How Obama watched the Bin Laden mission

How Obama watched the Bin Laden mission

Summary: One of the unexpected revelations of the operation that assassinated Bin Laden was that President Obama watched it happen on live video from the White House.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

One of the unexpected revelations of the operation that assassinated Bin Laden was that President Obama watched it happen on live video from the White House. Although modern warfare is an extremely interconnected affair, with battlefield awareness provided by large numbers of carefully managed data streams, it turns out that the system which gave Obama a soldier's eye view of action on the ground in Pakistan is Internet-based, and not so far from how anyone would Skype from a holiday destination.

Although there's been no official information about the system used, it was almost certainly the ArcLight mobile broadband system from ViaSat, which also runs the Yonder in-flight Internet and data system. The company announced in July 2008 that a militarised, secure version for COTM (Communications On The Move) had been sold to the American Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and had already been deployed in the Middle East, with rapid expansion promised. As the company said at the time,"This new operational capability [is] primarily for sending high resolution video back to higher command authorities for further analysis and identification". Data is relayed from terminals on the ground, in vehicles or in flight, to one of a number of satellites where ViaSat lease radio bandwidth, then sent on to an appropriate ground station where it's coupled into public networks.

The system is now fitted to American Black Hawk helicopters as used in the Bin Laden mission, most likely in the VMT-1220HE helicopter-specific configuration, as well as to 'several dozen' light MC-12 reconnaissance aircraft and multiple C-130 command and control aircraft. The C-130 fitting comes on a door, which replaces one of the aircraft's emergency exit hatches and can be swapped in or out swiftly.

ArcLight is used commercially to provide broadband to helicopters and private jets, Operating in the Ku band with a 14 GHz uplink and downlinks between 11 and 13 GHz, it can be configured in a number of ways, including 10Mbps down/512Kbps up or a symmetrical 3Mbps. The VMT-1220HE on the Black Hawk helicopters supports channel speeds of up to 5 Mbps to, and up to 325 kbps from the helicopter, which means President Obama probably didn't see the mission in HD, although with three aircraft bonding their uplinks together for close-on a megabit, it would have been possible.

With a 25 watt uplink via an 11.5 cm antenna and spread-spectrum modulation, coupled with a protocol designed to send packets in bursts, it's robust and forgiving of obstructions like helicopter blades, and will have good performance against jamming and other interference.

Although the published coverage maps for Yonder, which shares infrastructure with Arclight, show that the northern half of Pakistan is on the borders of an area not due to be covered until the third quarter of 2011, there are various ways that bandwidth can be provided out of published specification, including temporary movement of satellites, borrowing time from other operators and so on. ViaSat had expected to launch its own 130 Gbps satellite, ViaSat-1 early in 2011, but after the satellite was damaged during testing that launch has been put back to summer this year.

A great deal of security is built into the system. The American National Security Agency (NSA), which was involved in the mission, has built classified networks such as  SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and JWICS (Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System) that the ArcLight COTM can connect to. Devices like ViaSat's AltaSec KG-250X provide encryption and other secure IP management features at up to 100Mbps full-duplex, so local wireless comms in a location can be turned into a secure enclave with full protection. This level of security is generically known as TS/SCI - Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, and is essential for highly sensitive government data on shared infrastructure public networks.

Using this sort of configuration, any portable streaming wireless webcam can be easily made part of the secure network, with megabit bandwidth back to anywhere in the world – including operations rooms in the White House.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Just out of interest, the helicopter that was lost on the raid was probably not a Black Hawk, but a hitherto unknown type. There's some spirited discussion and pictures in the military section of the ever-entertaining Pprune forum here -

    Which is a reminder that my analysis, above, should be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt than previously.
  • Thanks Rupert, for this and the link, I love reading this stuff... jw
  • :-)

    We've been putting this on birds, ships, etc for the last couple years. (I have a fun job)
  • The last thing I heard on this was that the President didn't actually watch it live, unlike first reported. Something about the feed cutting out, apparently? I've lost the link to that article, though.

    I've also lost count of how many aspects of this story that changed since it was first reported. (They can't blame the "fog of war" any more either because now we're told there was very little "war" to speak of)
  • I found the link I previously referred to:

    "The head of the CIA admitted yesterday that there was no live video footage of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound as further doubts emerged about the US version of events."

    This raises the question of why several national newspapers (Daily Mail especially) were spinning stories about how Obama watched Osama take a bullet in the face live on TV etc.

    One has to wonder how much of news reporting nowadays is just repeating stories verbatim as fed in from without any credible fact-checking or investigation (probably quite a lot). In this case, where facts are not/cannot be confirmed, the correct response of journalism is to say "so-and-so said/claimed...".

    (I'm not suggesting any wrong-doing on behalf of the author of this article as this is a technical blog and ZDNet isn't a newspaper).
  • Well, in this case I knew that American special forces had been installing live video systems specifically designed to provide front-line pictures up the chain of command. This was, as I hope was clear from the article, an exploration of how it would happen - although my assumption was that it had, there's plenty of fog around this sort of thing. The stuff reported is, I hope, of interest and as far as I can tell accurate.

    According to that D Tel piece, there was live video for some of the raid, so something of the sort went on! I doubt that two parallel systems would be in place, especially as the levels of security and coverage that the Viasat system is reported as providing are more than up to the job.
  • Thanks, Rupert. That's how I took it. The article was indeed interesting. I have just been raging a bit at some newspapers recently but it probably wasn't really appropriate to comment on that here. Though I did think it was of minor interest to know that whatever system they were using didn't extend to the Whitehouse, unlike most news sources reported it.

    It would have certainly still reached whoever was controlling the mission and could have potentially reached the Whitehouse, but I doubt that would have been at all desirable, as I doubt any of them would really have wanted to see people (potentially women, children and their own men) getting shot live on telly!
  • For all we know, OBL could be at gitmo being waterboarded at this time. The story changes every day, it seems.