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Why the Rescue Failed

There was more to Operation Eagle Claw's failure in the desert of Iran than Jimmy told us.

By and From the July 1980 issue

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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.

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.

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