Operation Eagle Claw: A Catalyst for Change in the American Military
Subject Area Operations
Title: Operation Eagle Claw: A Catalyst for Change in the American Military
Author: Major C.E. Holzworth USMC
Thesis: This paper will analyze Operation Eagle Claw's impact on the U.S. Military. The analysis will prove that the lessons learned from the mission are undeniably linked to several revolutionary military reforms. Specifically, the mission was a catalyst for change in three distinct areas: Force Structure, Joint Doctrine, and Special Forces Capabilities.
Discussion: On November 4, 1979, three thousand Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The students seized the compound, capturing 66 Americans. When five months of diplomatic negotiations failed to gain the release of the hostages, President Carter issued an executive order for a military rescue mission. The mission demanded the combined capabilities and assets of all four services. The rescue mission, code named Eagle Claw, ended with catastrophic results. The mission was aborted in the first staging/refueling area known as Desert One with the deaths of eight servicemen.
Although the results of the mission were tragic, Operation Eagle Claw's contribution to the American military was invaluable. The lessons learned from the mission illustrated serious deficiencies in the capability of the American military. The mission forced the political and military leadership to address these inadequacies and initiate changes. Military reforms would be complete and revolutionary.
Conclusion: The analysis will present Operation Eagle Claw as a catalyst for a Revolution in Military Affairs in America. In particular, the mission was a major contributor to the changing of service parochialism. The mission contributed to the development of Jointness.
The Carter Administration, the Military, and the Times
"The fifty-two hostages held captive in Tehran seemed to symbolize the ineffectiveness of the President and of the United States under his leadership." 
It is important to review the time period of the rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. A study of the two most influential organizations involved with the mission is essential to the analysis. The Carter Administration was unique because of the President's personal beliefs and values. Additionally, the United States Armed Forces had cultural and physical inadequacies that were symbolic of the post-Vietnam war period. The study of these two institutions provides a "window" of understanding to analyze the planning and execution of the mission.
Carter-the man, the leader: Carter's successful bid for the presidency was a direct response to the loss of the Vietnam war and the immorality of two former Presidents-Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. As a presidential candidate, Carter's lack of experience in national politics and foreign affairs was a favorable asset, which he skillfully exploited to seek the presidency. Clearly a man of deep religious convictions, Carter's character appealed to an America that was thirsty for moral leadership. His moral standards played a critical role in his decisions and policies. His inexperience in foreign policy would also impact his leadership.
Carter was a proponent of the team concept among his senior advisors. Unpretentious and open minded, he preferred to be briefed to the fullest before rendering a decision. He encouraged frankness and debate among his advisors to ensure a thorough evaluation of issues.
Carter's Advisors and Foreign Policy Team: Carter's principal criterion for the organization of his cabinet and advisors was compatibility. In his selection process, Carter considered qualities of confidence and selflessness equal to intelligence and experience.
Carter selected Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski to be his National Security Advisor (NSA). The President considered Brzezinski an astute and gifted analysts of foreign policy and security matters. However, Carter was warned that Brzezinski was inclined to speak out forcefully on issues; Brzezinski was an aggressive and ambitious individual.
There were differences of opinion on foreign policy issues between Carter and Brzezinski. Brzezinski believed that a position of strength was the ideal negotiating platform for foreign policy. He believed that force was an essential element in shaping foreign policy. The primary question for both Brzezinski and Carter was whether effective foreign policy could be driven by moral and ethical principles. Carter believed that morality was the first principle in the guidelines for shaping foreign policy.
Nevertheless, Carter selected Brzezinski to be his NSA. Carter knew there would be differences of opinion between Brzezinski and himself. Additionally, with the selection of Cyrus Vance as his Secretary of State (SecState), Carter acknowledged there would be conflicting viewpoints between Vance and Brzezinski. Carter thought his leadership would forge the two staff members into an extremely effective foreign policy team. Unfortunately, he was disappointed with his top two advisors' lack of professionalism and team work.
A World War II veteran who had served in several previous administrations, Cyrus Vance brought an incredible resume in foreign affairs to the office of Secretary of State. More specifically, he had extensive experience in the Department of Defense.
With Vance as his Secretary of State, Carter thought that he had achieved a balance between his two principle advisors in foreign affairs. Vance's philosophy was traditional diplomacy. He agreed with Carter in establishing moral principles and human rights as a central theme in foreign policy. He accepted military force only as a last resort in solving international issues.
Dr. Harold Brown, a physicist and President of the California Institute of Technology, was selected to be Secretary of Defense (SecDef). Carter regarded Brown as a top man in science and business. Brown's background was perfect for Carter's plans to streamline the department.
Admiral Stansfield Turner was Carter's choice for the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCI). Turner had a strong academic background. He was a classmate of Carter's at the Naval Academy and a Rhodes Scholar. Professionally, he had risen to the position of Commander of NATO forces in Southern Europe.
Carter believed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) practiced unethical activities . He directed Turner to police up the covert activities of the CIA. As a result, Turner de-emphasized intelligence gathering by human sources. Turner developed technology to replace human intelligence gathering. Unfortunately, the technology was not as efficient or reliable as the human resources. Turner's shift towards technology decreased the effectiveness and reliability of the CIA in gathering human intelligence.
The four years of the Carter Administration are considered by some political experts to be the most significant in the history of American foreign policy. Carter viewed foreign policy as a means to improve the human condition. The purpose of foreign policy was not necessarily to promulgate power, security or material needs, but a means to spread American ideology for the betterment of mankind. In addition, Carter insisted that the protection of human rights be the foundation of his foreign policy.
Carter, Brzezinski, and Vance all believed U.S. foreign policy should move away from the bipolar "zero sum" framework of containment. Vance, in particular, felt U.S. foreign policy was too narrowly rooted in the geopolitical struggle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. This one dimensional attitude neglected the rapidly changing world and the increasing problems concerning Third World. Vance sought to influence U.S. foreign policy away from the bipolar focus.
Brzezinski also believed that the U.S. should attempt to restore its political relationship with the Third World. However, Brzezinski did not believe that human rights should be a central element in foreign policy. His priority was to improve America's strategic leverage against the Soviet Union, whom he feared would attempt to use its power base to exploit its position in the Third World.
The U.S. Military
Carter and the National Military Strategy. The post-Vietnam period was a period of decline for the U.S. Armed Forces. As a result of the Vietnam war, national support and acceptance of the military was at a low. During this period, the American military force levels declined while the Soviet Union expanded its force levels and military budget. Advocates for increasing the U.S. Defense budget had to fight a wealth of political opposition.
Carter endorsed the military force reduction policy. The President's view of foreign policy did not include a large standing military to enforce his initiatives. His military force structure was initially based on the 1 ½ Major Regional Conflict (MRC) force-sizing concept.
In reality, Carter never actually believed in preparing for anything other than the defense of NATO against the Warsaw Pact. Carter focused Secretary Brown on rebuilding the NATO forces at the expense of naval forces, amphibious assault forces and Special Operation Forces (SOF). In particular, SOF units were reduced to 95% of their maximum strength in the Vietnam war. After the Vietnam war, SOF suffered in terms of readiness and training due to the lack of funding. Additionally, the connotation of an undesirable career path forced talented personnel to avoid SOF units. Heavy lift helicopter assets were removed from the SOF units to be used elsewhere. Carter and his military advisors could not envision anything other than a conventional war scenario against the Soviet Union. An unconventional threat calling for special capabilities, training, and equipment was not viewed as realistic by the military experts. The Department of Defense had limited capability to respond to anything other than the defense of NATO; this was a conscious decision of Carter and his advisors.
Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Doctrine, Capabilities. As military advisors to the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) were an effective collection of service experts. Representative of the entire group was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), Air Force General David C. Jones. Jones was a gifted administrator as well as a combat veteran. During this tenure, the Service Chiefs were responsible for force structure, training, equipment procurement, and budgetary issues.
Joint Doctrine was undeveloped after the Vietnam war. Integration was a misunderstood and under utilized concept. The American military had fought in the past as a combined force, but had never known any structure for joint planning or training. Joint warfare was nothing more than what each service brought to the fight while operating independently of each other. Combining assets did not equate to synchronizing the efforts of the whole into one unit. The military was not prepared for missions demanding interoperability.
A parochial mindset prevailed in the services. There was a natural competition among the services that fostered mistrust. Intense service loyalty was enhanced by budget fights at the JCS level. In the U.S. Armed Forces, the concept of jointness could not overcome the parochialism prevalent in the services.
Capabilities were stretched thin during this time. There was a mismatch between obligations and resources. The U.S. was committed to providing 330,000 servicemen for forward presence in Europe, while simultaneously maintaining a readiness posture in other regions of the world. Force level cuts in excess of 56,000 service personnel coupled with an increase in military obligations, created a large gap between resources and commitments. This had a negative affect on the morale of all service members.
Carter and his Administration. Carter's limited experience with foreign affairs forced him to depend on the judgment of his staff. His inexperience had been a selling point to the American people during the election, but it proved to be a major detractor to his effectiveness as the leader of the free world. On many issues, his staff had different viewpoints on courses of action. Only a President with a deep experience in foreign affairs and an equal grasp of the issues could ascertain guidance from such competing advisors.
Carter would vacillate on foreign policy decisions during his term. Before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter was against threatening the use of military force in diplomatic negotiations. His foreign policy did not include a large military to enforce American resolve around the world. After the invasion by the Soviets, Carter completely reversed his policy about the use of force in foreign affairs. In response to the invasion, he approved an increase in both the Defense budget and in conventional force strength.
Carter was prone to alarmist reactions, never really finding the balance between cool intensity and being overwrought during times of crisis. With the capture of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, Carter swung from being an internalist, concerned with human rights, to a militant externalist, advocating military force. Because of his extreme reactions, he lost the image of a confident, calm leader in the face of adversity.
Carter's personal belief that moral principles were the foundation of all political actions and decisions was a harmful influence on his strategic decision making. Although a popular theme, Carter's emphasis on moral principles as a framework for strategic decision making was naïve. His philosophy of reform and repentance was appropriate after the fact, but did nothing to deter future abuses of power.
The Kremlin criticized the administration for emphasizing human rights. The Soviet Union was quick to take advantage of what they interpreted as weakness of the President. Carter used power with restraint preferring to negotiate settlements without the threat of military employment to leverage the talks. Unfortunately, to make this concept work, other nations must play with the same rule book or respect and practice the same policies.
Carter's two principle advisors on foreign policy were philosophically incompatible with each other. Carter knew that Brzezinski and Vance represented different approaches to foreign policy and national security; this was part of the reason for their selection. A large part of the success or failure of Carter's foreign policy depended on his advisors. The differences in philosophy between his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor proved to be crippling to the administration. Each advisor would work independently of one another, developing conflicting solutions to the issues. Their relationship was so unhealthy, effective debates were lost in their meetings. In addition, contempt for each other permeated to their respective staffs, escalating the confrontational environment. On several occasions, Carter would referee and resolve grievances between the two advisers, taking valuable time away from issues of importance.
The security strategy did not adequately address the threat from Third World nations. Additionally, there was a mismatch between resources and military obligations. An imbalance in military power was created between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. To adjust for the imbalance, the administration shifted resources to NATO. The result was reduced force capabilities, especially in SOF units, based on a flawed assumption that the Soviets were the only credible threat.
There was a reduction in resources in the military while the security of the nation focused on countering a large conventional based Soviet Union. On top of the personnel cuts already initiated by past administrations, Carter reduced the military force levels by an additional 50,000 personnel. The defense budget fell a total of 28% over the course of ten years from 1969-1979. Force structure reduction and budget cuts for the military were ill-timed considering the Soviet Union had increased its conventional combat power by 20 percent.
There was no Joint Doctrine to integrate the capabilities of all services into effective Joint Task Forces (JTF). The infrastructure for integrated operations involving a combined effort was nonexistent at this time.
The Service Chiefs were still actively involved in providing advice on the employment of their services at the operational and tactical levels. The chain of command for joint operations was confusing because of the regular involvement of the Service Chiefs in the operational and tactical decision making process. The Unified Commands had not been empowered to report directly to the National Command Authority (President and the SecDef) during combat operations.
Prelude To The Mission
The United States had enjoyed a long standing relationship with Iran since World War II. Iran was considered a vital link to U.S. security interests in the Middle East. Carter's strategic objectives were first, to ensure that Iran remained an "island of stability" in the region, and second, to ensure that Iran maintained its status as a military ally. Iran's positive relationship with the U.S. guaranteed western access to the region for goods and services. Finally, Carter wanted to ensure Iran maintained its influence over the oil export trade in the region; Iran was a reliable supplier to the NATO countries as well as to Japan.
The Shah of Iran
Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the authoritarian leader of Iran. He had represented American interests in the region for more than thirty-five years. No stranger to American politics, he had personally maintained close consultations with all eight presidents prior Carter taking office.
Since the end of World War II, the Shah had fostered a relationship with the U.S. based on mutual strategic interests. Security of Iran against Soviet aggression was paramount to both the Shah and the U.S. The Shah would exploit this mutual strategic interest to garnish military and economic aid.
In the decade of the 70s, the Shah concentrated on modernization for industrial development and military expansion. The Shah was driven to achieve economic diversity as well as military security for Iran while oil revenues were still high. At the time, Iran was spending four billion dollars a year in arms purchases from the U.S.
The Shah's vigorous efforts toward modernization were extremely successful. The Iranian military was considered to be one of the most powerful in the region. By 1976, there were more than seventy thousand Americans working in Iran, supporting the economy and the military infrastructure purchased by the Shah.
Unfortunately, the Shah did not have a true perspective of the social ramifications of his modernization policies. Blinded by his own megalomania and driven by his own personal desire to gain world prominence, the Shah was callous to the internal problems that were arising from the effects of his programs.
The Fall of the Shah
The Iranian Revolution of 1978 was a unforeseen historical event. The President conducted a state visit and acknowledged there was no "visible evidence of the currents of dissatisfaction" in Iran. Although Carter was aware that a potential threat did exist in Iran, he was accepting of the Shah's estimate that the discontent represented a small minority of his people. Protests against the Shah took place during the summer months. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessed the situation not to have a revolutionary or even prerevolutionary nature. Although State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Defense Department personnel were studying the situation, no one gave an accurate forecast to the President on the combined strength of the opposition and their capabilities to challenge the Shah.
There were several factions aligned with the Islamic Fundamentalists demonstrating against the Shah. In addition, there was great diversity in the factions. There was a leftist, radical group organizing the protesters. A secular nationalists faction was also actively demonstrating against the Shah. They were primarily concerned with regaining power in the government and securing sovereignty. All the factions combined for a common objective: to rid Iran of the corrupt western influence that was represented by the Shah.
