“Director, as you can see, we have a helicopter down in the courtyard. My men are prepared for this contingency and they will deal with it.”
Vice Admiral William H. McRaven
How important is contingency planning? Consider Operation Neptune Spear, the Central Intelligence Agency-led operation that brought to justice Osama bin Laden, founder of al Qaeda and the man responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Years of painstaking investigation had tracked the most wanted man in the world to a large three-story compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Ringed by a 12-to-18 foot concrete wall topped with barbed wire, the compound lay less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, the equivalent of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Under the command of Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, Navy SEAL Team Six and CIA operatives helicoptered into the Abbottabad compound on the moonless night of May 2, 2011, killed bin Laden, brought his body back to Afghanistan for identification, and then on to a U.S. warship for burial in the North Arabian Sea.
The commando team flew in two stealth-modified Blackhawk helicopters. The original plan called for the first helicopter to hover over the compound yard while its team of SEALs fast-roped down to the ground. The second helicopter would land in a far corner of the property with additional personnel to guard the perimeter. However, things did not go as planned. The tail rotor of the first Blackhawk grazed the compound wall and crash landed in the courtyard. No one aboard was seriously injured, and the SEALs began their attack.
Huddled in the Situation Room of the White House, the President of the United States and national security officials watched the raid on a live night-vision feed from a U.S. drone circling overhead. Connected by a video link from CIA headquarters, director Leon Panetta narrated the scene. McRaven, who was commanding the raid from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, was also connected by video link. When the first helicopter crashed, dread silence filled the Situation Room. Moments later, McRaven announced in a calm voice: “We will now be amending the mission.” Addressing Panetta, he said, “Director, as you can see, we have a helicopter down in the courtyard. My men are prepared for this contingency and they will deal with it.”
And prepared they were. While the main body of SEALs carried out the modified raid, other SEALs rigged the downed craft with explosives to blow it up, and the Blackhawk pilot destroyed top-secret electronic equipment in the cockpit. As the raiders were down one aircraft, a reserve Chinook helicopter (one of two) was called in to ferry the troops and bin Laden’s body out. The original plan called for the raiders to be on the ground for 40 minutes. They were in and out in 38 minutes, helicopter crash notwithstanding.
In addition to eliminating the founder of al Qaeda, they seized computers, thumb drives, DVDs, documents and other materials while suffering no casualties. Had they not formulated and rehearsed contingency plans, the team and the nation might have suffered a tragedy and failure of epic proportion.
Next time you are planning an event, prepare for more than the event itself. Plan for “what-if” contingences as well.
– Anthony “AB” Bourke