Some of the U.S. military’s most elite forces, including a special operations unit that participated in the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, spent the last two weeks conducting covert training missions along the Mississippi Coast and the nearby waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The missions were part of the fifth annual “Southern Strike,” a joint international combat exercise headquartered at the Mississippi National Guard’s Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center. It began Oct. 24 and ends Friday.
About 2,200 service members from all branches of the military, including conventional and special operations units, participated. Personnel from government intelligence agencies and foreign military units such as a Chilean special forces group also took part.
Notable among them were soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), the unit that, in conjunction with U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six, raided bin Laden’s compound on May 2, 2011.
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That sound of freedom is music to our ears.
Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes
Though not as well known as SEAL Team Six, the 160th SOAR played a vital role in the raid, code-named Operation Neptune Spear. Known as the Night Stalkers, the pilots and crew members of the 160th SOAR penetrated Pakistani air space undetected and inserted the SEALs into bin Laden’s courtyard.
The pilots used night-vision goggles, flying two stealth-modified Black Hawk helicopters at very low altitude along hilly terrain to avoid detection by Pakistani air defenses. When one of the helicopters experienced a hazardous airflow condition and began to roll onto its side, the pilot quickly maneuvered a soft crash landing that resulted in no injuries, according to an Associated Press article.
The existence of the stealth helicopters had remained a highly classified secret until news of the raid broke along with photos of the downed helicopter’s mangled tail rotor. President Barack Obama later traveled to the home of the Night Stalkers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to visit the elite Army pilots who flew the mission, the AP reported.
Much of the Night Stalkers’ activities, and those of the other units that participated in the recent Southern Strike exercise, also remain classified. The media was not permitted to take photos of a slide show prepared for Gov. Phil Bryant’s briefing at the CRTC on Thursday.
The Mississippi National Guard released some details, most of which underscore the wide depth of training that took place. More than 20 types of aircraft flew more than 300 sorties, and units conducted missions across a wide area from Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg to Fort Polk in western Louisiana to oil and gas platforms in undisclosed locations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bryant thanked the military commanders for conducting their training in the state and said he was impressed with the level and depth of operation.
“It’s just remarkable to be able to see the premier military training occur here,” Bryant said. “It’s not only advantageous to them but to South Mississippi and the entire state.”
Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes commented on the noise from numerous aircraft in the skies above South Mississippi.
“That sound of freedom is music to our ears,” Hewes said. “We like having them here. It’s meaningful.”