Personally, Carter was torn between his human rights principles and his support for the Shah. Emotionally, he had trouble supporting a regime that was so authoritarian in nature. His personal conflict with his own value system tore at the fiber of his being and influenced his future decisions.
Externally, Carter heard conflicting voices within the top levels of his Administration. Vance suggested a policy of concession and conciliation towards the protesters. He believed the nature of the instability in Iran was due to violations of human rights. Brzezinski advised the President that the Shah's only solution was an Iron Fist. He believed the situation demanded the Shah act with firm, unwavering, and confident application of force.
By this time in the crisis, the National Security Council and the State Department were at extreme odds with one another. George Ball, an independent advisor invited to analyze the Iran situation, stated the conflicting advice by Brzezinski and Vance was paralyzing the ability of the President to intervene with an appropriate course of action. He worked at an office at the National Security Council but derived information from State Department sources. He stated that Brzezinski was doing everything in his power to exclude the State Department from the participation in or knowledge of any developments regarding Iran-U.S. relations.
In November, the violence increased in intensity. The Shah decided to empower a military transition government on a limited basis. At the same time, he continued to make reforms and concessions. He arrested several top officials in the SAVAK, the Shah's secret security force, and implemented measures against corruption in the government.
At this time, William Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador to Iran, suggested the U.S. establish a line of communication with the Alloyatollah Khomeini. Khomeini, the ultraconservative leader of the Shi'ite Islamic sect, was dedicated to overthrowing the Shah's regime. He became the identifiable leader of the anti-Shah forces. He united the factions of the opposition and orchestrated their demonstrations through the cleric. Khomeini was an extremist who condoned all actions, violent and non-violent, to oust the Shah. He believed the Shah was the evil representative of the western world.
The situation in Iran continued to escalate against the Shah throughout the month of November. The CIA submitted an analysis of the Shah's psychological state as being solid and in touch with the changing situation. Again, the intelligence reports on the Shah would be false and misleading. Contrary to the CIA reports, the Shah was not providing the leadership necessary to cope with the crisis.
Ironically, one year after President Carter proclaimed Iran an "island of stability," the Shah was forced to step down as ruler. The Shah, in failing health, would leave Iran for Egypt on January 16, 1979. He would never return to his homeland.
The Shah's demise set the stage for the continuation of the revolution by the Islamic Fundamentalists in Iran. For nearly forty years, the Shah had aligned himself with the U.S. He catered to U.S. interests in the region to garnish economic and military support. Khomeini's return from exile meant Iran was no longer an extension of U.S security interests. His objective was to expel the unholy western influence from his country; he sought to create a complete Islamic state, ridding the Iranian people of the corruption of the west. Khomeini continued to incite the Iranian people against America. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran, representing the last island of U.S. official influence would be the next target of the revolution.
"A military raid is.a high risk venture that operates on the outer margins of the possible, relying on skill, daring, and a goodly measure of luck. When the raid succeeds, it requires almost magical qualities and endows its authors with the badge of genius. Hence the appeal. When it fails, it invites ridicule and the second-guessing of armchair strategists.
Gary Sick, All Fall Down
The Fall of the American Embassy
In the fall of 1979, the Iranian Revolution was far from over. Different factions were now in conflict over the direction of the Iranian government. A Revolutionary Council, headed by Prime Minister Bazargan, was making domestic and foreign policy decisions for Iran with the support of Khomeini. Bazargan was allowed to run the government, but the ultimate authority was Khomeini.
After the departure of the Shah, revolutionary dynamics were causing an extremely unpredictable and unstable political environment. Several different factions of the revolutionary force fought to secure a position of power. Iran was in a state of chaos as competing mobs protested for their ideologies. Khomeini's leadership did not have a calming effect on the turmoil within the country. To the contrary, his behavior incited the radical elements of his followers. Khomeini's actions and rhetoric galvanized the factions against a common enemy, the United States.
On October 20, Carter decided to allow the Shah to enter the U.S. for advanced cancer treatment. Before making the decision, Carter advised the Iranian government of his intentions via Bruce Laingen, now the U.S. ambassador in Iran. The Iranian Prime Minister assured Laingen of the embassy's security. However, the Prime Minister warned that there could be a reaction of uncertain magnitude by the people.
Finally, on 4 November 1979, 3000 militants from radical student groups stormed and seized the U.S Embassy compound. Days prior, Khomeini made the political decision to align himself with the militant mobs. He called for increased anti-American activity to force the U.S. to return the Shah.
The official count for the mass kidnapping was 66 Americans. On 17 November, the militants released thirteen women and African Americans. For the remainder of the crisis, the militants held 52 American hostages. Supported by Khomeini, the students' purpose was to continue the elimination of western influence in Iran. The capture of the embassy was a logical progression towards the "westoxication" of the people as the final objective.
Carter and his Administration were shocked by the actions of the students. He called the seizure of the embassy an act of international terrorism violating all international law. The President admitted later the hostage crisis was "the beginning of the most difficult period of my life."
The hostage crisis had several strategic and political implications for the U.S. To many U.S. allies, Iran's actions humiliated the U.S. and weakened its resolve. The lack of decisive action by force or otherwise had been damaging to the U.S. posture around the world. The most powerful nation in the world was stymied and transfixed by a mob of militants who had become heroes in their triumph over the "Great Satan," America. Other Third World nations gained a lesson learned in how to impose their will on the U.S. The Soviets saw the capture of the embassy as a weakening of U.S. security and influence in the region. The hostage crisis offered an opportunity for the Soviets to expand their influence in the region; the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan a month after the American Embassy in Tehran fell.
Carter and his administration were under considerable political pressure to resolve the hostage crisis. The longer the crisis continued, the more inept the President appeared to the American public and the rest of the world. Domestic political support was on the chopping block for the President. Khomeini was a factor in the political future of Carter. The crisis was a pivotal issue in Carter's failed reelection campaign.
Initially, Carter was committed to a political solution to end the crisis. In addition, he stated the use of force was not a consideration in resolving the crisis. He feared retaliation against the hostages if the Iranians perceived a threat of force.
Vance agreed with the President's course of action. He believed a diplomatic solution was the only means to gain the release of the hostages. Diplomatic relations between the two countries remained open. Carter negotiated with the Iranian government. However, the President did decide to impose economic sanctions, freezing twelve billion dollars of Iranian assets in the United States.
Negotiations failed to secure the release of the hostages. The President was forced to look at other alternative solutions. The crisis became an issue of national honor with the American people. The media brought the hostages' plights into the living rooms of the American public.
Negotiations broke down in early April of 1980. The U.S. threatened to sever diplomatic relations. Carter was faced with the greatest dilemma of his political career: to break the stalemate by a diplomatic solution or to risk gambling on a military option. Either course of action threatened both the hostages' lives and the political career of the President.
The Military Option. The concept of a military response was initiated by Brzezinski on the day the hostages were taken. He advised the President that concurrent planning should begin for some type of military response.
The JCS confirmed to the President that the services did not have the capability for an immediate military response for either an assault or a rescue mission. It was apparent the Armed Forces did not anticipate a threat of this nature. The Services were focused on the defense of NATO against a large scale conventional war. The reduction in forces and in the Defense budget had taken its toll on readiness and capabilities. Many would define this period as the U.S. possessing a "hollow force," unable to meet its worldwide operational commitments. However, the major reason the Armed Forces could not immediately respond to the crisis was lack of foresight in considering the threat from emerging Third World nations. The military seemed to be locked into the bipolar conventional threat from the Soviet Union. Military leadership did not believe such an event as the Embassy take-over and kidnapping by unconventional means could pose a threat for the world's most powerful military.
