There was more to Operation Eagle Claw’s failure in the desert of Iran than Jimmy told us.
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A less hypothetical error was in the selection of the men and equipment to be used in the raid. The choice of helicopters, for instance, was crucial to the failure of the mission. The RH-53 Sea Stallion was never meant to undertake long, nape-of-the-earth flights over land. It is not a combat assault helicopter: It lacks power, armor, and armament. And given these generic inadequacies, of course, it did not help that the RH-53s used in the event itself had been poorly maintained: Of the 110 flight hours needed to keep the RH-53s fully operational between January and April, only 25 had been flown.
The proper helicopter for the mission would have been the CH-53Es used by the Marine Corps. These are the combat assault cousins of the RH-53. Unlike the RH-53, they have armor, heavy armament, aerial refueling capability, and fully redundant systems. Having three engines instead of two, they are more powerful than the RH-53, which fact would have obviated the need to remove the sand filters from the RH-53s in order to achieve more power. More important, because they may be refueled in the air, the CH-53Es would need not have landed in the desert, which in turn suggests the possibility of a direct flight to Teheran from the Nimitz.
Unfortunately, the men picked for the mission were as ill-suited as the equipment. The forces established under Project Blue Light were not intended, or trained, for commando operations. Rather, they were to be a unique anti-terrorist squad to be used in hostage situations in the United States, or abroad when the local government was at least tacitly supporting the American position. All of their training presupposed that they would have some control of the area surrounding a terrorist redoubt. Before the preparation for Eagle Claw, they had never trained for the sort of long-range clandestine activities they were called upon to perform.
In addition, the training laid out by the planners was inadequate and unrealistic, considering the mission’s requirements. Helicopter training flights were made only in clear weather. Their pilots were not made familiar with low-level blind flying. Moreover, Delta Force never trained on a full-scale mock-up of the Embassy compound (practice assaults were made at the Fort Bragg brig). Had Delta Force arrived at the compound in the dead of night, they might well have gotten lost inside it. Certainly they would not have been able to negotiate the interior of the Embassy itself. If nowhere else, the poor training of the men manifested itself in the fact that personal effects were found on the bodies of the dead. Taking wallets, credit cards, and personal letters into a mission suggests a lack of serious intent and a thorough ignorance of the rules of warfare.
Aside from the simplicity, equipment, and men appropriate to a commando raid, Eagle Claw lacked flexibility or contingency planning. Apparently, no one considered the effects of bad weather, or the possibility of running into the kind of sandstorm which contributed to the first two helicopter failures. And the lack of a contingency plan for a rapid evacuation of the landing zone in the event of detection only increased the chances of something like a collision happening, a condition which the lack of proper air traffic control did nothing to mitigate. Certainly no contingency plans were made to continue the mission if a portion of the force failed to arrive at its objective, and contingency plans of this sort are essential to commando operations.
Perhaps most important, the leadership of Col. Beckwith during the mission was something less than inspiring. Beckwith failed to maintain proper security at Desert One, which allowed the smugglers’ jeep to escape. He obviously did not maintain adequate control over the evacuation. And he did not exhibit the independence and resolution which a commando leader must have. When the sixth helicopter was discovered non-operational, he consulted his superiors rather than making the final decision himself. Apparently he also allowed himself to be overruled by his superiors after the jeep incident; as field commander, the decision to scrub or go forward with the mission was his and his alone. After the collision he gave way to panic and immediately evacuated the landing zone, in effect allowing himself to be stampeded out of Iran by fear of a handful of untrained-militiamen in Tabas. He could have, and should have, extinguished the fires, collected the dead, and destroyed the helicopters and secret documents before staging a deliberate withdrawal.
In retrospect, it was perhaps for the best that Eagle Claw failed when it did. At some later point, the mission’s inevitable cumulative errors might well have resulted in the death or capture of the entire force.
WERE THE BUNGLING and ineptness of Eagle Claw an anomaly, the raid would have no more significance than any other isolated incident of military stupidity. Instead, it is indicative of a decline in American military competence first noticed by some observers during the Vietnam war. This trend towards ineffectuality is marked by a decline in the standards of training for the enlisted men, and by the absolute corruption of the officer corps, not in pecuniary terms but in the more insidious abrogation of its military function.
The American officer corps today values careers more than operations. It values efficiency more than effectiveness. It is over-controlled and over-centralized. It lacks initiative. American officers today are no longer students of war. Rather, they are students of managerial techniques. They abhor combat because it is messy and screws up organizational charts. They have lost contact with and refuse to acknowledge the nature of war, which is killing the enemy.
All of which was illustrated by Eagle Claw. A militarily unsound plan was approved by high-ranking officers who wished to please the President and the Secretary of Defense rather than see American arms succeed. The mission was not conceived with the primary aim of freeing the captives. It was planned to conform with President Carter’s desires that there be no combat. For this reason it was incredibly convoluted and impossible.
The mission was also planned to serve the ideals of “managerial competence” at the expense of military effectiveness. In the interests of efficiency, for instance, all the helicopter repair kits were prepacked and palletized, so that all the spare parts taken on the mission were on one helicopter—which, as we pointed out earlier, had to turn back. (The effective method would have been to split up the parts among all the helicopters, with lots of redundancy.) And the chain of command was a bureaucrat’s dream. Thanks to the miracle of modern telecommunications, which allows generals and even presidents to lead a battalion in combat without getting within 10,000 miles of the front, the operation’s field commander, on whose daring and on-the-scene judgments the operation’s success depends, apparently felt compelled to check back constantly with “higher authorities” before departing from the operation’s plan.
Most important of all, the tendencies so well typified by the failures of Eagle Claw affect American military operations in pervasive and dangerous ways. The American officer corps, for example, recognizes its deficiencies, at least at the subconscious level, and lacks any operational self-confidence. Compare the cautious and tentative fumbling surrounding this raid with the energy and daring of the Russian coup de main in Kabul. A plan made by confident men would have been bold, risky, and successful. Using the proper machines, they would have flown to Teheran directly and swooped out of the night, gone before they were noticed. Much of the timidity of American foreign policy can be traced to a lack of confidence in our military forces to carry out the missions assigned to them, while much of Soviet boldness is a result of their new operational confidence.
This is an alarming development. Very often a nation’s military reputation will outlive its prowess. The illusion of competence survives until the first severe test. Thus the Prussians were destroyed at Jena-Auersdidt in 1806, and the French in 1940. Like a tree rotten from within, an army can appear strong until the first winter storm blows it over. Sometimes, though, a nation is fortunate enough to have the truth revealed in less catastrophic fashion. In the early 1950s the Israeli Army cleaned out its deadwood after a series of small but humiliating failures. By 1956 it was the most effective force in the region. Eagle Claw has given us a unique opportunity.
If the United States is to survive the military challenges of the next decade, it will require more than just a larger military budget; it will need a complete overhaul of our military system, a massive reform. Officers must become soldiers again, and men must be trained to fight effectively. America requires an armed force of formidable competence if it is to stand up to the dynamic, aggressive, and self-confident Red Army.
Rather than hiding or forgetting our failure in the Iranian desert, we must take steps to root out its causes and correct our deficiencies. Our time is short, and if we do not begin now we might never have the chance. If the failure of the rescue attempt was a blow to our pride, it was a signal of opportunity to our enemies.
Stuart L. Koehl and Stephen P. Glick are practicing research analysts for a Washington-based defense consulting firm and long-time observers of military affairs.