Osama Killed: Technology That Finally Got The World’s Most Wanted Man – Part 1

It was a battle fought using information, rather than just bullets. The greatest challenge the US administration faced in getting to Bin Laden and breaking his global network was the lack of information, not so much the firepower. Now, with Osama bin Laden dead, we can track the steps and count a few of the technological advances that led to him being eventually hunted down. We’ve considered five technologies connected to his death. In this first part, we take on three out of the five.


Satellites are now the most obvious ways to obtain and transmit information. With the real target on the ground in an unfamiliar terrain against an enemy that knows the surrounding exactly, a system of orbiting satellites evened out the scores. Osama was believed to be hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The US Military used the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to create a map of the premises, so detailed that they could even simulated a drill. Commercial satellite companies like GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, which supply images for Google Earth, played a crucial role, providing images of the suspected compound through about four years. Even a layout was prepared.

Satellite Image of the compound as on Jan 15 (Courtesy: DigitalGlobe)
The Layout Prepared with the Satellite Inputs (Courtesy: CIA)

The main military satellite constellations involved were the Defense Satellite Communication System (DSCS-III) and the more secure Milstar.

Night vision

Nighttime is particularly nasty on a battlefield, especially in an unknown country. The main problem lies with the highly reduced light intensity. One of the ways out is to collect more light, and the other is to shift to a different wavelength regime in the electromagnetic spectrum. The former technique is used to make Night Glasses. They basically capture more light over a large area and concentrate it on the pupil. Soldiers often use dilute atropine (a muscle relaxant) as eye drops to dilate the pupil before using these glasses. These are often used just before dawn, when the surroundings are too dark for an unprepared enemy, but just right for the attacker.

Night Vision

The more esoteric active infrared nightvision takes in light across the spectral range of 700 to 1000 nm (our vision extends from about 400 to 800 nm) and slightly beyond, and creates a monochromatic image using a special CCD.

The US military uses both. Active Nightvision is extensively used by attack helicopters used for nighttime operations. This particular raid started at 1:00 AM. The reader can be rest assured that these vision enhancers played a major role in the campaign.

Stealth Jets and Helicopters

These have achieved mythical status. The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber or the ultra-modern F-22 Raptor have been flaunted by the side possessing them, feared by the enemy and held with awe by both. Lockheed Martin was the company to build the operational model, closest to the modern stealth designs. Almost all angles were flat, or at best very obtuse. When exposed to radar, the aircraft would radiate all of the signals and not send much back to the  receiver.

B-2 Spirit Bomber

True stealth is achieved by not only eluding radar, but also heat seeking missiles. Further, these planes reduce their electronic components, thus producing electronic noise so low that it cannot be picked up. This is achieved by the F-22 Raptor. Bombers like B-2 don’t need to implement this, since their altitude provides them enough protection, being out of range of most surface-to-air missiles.

The ultramodern F-22 Raptor

Stealth helicopters, like the Comanche, were also being considered. However, they were scrapped in 2004 due to fund deficit. The stealth technology is to be integrated into the Apache, which were extensive used in Iraq during the Gulf War. Even in Afghanistan, they were used against the Taliban. No word has been said as to whether the Apache had been used in this mission.


However, helicopters were involved in the final assault. In fact, they were used to clear the ground initially, before the ground ops began.

Hold on for the second part. There we discuss the role DNA testing played in identifying the body and what Twitter did!

To be continued…

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.