Although in the development stage, a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force for Southwest Asia was being tested, but was yet to be declared operationally ready. Fortunately, the U.S. Army had certified their first counter-terrorist SOF unit. This was the only unit adequately trained and capable to perform a rescue mission.
Upper Level Chain of Command: Carter tasked Brzezinski to be the White House coordinator for the development of the military option. His job was to oversee the military's planning for the mission.
Brzezinski directed the NSC to assist with the development of the military option. He immediately established a military planning committee, which he chaired. The members included the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the Central Intelligence, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Strategic and operational decision making was the focus within this committee.
The chain of command for the mission was modified from the standard reporting system. Usually, the Commander of the Joint Task Force (CJTF) reported directly to the National Command Authority, (the President and the SecDef). However, in Operation Eagle Claw, the CJCS opted for more involvement in the mission. He became the
de facto Commander in Chief (CINC). Eagle Claw's reporting chain had the CJTF reporting to CJCS, who was actively involved in the operational and tactical planning. CJCS reported to the SecDef, who informed the President. Additionally, another level of command was inserted with Brzezinski's planning committee. Brzezinski's committee passed White House guidance for the mission down through the CJCS.
Constraints: Brzezinski determined early that the only feasible military action for the situation was a rescue mission. The President and Brzezinski developed guidance for the mission. The guidance included several of the President's own personal principles.
On 5 November 1979, Brzezinski requested that the CJCS begin planning for a military option with the following constraints:
1. Maintain absolute secrecy in all phases of the development of the plan.
2. Protect the lives of the hostages.
3. Minimize Iranian casualties and damages.
4. Minimize the size of the planning group and the assault force.
Brzezinski gave additional guidance stating that the President envisioned a surgical, quick, incisive operation involving just U.S. forces. He wanted the forces to maximize surprise and success; this guidance was considered by many as the President's own Commander's Intent for the mission.
The CJCS quickly assembled a planning staff for the mission and gave the President's guidance, but with additional interpretation. The mission constraints drove the planners to build a minimalist or limited concept of operations for the mission; this was a contributing factor to the outcome.
The constraints forced the planners to think in terms of what they could "not do." They would build a plan based not on resources necessary to succeed, but on meeting the dictated constraints. The constraints would limit everything from numbers of planners to actual numbers of helicopters. Additionally, the constraints were not based on an initial analysis of the mission, as there was no viable plan at the time, but on the political consideration.
CJCS determined that the capabilities of one service could not fulfill the mission's requirements. Along with establishing a planning cell for the mission, a Joint Task Force (JTF) was activated.
The Activation of the JTF. Normally, a mission requiring multiple capabilities was assigned to a Unified Command or a Specified Command. The advantage would be a headquarters element already task organized and properly manned with the right mixture of military experts.
However, it was not a violation of doctrine to have the NCA activate a separate JTF with the commander reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense. Neither one of these events happened. For the mission, the CJCS formed a JTF planning staff comprised of a small adhoc group of officers.
Sensitive to operational security and without a standing JTF headquarters at his disposal, General Jones rapidly pulled a staff together to work within the JCS. JTF 1-79 was virtually a subset of the JCS. The existing Unified Commands were never asked to participate.
The CJCS selected Army Major General James B. Vaught as the Commander of JTF 1-79. A combat veteran of three wars, Vaught was a gifted and ambitious Army officer who consider himself a "soldier's soldier." Vaught finished forming his staff, keeping the headquarters to a small group of approximately twenty personnel. The CJTF had operational control of all the service components in his JTF. Additionally, commanders for those components reported directly to him.
General Jones did not use his own JCS/Special Operation Division for planning. Nor did he use existing contingency plans. To maintain operational security (OPSEC), he accepted a narrower experience base and a lack of working continuity between staff personnel. Because the staff and reviewers were virtually one and the same, an independent review of the mission was never accomplished.
Selection of service components for the JTF was determined by the Service Chiefs. In order for the JTF concept to work, all of the services were obligated to cooperate with the CJTF. Interoperability between the services was not a strong point and in some cases, the parochial attitudes hampered the efforts of the JTF. Service rivalries emerged in the task organization of the force.
Planning. The planning for the mission was continuous until the middle of April. The largest problem was overcoming the incredible distances to the objective area. American presence in the Gulf region was limited. There was a limited rotation of ships to the Gulf and accessibility to support bases was restricted. Israel, Egypt and Oman were the most reliable allies for the basing of assets. A major portion of the planner's attention was focused on finding the most achievable way to overcome the distances. For the plan to be feasible a combination of locations, tactics, and equipment was assembled. Simplicity was sacrificed. The rescue plan was called the most "complex amphibious raid in military history," stretching the operational limits of both men and machinery.
The self imposed constraints and the inherent operational limitations added to the mission complexity. OPSEC drove a large portion of the decision making and created procedural limits on the planners. The Joint Staff used compartmentalization to the detriment of continuity, coordination, and the effective interaction of the staff.
Human intelligence sources in Iran were virtually non-existent. The CIA had informed the staff that they had no agents in the objective area. OPSEC forced the planning staff to disregard contacting existing Special Operation's points of contact around the world. Planners were told not to contact the State Department. Additionally, capability limitations, as far as readiness of units and equipment, limited contingency plans for alternate solutions.
Despite all the limitations, the planning staff conceived a plan that was within commander's guidance and the capabilities of the JTF. A combination of a helicopter supported force with additional C-130 transport aircraft was the best option for a clandestine insert. The difficulty with the helicopters was the range restrictions. A refueling point would have to be planned along the route. Aerial refueling was not an option at this time, so ground refueling from a EC-130 aircraft would have to be planned. A remote site that was flat enough to land the aircraft and perform fueling operations was found some 265 miles south of Tehran; it was code named Desert One.
The helicopters selected for the mission would be the RH-53D Navy minesweeper. Performance data indicated that the RH-53D would meet payload considerations. In addition, the RH-53D had a mission capability rate of 74.0% in
fiscal year '79. However, this was not the actual mission capable rates of the eight mission aircraft, but a rate that was a fleet wide average. In a demanding flight environment, the mission capable rate would not be the fleet wide average for the aircraft but something much lower. The fleet wide rate of 74% was misleading to the planners. The number of aircraft for the mission was determined based on the fleet wide figure. This would cause the number of helicopters to be less then what was realistic to complete the mission. The actual mission capable rate of the aircraft could only be determined by taking the maintenance history of the mission aircraft and calculating the percentage of full mission capable time over the course of the year.
Several increases in the size of the assault force hampered planning efforts. The assault force initially consisted of 70 personnel. By the time the mission was executed, the assault force had increased to 139 personnel. Additional requirements increased the numbers of helicopters and C-130s.
The tactical deployment of the forces would have the most disconnects. Some of the disconnects were accepted because it was deemed necessary to comply with mission constraints, limitations, and guidance.
Tactical Planning. The tactical planning was compartmentalized. Although this was a multiple aircraft assault support mission, none of the air elements planned together under one Air Mission Commander. From the start, there was a lack of unity of command between the air components.
