22’s crash.
Vortex ring state was a possible factor in the crash of a U.S. special operations helicopter at the beginning of Operation Neptune Spear, the May 2, 2011 raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. Vortex ring state occurs when rotary-wing aircraft settle into their own rotor wash and descend rapidly after losing lift.
Weather during the mission was pleasant, with overnight temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, visibility of around eight miles, moderate humidity and winds below 10 miles per hour. Good conditions for a raid.
Several media outlets reported that the SEALs launched from a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Aden south of Yemen. The assault ship USS Makin Island was deployed to the Indian Ocean region at the time. It’s possible the Navy’s seabase ship Ponce supported the raid. Ponce, a 1971-vintage amphibious ship, has undergone modifications to support special operations and boasts a large helicopter deck.
Additional air support was likely provided by U.S. Marine AH-1Z Viper gunships deployed from the same vessel. Some local media reports on the ground said the gunships were “U.S. Apaches.” This is unlikely, as American Apaches do not routinely fly from ships.
The destroyers USS Nitze and the USS Mason were recently also in the region. There has been a modest U.S. presence on the ground, U.S. Navy captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, explained in May 2016. “A small number of American military personnel are in Yemen providing limited support to the Yemeni government and Arab coalition battling Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Davis said.