There was more to Operation Eagle Claw’s failure in the desert of Iran than Jimmy told us.
When ignorance has gotten ten men killed where it should have cost but two, is it not responsible for the blood of the other eight? —Napoleon
Some time during the second week of April, President Carter, after nearly six months of “diplomatic appeals,” reversed his position opposing the use of force to achieve the release of the American hostages in Iran. On April 23 he launched Operation Eagle Claw, a mission to rescue the American captives by a coup de main at the American Embassy in Teheran.
Awakening Friday morning, most Americans were horrified to discover that a secret rescue attempt had been aborted in the Iranian desert, that mechanical failures had caused the cancellation, and that eight American servicemen were dead in an aircraft collision. Official White House and Department of Defense statements claimed that the mission was successful up to the point where it was cancelled, that a series of unfortunate events beyond human control were responsible for the failure. And most Americans came to believe that bad luck foiled a gallant attempt to save our fellow countrymen from a barbaric captivity.
But is this the truth? Or is the failure of Eagle Claw attributable to conscious actions taken on the part of American political and military leaders? Is Eagle Claw merely an isolated incident, or is it indicative of greater flaws and potentially catastrophic failures in the American military? To understand the true significance of the mission, one must view it as a military operation and judge it on strictly military terms. This in turn requires an understanding of the mission plan, the actual events, and the general principles governing this sort of commando operation.
HAD MARS FAVORED American arms that week in April, we would have awakened on the twenty-sixth cheering the release of our compatriots and the heroes who saved them. No doubt the Pentagon would have been quick to release the details of this miraculous feat, revealing the following operational plan:
American agents, probably from the Southwest Asia Special Forces Group (Green Berets), would infiltrate Iran several days prior to the rescue attempt and assume positions to support the main force when it arrived. The rescue mission itself would be undertaken by volunteers from the Department of Defense’s special anti-terrorist unit, a multi-service force established in 1977 under Project Blue Light. The unit assembled for the raid would be code-named Delta Force. On Wednesday evening, April 23, they would fly from Egyptian airfields near Luxor aboard C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to an abandoned airstrip near Tabas, in the Iranian desert, with a short layover in Oman to rest the aircrew. Along with Delta Force the planes would bring additional aviation fuel and refueling gear, and electronic equipment to jam Iranian radar and radio communications. At this airstrip, code-named Desert One, these planes would be joined by eight RH-53 minesweeping helicopters from the carrier Nimitz, in the Gulf of Oman. (The helicopters’ minesweeping apparatus would have been replaced with equipment more appropriate for Eagle Claw, such as armament and night vision devices.) The helicopters would remain at Desert One all day Thursday, resting the men and refueling the helicopters.
On Thursday evening, Delta Force would board the helicopters and fly to a second landing zone in the remote mountains near Darmavand, about 50 miles northeast of Teheran. There they would meet some of the Green Beret infiltrators, who would have acquired trucks from friendly Iranian sources in order to take Delta Force and its guides to a warehouse on the outskirts of Teheran. Here, final intelligence reports would be digested and assault plans confirmed. Then Delta Force would divide, a small contingent moving to the Foreign Ministry building, where three senior American diplomats are “guests” of the Iranian government, and the bulk of Delta Force proceeding to the American Embassy compound, where they would storm the Embassy proper by means of nonlethal chemical agents which would incapacitate the terrorists before they could harm their captives.
Having freed the captives, Delta Force would signal the helicopters, already en route from Darmavand, to land in the Embassy parking lot and soccer field. The small contingent having rejoined the bulk of Delta Force, all the American troops and the ex-prisoners would embark and fly to a third landing zone northwest of Teheran, where they would rendezvous with the C-130s from Desert One, destroy the helicopters, and leave Iran. All movements prior to the helicopter landings at the Embassy would take place in darkness, men and equipment hiding camouflaged by day, so that, there having been another layover at Darmavand on Friday, the raiders would not actually leave Iran until Saturday morning.
Throughout the raid, an E-3 AWACS aircraft would maintain command and control, monitoring Iranian airspace and maintaining direct communications between the carrier task force, Washington, and the mission commander. Presumably, the AWACS would coordinate air support over Teheran from the time Delta Force assaulted the Embassy until it left Iranian airspace.
OF COURSE, WHAT HAPPENED was something much different from this. On the way to Desert One, one RH-53 suffered a possible rotor failure, landed, and was abandoned in the desert. Another helicopter suffered an electrical failure, which disabled its gyrocompass and navigation equipment and fored it to return to the Nimitz. The remaining six helicopters and six C-130s arrived at Desert One.
On Thursday, a busload of Iranian civilians driving down the road running through Desert One were stopped and detained. On Thursday evening it was discovered that one of the remaining helicopters was unserviceable due to a hydraulic system failure. Repairing the helicopter was impossible: All of the spare parts were aboard the helicopter which had returned to the Nimitz. Because the operation’s planners had decided that six RH-53s were the minimum required to ensure the mission’s success, a rambling discussion about the advisability of continuing the mission now began between the mission commander, Colonel Charles Beckwith, and the White House and Pentagon.
At this point a tanker truck towing a jeep blundered into Desert One. Soldiers stopped it at a roadblock, but the driver ran to the jeep and took off across country. Under orders to avoid killing Iranian civilians, the soldiers failed to stop the jeep. Feeling that security was now compromised, somebody—whether Col. Beckwith, higher military authorities, or the President himself—ordered the mission scrubbed. The evacuation of Desert One began at a frenzied pace. The helicopters were to have been topped off and flown out of Iran, but while crossing the landing zone to refuel, a taxiing RH-53 struck a stationary Hercules: Both aircraft exploded, killing eight men and seriously wounding five. Beckwith now dropped everything, got his men on the remaining C-130s, and took off, leaving behind the bodies of eight American servicemen, a small library of secret documents, five intact helicopters, and America’s military reputation. Ironically, the men in the tanker truck were smugglers; they never reported the Americans to the Iranian government.
THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION and the Pentagon have both tried to excuse this fiasco by referring its failures to “equipment failure,” but the conception and execution of the mission were so deficient and amateurish that it was probably doomed to failure from the start, especially when judged by the rules of warfare generally and of commando warfare in particular.
It is axiomatic that in war only the simple succeeds, but the mission plan for Eagle Claw was complex, maximizing the chances for confusion and mishaps. It called for the coordination of two foreign governments (Egypt and Oman), Green Beret advance teams, Iranian collaborators, Delta Force, and the Nimitz Task Force; for the seizure and maintenance of three landing zones, the staging of a major refueling operation, and an approach drive to the Embassy of some 60 miles in borrowed trucks; and it called for a force of six large transport planes, eight helicopters, and more than a hundred men to remain inside a hostile country for more than 72 hours. This last part of the plan obviously violates one of the cardinal rules of commando operations: fast in and fast out.
And other rules were broken as well. For instance, it would have been impossible to retain secrecy or surprise for the duration of the mission, at least as the mission was planned. Of course, in any commando raid, surprise is of the essence. Operating far behind enemy lines, commandos are outnumbered and outgunned and must rely on surprise—open-mouthed, dumbfounded incredulity—to paralyze the enemy, if only temporarily. But given the nature of Eagle Claw, somewhere along the way Delta Force would inevitably have given the game away. The incidents of the bus and the tanker truck at Desert One are example enough, especially considering the President’s injunction to avoid killing Iranians.
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