The weak link was the heavy reliance on helicopter assets. The helicopters were tasked to accomplish a low level, long range navigation route at night. The route for the first night of flying was a total of 865 nautical miles. Timing and navigation accuracy were critical. The selected execution day had only nine hours and sixteen minutes of darkness. Figuring an air speed of 120 knots and adding time for the refueling evolution, the mission time was 8 hours. This would leave only an hour and sixteen minutes of additional time. This allowed a small margin of error for the planners or mission personnel. Because of the fuel requirements, the helicopters would fly above max gross weight, a condition not normally accepted due to safety and operational restrictions. Performance capabilities of the aircraft were degraded. Planned mission airspeed of 120 knots was unrealistic because the power required for max gross weight flight was not available to maintain an airspeed of 120 knots. Only after reducing the weight of the helicopter, by expending several hundred pounds of fuel, would the aircraft obtain the power to sustain 120 knots of airspeed.
The demanding flight profile required experienced pilots and a comprehensive training program. Although qualified Air Force crews were available, the JCS chose Marine Corps pilots because of their shipboard experience. The helicopter mission was the Marine Corps "piece of the pie." Team building, developed during training, was crucial to success. A comprehensive training program in long distance navigation and NVG operations would enhance proficiency and teamwork among the crews.
Abort criteria for the helicopters were a difficult tactical planning consideration. Based on the number of personnel in the assault force, the abort criteria was set at seven aircraft crossing the Iranian coastline, six aircraft to take-off from Desert One, and five aircraft for the second day's assault. The hostages and the assault force could be lifted with four. Accounting for the fleet wide mission capability of the RH-53D, the planners decided on eight aircraft as a minimum requirement to initially launch from the ship. With only four needed for the extract and a mission capable rate of 74%, eight aircraft for the two day mission was acceptable but not flexible. Figuring the mission capability rate of 74%, after the first day of flying there would be five mission capable helicopters remaining. The planner's decision to take only eight helicopters left few options for adjustment to a higher rate of mechanical failure. In actuality, the mission capable rate of the mission helicopters probably was lower than the fleet average of 74%. In addition, the helicopter's fleet wide full mission capable rate was only 17%. In this case, the planner's decision to take only eight aircraft was not rational.
Helicopter abort criteria for mechanical problems were discussed among the aircrew. It was decided that the primary safety of flight issues were any Blade Inspection Method (BIM) failure indications, hydraulic flight control problems, or transmission problems. In case of mechanical failures not requiring an immediate landing, crews would continue to fly the mission profile.
Unfortunately, the pilots trained with different type/model/series aircraft than those used for the mission. The mission aircraft were placed on the USS Kitty Hawk and then on the USS Nimitz four months before the mission commenced. The crews were unfamiliar with the flight characteristics and maintenance records of the mission aircraft. This limited time for maintenance crews and pilots to become familiar. They flew the helicopters only once before launching on the mission. Upon arrival at the ship, the aircrews found the helicopters in excellent conditions. However, Marine Lt. Colonel Ed Seiffert, the helicopter Flight Leader, reiterated later that if he had been more familiar with the RH-53D maintenance records, he would have reconsidered the BIM failure abort criteria. Additionally, there were difficulties associated with Marine pilots flying Navy helicopters because of the natural differences in aircraft systems.
Chain of Command: The multiple component commanders made unity of command difficult. The chain of command was confusing and unknown to the participants of the mission.
Because of the compartmentalization of planning and training, commanders were unfamiliar with talking and coordinating with one another. They would be responsible for the planning and training of their own components with very little liaison between components. Part of the confusion at Desert One was attributed to having multiple commanders. The difficult communications problems were also a contributing factor to the disunity in zone.
Training: The CJTF demanded separate training areas for the individual force packages to comply with OPSEC requirements. Separate training meant the force would never develop a sense of the espirit de corps. Especially for pilots, training together as a combined flight is critical to learning the capabilities of platforms and aircrews. Combined training builds the special trust and confidence between aircrews. Because of the perceived need for separate training areas, this trust and confidence was never developed to the fullest.
Because of security concerns, a full scale rehearsal of the entire rescue package was not accomplished. Several partial rehearsals were executed with a large portion of the assets, but never a final exercise with the entire package. In addition, briefs and debriefs for the air packages were never conducted.
Pilots practiced missions under complete radio silence. In fact, the packages for secure communications were removed from the mission aircraft to reinforce radio discipline. This was unnecessary and hampered the command and control capabilities of the flight leaders. In addition, strict radio silence might have jeopardized the safe operation of the aircraft. Secure communications or passwords would have been sufficient for the mission and would have enhanced the situational awareness of the flight leaders.
Finally, the quality and amount of training was not adequate to prepare the air packages for the demands of the mission. Specifically, training in ground refueling under austere conditions was insufficient. The C-130s and helicopters never did a full dress rehearsal of the ground refueling. A standardized plan was never conceived for the landing, taxiing, and positioning of aircraft for refueling.
The Commanders believed and briefed the President that the mission had
70% chance of success; they sold the mission to the President who staked the lives of the hostages and his own political career on the outcome.
More than five months after the seizure of the Embassy, the JCS approved the final rescue plan on April 16, 1980. The same night, the President received a detail briefing on the rescue plan, gave his last minute guidance, and issued the execution order. Earlier in the month, General Jones had indicated to the President that the mission could be ready for execution by the 24th of April.
Essentially the plan would be a two day operation involving three specific phases. Phase I, the insertion phase, would be a night time insertion of forces into a reconstitution and refueling area by helicopters. They would link up with the assault forces and refueling aircraft in zone. After refueling, the flight would depart for staging areas on the outskirts of the objective area.
Phase II, the rescue phase, would entail the movement of assault teams by ground transportation into the objective areas where they would assault the compound and rescue the hostages. Phase III, the extraction of the embassy personnel would be completed with the helicopter evacuation of all forces and the movement of hostages to safe havens.
Between 19-24 April, the separate elements of JTF deployed to their perspective bases in the theater. Six Air Force C-130s were repositioned from Wadi Kena, Egypt to Masirah, a small island at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Oman. Along with the C-130s, there was an assault force of 139 Army SOF soldiers. Eight RH-53D helicopters deployed to the Gulf on the USS Nimitz. The USS Coral Sea would provide fighter coverage and bomber close air support. Additionally, a small advance team had infiltrated into Tehran to conduct a visual reconnaissance of the objective area and secure ground transportation. JTF Command Post was left in Wadi Kena.
At 1905 local, the eight RH-53Ds launched from the Nimitz positioned fifty-eight miles south of the Iranian coastline. Following the lead of Lt. Colonel Seiffert, the helicopters proceeded on the first leg of the mission for refueling and link-up operations in a landing zone named Desert One.
This first leg was a 600 nautical mile flight. The low level flight profile was 100 feet above the ground level (AGL) and 120 knots of air speed. The crews used full-face, first generation Night Vision Goggles (NVG) to assist with the navigation of the route.
The Air Force component, the C-130 transport package took off with the assault force from Masirah Island approximately ten minutes after the helicopters. The C-130 mission package consisted of three MC-130s transporting the assault force. In addition, there were three EC-130 refuelers responsible for the ground refueling operations. The
C-130s flew a staggered entry into Iran so the lead aircraft, with the security force, would arrive at the landing zone first. All other aircraft would follow with proper interval. The C-130s crossed the coastline at 250 feet and then gradually worked up from the terrain for altitudes from 1000 to 3000 feet AGL. For additional navigational aids, the aircraft were equipped with the Palletised Inertial Navigation System (PINS) as well as the Forward Looking Infrared Radar system (FLIR).
Weather was predicted to be clear with a full moon all night. Approximately 140 nautical miles into the mission, helicopter #6 experienced an emergency. The BIM warning light illuminated, indicating a possible crack in the rotor blade. After landing and inspecting the blade, the aircrew abandoned the helicopter and were picked up by helicopter #8.
