The US Navy deployed an unprecedented three aircraft carriers to support Operation Geronimo, and gave very strong air cover to the SEALs who hunted down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan's Abbotabad city.
An analysis of the operation, the deployment pattern, and the possibilities of a clash with Pakistani forces clearly indicate that at least two squadrons of the US Navy's sophisticated F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, one or two EA-18 G Electronic Attack Growlers, two aerial refuellers and one E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS) combat management aircraft were airborne to engage any aircraft that interfered with the mission.
It is not known from which carrier the attack aircraft would have taken off but two of the carriers, USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and USS Enterprise (CVN 65), were deployed right in the Arabian Sea and the third, USS Ronald Regan (CVN 76), not far away at another point in the Indian Ocean.
Two aircraft carriers have sometimes been deployed, and also often overlap while changing duties. But the presence of a third one would be unusual and called for only in case of possible eruption of hostilities.
The Carl Vinson is reported to be moving out of the region now, and the US Navy's newest and most modern nuclear-capable aircraft carrier, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) has just left its homeport at Norfolk, Virginia for the Arabian Sea for its first deployment.
It can safely be assumed though that the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) would have been warned off if its aircraft had taken to the skies, and there would have been no clash.
Nonetheless, reports emanating from Washington indicate that should the Pakistanis - or somebody else - had interfered, then the US was ready to risk a military confrontation.
The New York Times, which revealed new details of the operation quoting an administration official, says: "Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorized to do it."
As per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), the commandos would have had heavy air cover and electronic warfare support to execute the mission and to return to their base in Afghanistan safely.
The US government treats the survival of its military officers and men with utmost importance, and there are numerous incidents since the Vietnam War in which the US forces undertook daring Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions to extricate pilots and war fighters from troubled areas.
It is a safe assumption that at least six Boeing CH-47 Chinooks, which can carry around 40 people each, would have been ready for a CSAR, a role for which this helicopter was once chosen by the US Air Force. (There are no orders yet).
According to indications and published reports, four helicopters took part in the raid on Osama bin Laden's million dollar safe-house: two CH 47s and two specially configured MH 60Rs. Both the helicopters have advanced night-fighting and operational capabilities.
An MH 60R can carry only about a dozen troops, and if the number of commandos involved in the operation was 79 as stated by reports from the US capital, then only the Chinooks would have ferried most of them, including the Belgian Shepherd or Malinois breed dog to sniff explosives and attack terrorists reportedly with implanted titanium teeth.
The MH 60R uses the hull of Sikorsky's Black Hawk, but is equipped from toe-to-tail by Lockheed Martin, whose Skunk Works possibly fitted some additional noise reduction systems on them.
There are some reports saying that it was a new type of stealth helicopter but this writer's interaction with military technology experts indicates that whatever it was, the platform was that of the MH 60R, a helicopter that the US Navy recently offered for sale to the Indian Navy but was not accepted because of procedural problems.
According to Boeing, which recently developed the Growler, the aircraft incorporates "advanced Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) avionics bringing transformational capability for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and non-traditional electronic attack operations".
The J-STARS is built on re-manufactured Boeing 707 platforms, and according to the US Air Force (USAF), it is the only one in the world capable of real time surveillance over a large, corps-sized area of a battlefield.
It can track the movement of small vehicles and relay communications between an operating unit like the SEALs and a command centre anywhere in the world.
Built by military technology giant Northrop Grumman, J-STARS was first deployed in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 against Iraq. But the version flying today has revolutionary capabilities compared to what were available 20 years ago.
J-STARS uses a multi-mode side looking radar to "detect, track, and classify moving ground vehicles in all conditions deep behind enemy lines," according to the USAF.
Apparently, the aircraft would have kept a close watch on the movement around the Osama safe house, which was otherwise "safely" located in between the Baloch Regimental Centre and the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy in the green and peaceful city of Abbotabad, an hour's drive from the Pakistan Army's General Head Quarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.