Now flying with a flight of six helicopters and helicopter #8 in trail position fifteen minutes behind, Seiffert's flight experienced the first unexpected phenomenon of the mission. At approximately 230 miles into the flight, the helicopters entered a floating dust cloud that would decrease visibility to 1 mile. Seiffert landed with his wingman. The other helicopters continued independently through the cloud as Seiffert broke radio silence to call for conditions at the Desert One landing zone. The flight was now broken into various elements of two helicopters. Other than Seiffert's call regarding conditions at Desert One, radio silence between the aircraft remained strict. Seiffert's situational awareness about the status of the flight was lost until reaching Desert One. Command and control for the helicopter flight was now nonexistent. All the Helicopter Commanders were independently executing the last known orders received.
After receiving word from the CJTF that the zone was clear, Seiffert continued with his wingman on the flight. Due to the unexpected dust storm, the helicopter force had lost flight integrity. This should have been a good time for Seiffert to gain situational awareness with his flight after breaking radio silence. No attempt was made by Seiffert to relay the information about the zone to the rest of the flight. Seiffert decided to maintain radio silence instead of informing the rest of the flight about the clear weather at Desert One.
There was a momentary break in the storm 275 miles into the flight, but then a second storm engulfed the helicopters again. Helicopter #5 experienced navigation problems due to equipment failure. The attitude indicator on the pilot's console had failed, however the copilot's attitude indicator was still functioning, but in a limited capacity. Without a functioning attitude indicator, flying in reduced visibility was extremely disorientating for the aircrew and induced vertigo.
Additionally, the heading indicator for course direction information had failed completely. The pilots were forced to fly off a back-up wet magnetic compass for course headings, which was possible, but increased the pilot's workload dramatically. Flying in the dust storm, the aircrew was unable to keep visual contact with any of the other aircraft. In good weather conditions, it would have been possible for the aircrew to continue by staying in visual contact with their lead aircraft. The dust storm took all visual references away and with the failure of the navigation equipment, the Helicopter Commander decided to abort and turn back to the Nimitz. Unfortunately, they aborted just twenty minutes from clearing the dust storm and only 145 miles away from Desert One.
Independently staggering out of the second dust storm, the helicopters reached the landing site at Desert One. Adding to the confusion, zone security was compromised when an Iranian fuel truck was engaged and set on fire. The fire from the truck had an unexpected benefit by guiding the remaining pilots to the zone.
Six helicopters arrived at Desert One from 50 to 85 minutes late. The refueling evolution began immediately. At this point, there was still sufficient time to reach the next zone under the cover of darkness. Helicopter #2 experienced a second stage hydraulic failure and was declared unfit for flight by the crew.
Seiffert was asked by Colonel Kyle (USAF), the Desert One Zone Commander, if he could consolidate the force on five aircraft. Seiffert's answer was "no" due to fuel constraints. Additionally, Kyle asked Colonel Beckwith (USA), commander of the assault force, if he could cut down on personnel to five helicopter loads; his answer was also negative because his personnel were already performing a minimum of three tasks in the rescue operation. An abort decision was made by Colonel Beckwith and passed up the chain of command.
Initially, the decision was for the five mission capable helicopters to fly back to the Nimitz. Unfortunately helicopter #3 inadvertently collided with the EC-130. Both aircraft were destroyed and eight Americans were killed. The personnel were evacuated by the C-130s. Left behind were the eight dead Americans as well as one C-130 and seven RH-53D helicopters.
There were several reviews of Operational Eagle Claw. The operation was studied for years to identify critical elements that contributed to the failure. The lessons learned identified inadequacies in the American military and how it was structured. The lessons also provided the foundation for some profound changes in the American military.
This paper will now examine the interpretations of four top sources and provide additional analysis of their findings: the Holloway Commission; Major General Vaught's CJTF analysis; Colonel Kyle, the Desert One Zone Commander's analysis; and finally, Air Force Major General Richard Secord's interpretation of the failures of the mission.
The Holloway Commission: In May of 1980, the CJCS chartered a Special Operations Review Group to commence an investigation of Operation Eagle Claw. The six officer group made a "no-holds-bar" attempt to assess the mission and then reported its finding to the CJCS. Special emphasis was placed on identifying inadequacies in mission planning, training and execution as well as any material deficiencies. All of the services were represented in the review group; three of the members had special operations backgrounds. The group was chaired by former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James L. Holloway. The following is an analysis of the conclusions the group endorsed in their report published August of 1980.
First, the group concluded that The operation was a feasible plan that represented the best chance at the time for mission success. Holloway stated that he thought the JTF staff had the solution to the crisis. On the "drawing board," the plan appeared to be a viable course of action, but was the plan, in reality, feasible?
The mission was a high risk operation. With the complexity of the plan, there was little room for adjustment for the unexpected. The commission gave the mission a 60% chance of success if everything went exactly as planned. Mission constraints and restraints such as the distances to the objective areas, the multiple force packages, and the need for secrecy and radio silence, made adaptability and flexibility extremely limited. No plan ever survives the first engagement of the unexpected. The complicated nature of the mission left few options for adjusting the plan by either the staff or the operators. Because of the few options for the operators to adjust the plan, the mission personnel held tightly to the plan even when the unexpected, like the dust storm, dictated an adjustment. In this case, the operators drove a bad situation into something worse. The mission had a high probability of the unexpected happening due to the complexity of the plan and the unfamiliar environment. The plan was acceptable, but its feasibility was borderline because of the small margin for error and the lack of flexibility and adaptability.
Planning was adequate except for the misinterpretation of the reliability of
RH-53D helicopters and the lack of preparation for dealing with the unexpected weather phenomenon. There was no doctrine for joint planning. Because the JTF staff was assembled adhoc, a foundation of continuity between the staff members did not exist. Compartmentalization was practiced to the detriment of the mission at each level of the planning. Each service planner focused on the myopic task of his particular unit.
The planning guidance for the mission limited the ability of the planners. In particular, the unusually strong secrecy requirement of the CJCS created an OPSEC "monster," which hampered the effectiveness of the staff. In addition, the changing personnel requirements created friction among the planners causing added discontinuity.
It was a large mistake for the planners to use the fleet wide mission capable percentage for the RH-53D, particularly when the full mission capable rate of the helicopter was only 17%. Finally, the staff violated a major element of a successful planning process: they did not "murder board" the plan by an independent group.
Training for the mission was adequate except for the absences of a full scale rehearsal. This conclusion by the commission was incorrect. There was no structure for joint or integrated training developed for the JTF. The complexity of the mission required the development of close coordination in the training process. Compartmental training was conducted hindering team building, which is so important for joint operations. There was little special trust and confidence built between the personnel.
Crucial refueling training was never adequately planned; the refueling portion of the plan was a critical hinge pin to mission success. In addition, face to face briefs and debriefs were never conducted by the units after training evolutions. Finally, the helicopter pilots never flew the actual mission aircraft during training. Familiarization with the aircraft was nonexistent for the mission.
A critical mistake was not executing a full scale rehearsal. With a complex mission, feasibility is often determined by the rehearsal of the mission. Planners stretched the envelop of the operators with this mission. A full scale rehearsal would have determined if the mission was reasonable as well as feasible to execute. Additionally, last minute corrections for a mission are usually identified in the rehearsal.
Defense Intelligence Agency should have developed an intelligence task force for direct support to the JTF. Intelligence gathering was insufficient and disjointed. The staff was not allowed full access to all agencies of the intelligence community. Intelligence would be gathered in a random fashion through a variety of sources so that secrecy could be maintained. The system for accumulating data was slow and inefficient and did not draw on the expertise of the whole community. This was a weak link that was never corrected during the planning of the mission.
A combination of Air Force SOF helicopter pilots with Marine helicopter pilots was probably the best mix for the mission. Service politics played a large role in the task organization of the JTF. At the beginning of the planning, the Air Force had a total of 114 pilots qualified for long range navigation missions. Eighty-six of those pilots were qualified on the RH-53D and had recent experience with SOF operations. In addition, all of the Air Force pilots had extensive experience with terrain-following navigation radar and the FLIR system. The mission called for pilots proficient in long distance, low level flight. This was routine training for the Air Force pilots.
The high rate of failure of the RH-53D and the unexpected low visibility were causal factors in the abort of the mission. The decision to move the helicopters to the carrier had some effect on the maintenance of the aircraft. Traditionally, helicopters will maintain a higher reliability rate if they are exercised on a regular basis. Mission maintenance crews should have been assigned as part of the Marine component. This would have ensured continuity of effort for the maintenance of the aircraft. In addition, the selection of the specific helicopters could have been monitored by a Maintenance Control Officer. The Maintenance Control Officer could have screened the maintenance records of the available aircraft and selected the helicopters with the best actual mission capability.
Unexpected low visibility was not as significant a finding. Six out of the eight helicopters made it to Desert One. The helicopters that did not arrive had mechanical failures. The training of the pilots was done at night. Night flight is inherently an instrument flight regime. When the low visibility presented itself, the pilots went back to their training and successfully made it to the zone.
The board would endorse two conclusive findings: an overemphasis on OPSEC, and inadequate maintenance of the helicopters aboard the Navy shipping. OPSEC was a driving factor in the compartmentalization practices of the JTF. It contributed to the low number of personnel for the planning of the mission. It hampered intelligence gathering. Usually OPSEC is inherent to military operations, and if used correctly, is a force multiplier. OPSEC is a supporting element and should never be allowed to degrade mission accomplishment as it did with this mission.
The commission recommended creating a Counter Terrorist Task Force. Furthermore, it recommended the development of a red cell staff of retired military experts. This cell would review plans for acceptability, feasibility, adaptability, and flexibility.
Comments from the CJTF: Vaught was dismayed at the findings of the Holloway commission. In his mind, the commission did not adequately capture the real problems were with the mission. He stated it was the elaborate abort criteria that caused the mission to fail. He defended the review of the plan by the six flag officers as being adequate. He admitted that the JTF staff may have been preoccupied with the material readiness of the aircraft and this might have been a distracter.
Colonel Kyle's analysis: Kyle stated that the unexpected weather contributed most to the failure. This is hard to substantiate because the two aircraft that aborted
en route were for mechanical reasons. Furthermore, Kyle blamed the Marine pilots for bad abort criteria. He stated that the pilots developed a "peacetime mentality" in executing a real world mission. He implied that the Marine pilots were not prepared to do whatever they had to for mission accomplishment. This is something that is also difficult to validate. The Marine pilots flew over 600 miles, in less then one mile visibility for most of the time, to a unknown location in the Iranian desert at night. The pilots never were warned of the possibility of a dust storm by the mission weather forecasters. Their successful arrival at Desert One proved they were prepared to do what it took for mission success. In addition, the helicopters crews were still committed to executing the mission if Colonel Beckwith had adjusted his forces to five helicopter loads.
Unity of command was nonexistent for the mission. A single mission commander should have been identified in the mission package. Kyle stated that an Air Mission Commander or a JFACC would have created better unity of command for the air assets. Finally, the communication plan was inadequate and ineffective in the zone. The zone commander did not adequately plan for enough radios for command and control. The aircraft noise was deafening and hindered the coordination.
Secord's Spin: After the failure of the mission, Air Force Major General Richard Secord was named Deputy Commander of the JTF. He was tasked by the CJCS to continue to plan a military rescue mission. He made it a personal mission to determine the lessons learned from the first mission. He concluded simply that the staff miscalculated the number of helicopters needed for the mission. Again, an accurate mission capable rate for planning could have only been gathered by reviewing the maintenance records of the specific mission aircraft. Any other rate for planning did not give the correct figure for the number of aircraft needed for the mission.
Secondly, he stated that the helicopter pilots needed more training in bad weather conditions. The weather was not the causal factor for the helicopters not making it to the zone. Finally, he concluded that the main reason for the failure was that the leaders were not "solution-oriented." He suggested they held steadfast to the plan instead of determining what was needed to be done and improvising to get it accomplished. This conclusion was correct. The plan had limited room for adaptability and flexibility because of the minimalist planning approach and the constraints of the mission. At Desert One, the component commanders were unwilling to adjust the plan to continue with the mission. They all held on "tight" to the original plan without considering the feasibility of making an adjustment and still achieving mission success. The inflexible thought process was probably fostered by the compartmentalization of training and the lack of special trust and confidence between the commanders.
Future Impact of the Mission on the American Military
In the years following the mission, there were several revolutionary changes in the military that can be linked to Operation Eagle Claw. The need for enhanced capabilities resulted from the mission and created incentives for future technological developments. The mission identified a changing threat environment associated with the development of Third World nations. Specifically, the threat of embassy and hostage seizure was validated. The new, unconventional threat ignited the rebirth of SOF. In addition, missions requiring the capabilities of more than one service were the prediction for the future of the Armed Forces.
The most significant military reforms were the ratification of the
Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, the emergence of Joint Doctrine, and revitalization of SOF. All three of these reforms have a direct connection to the lessons learned during Operation Eagle Claw. All three actions dramatically changed the concepts, structures, and roles of the American Military.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act: There is no finer example of the impact of the rescue mission than this piece of legislation. Planning and organizational failures in the mission were targeted by the act. General Shalikashvili wrote, "From the vantage point of the mid-1990s, the act brought about a number of changes which together have had a revolutionary impact on the defense organization."
Basically the act accomplished five distinct tasks. First, it defined the role of the CJCS as the principal adviser to the Secretary of the Defense, the National Security Adviser, and the President. During the rescue mission, the CJCS was acting as a CINC. General Jones activated a JTF and engaged in planning and decision making on the operational as well as the tactical level. In essence, CJCS took himself out of the role as the principal military advisor to the NCA and into the realm of a "Warfighting" CINC.
Second, the act created and defined the position of the Vice Chairman of the JCS. The position was created to specifically oversee joint infrastructure issues relating to the development of doctrine, affording the CJCS the latitude to perform his primary role. In addition, Vice Chairman would chair the Joint Requirements Oversight Committee (JROC) to help assess the defense acquisition process.
Third, the act defined the role of the CJS and his staff as it pertained to strategic planning, readiness management, and in particular, Joint Doctrine. CJCS would assist the President and the SecDef in determining a strategic direction for the military in coordination with the strategic interests of the nation.
Fourth, the act empowered the CINCs to be the warfighters of the nation. The CINCs would have a greater say in budgetary considerations and the program process. It appears that the operational chain of command during the rescue mission was confusing. The act rectified this confusion. The act states that the chain of command in a military operation is the President to the SecDef to the CINC. The role of the CJCS is defined as conduit. The CINC will communicate to the NCA through the CJCS; this assists the CJCS as the principal military advisor of the President and the Secretary of Defense. Additionally, the CJCS will oversee the activities of the CINCs involving assignments of functions, roles, and missions. Finally, the CJCS will act as a program and budget spokesman for the CINCs.
Lastly, it would validate the joint warfighting philosophy by creating the Joint Specialty Officers (JSO) program. This program initiated a change to the cultural mindset about jointness. Operation Eagle Claw was executed with a mindset of service parochialism. The JSO program would break the cultural attitudes existing with service parochialism.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act was the legislation that guided the Armed Forces towards the adoption of jointness as the American way of war. It forced reforms in Washington, as well as on the battlefield, generating greater efficiency in the military's role to protect the nation's interests. The legislation had a revolutionary impact on the military and is undeniably linked to Operation Eagle Claw.
Joint Doctrine: The foundation for joint operations that was missing in Operation Eagle Claw is now a part of everyday military operations. Jointness was given structure by the conception of Joint Doctrine.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act makes joint operations the law for the services. The act establishes the JCS as responsible for developing Joint Doctrine. The doctrine provides guidance for joint operations. Joint Doctrine was validated with the successful results in operations Desert Shield/Storm. The joint warfighting philosophy of combining forces to synchronize their activities against the enemy was executed to perfection. The Armed Forces Military Education programs now teaches military students that America will always fight as a joint force.
Additionally, the doctrine encompasses the training and planning structure for the JTF. An evaluation of readiness was also established. In the absents of Joint Doctrine, the JTF conducted planning and training for Operation Eagle Claw. It was widely viewed that a military rescue of the complexity of Operation Eagle Claw can not be planned or prepared for with a "make it up as we go" mentality. The 1982 report of the CJCS concluded that the military simply did not have the authority, training, structure or doctrine to plan or execute joint activities. Basically, there was no joint infrastructure.
Special Operations Forces (SOF) : It was clear that the threat was changing in the world when the Iranians seized the American Embassy. Third World nations were emerging to challenge the ideologies of both the Soviet Union and America. The security interest of the nation would be threatened by unconventional actions such as terrorist missions, hostage situations, and guerrilla warfare tactics. After the rescue mission, a comprehensive revitalization of SOF was done by each service. By 1986, the budget for SOF had risen for $440 million to $1.1 billion as capabilities in terms of force structure and readiness also continued to climb.
In particular, the Army took the lead in the development of their SOF forces. The United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) activated and developed a complete array of SOF units. Some of these units include the Rangers, psychological warfare, and counter-terrorism units. In addition, the Army activated their own Special Operations Aviation (SOA).
The 1987 Defense Authorization Act (the Cohen-Nunn Amendment to Goldwater -Nichols Act) elevated SOF to the unified command level by creating the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). USSOCOM was the first Unified Command that directed the joint efforts of SOF units from each service. In addition, each Unified Command would have attached a Special Operation Command Component provide unconventional warfare assistance.
The rebirth and advancement of SOF brought about complete change of attitude towards special operations after the Vietnam war. The lack of special operations capabilities in the Armed Forces was a contributing factor to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw.
Finally, it is obvious that equipment also contributed to the failure of the rescue mission. A need for increases in operational capabilities was recognized after the mission. As a result, technological advances were made to address the capabilities needed. In particular, the development of advance Night Vision Goggles and devices for combat operations was a direct result of the mission. Also, the development of long range aviation assets such as CH-53E and the MV-22 aircraft were initiated. These aircraft were developed to address shortfalls in assault support capability, specially dealing with payload and range deficiencies. This is one of the first times in history that a need for capabilities defined the technological direction.
"Jointness aims to make the efforts of the Armed Forces greater than the sum of their parts."
General Shalikashvili, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Operation Eagle Claw provided a valuable lesson to the U.S. Armed Forces. Although the mission was a failure, its contribution to the future of the American military is overwhelming. Out of the ashes left on the floor of the Iranian desert, the military leaders of the nation were rudely awakened to the fact that the Armed Forces needed to change to meet the future security interests of the nation.
Military reform would be revolutionary. The changes would not only address the capabilities and readiness issues, they would also attack the cultural mindsets of the services that have been prevalent for years. The mission made clear that the parochial attitudes of the services had to be abandoned.
There are several ways that one can analyze the value of an event. The desired end state achieved in the planned manner is usually the most common method.
With Operation Eagle Claw, the importance of the mission must be measured in terms of the positive changes it generated in its aftermath.
It is interesting to note the variety of reasons for the failure of the mission offered by people who were involved or connected with the operation. Brzezinski stated technology had failed the American people. The Holloway Commission argued the mission failed because of the mishandling of OPSEC constraints. Colonel Kyle led one to believe the failure was due to the lack of proper weather forecasting. Finally, General Secord concluded simply that the leaders had lost their warfighting resolve. These conclusions are all shortsighted. Maybe those, who were involved with the mission, were too close to the problem. In any event, the mission failed because of a lack of Joint Warfighting Doctrine and Joint Infrastructure to sustain a mission of this magnitude. Compounding the lack of Joint Doctrine were the parochial attitudes of the services, which together produced an environment ripe for failure. The mission failed in the staff planning offices and in the training areas long before the first aircraft launched for Desert One.
Operation Eagle Claw was a catalyst for a Revolution in Military Affairs that is being experience today in America. The Goldwater-Nichols Act, Joint Doctrine and SOF are three major examples of that revolution. In the final analysis, the mission will be remembered for the improvements it motivated in the military. Ultimately, the loss of the American lives at Desert One was not in vain because the lessons learned from this failed operation went on to produce a better military that enhanced the survivability of the future forces called to action.
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Scott, Alexander. "The Lessons of the Iranian Raid for America Military Policy."
Armed Forces Journal International. June 1980.
Sheehan, John J. "Next Step in Joint Force Integration." JFQ. Auttumn 1996.
Simko, Barbara J. "Logistics of the Iranian Hostage Rescue Effort."
Logistics Spectrum. Fall 1990.
Willis, Grant. "New Joint Command Planned at McDill AFB."
International Defense Review. September 1987.
Valliere, John E. Disaster at Desert One: Catalyst for Change." Parameters.
Shalikashvili, John M. "A Word From The Chairman." JFQ. Autumn 1996.
Cheney, Richard. U.S. Special Operations Forces Status Report. Washington:
DOD Press, 1980.
Holloway, John L. The Rescue Report. Washington: DOD Press, 1980.
The Iranian Hostage Rescue Attempt; A Pilots Perspective. Montgomery: Maxwell
Friedel, Richrad B. J-4 Staff member on JTF. 17 January 1997.
Lenahan, Rod. J-3 Staff member on JTF. 14 December 1996.
Lenderman, James E. Lt.Colonel USMC. Pilot on mission. 16 December 1996.
Neimeyer, Rance. Colonel USMC. Pilot on mission. 23 January 1997.
Roberts, James Q. Colonel USA, Retired. Operator on mission. 13 and 21 November
Seiffert, Edward. Colonel USMC Retired. Pilot on the mission. 17 December 1996
 Gaddis Smith, Morality, Reason and Power, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986) 11.
 Ibid, pgs. 6, 26.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, ( New York: Bantam,1982) 52.
 Smith, Morality, Reason and Power, p 36.
 Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983) xiv.
 Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power, p 41.
 Ibid, p 3.
 Ibid, p 50.
 Vance, Hard Choices, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983) 27.
 Record, Revising U.S. Military Strategy, (New York: Pergamon, Brassey, 1984) 31.
 Ibid, p 32.
 Secretary Richard Cheney, Annual Report to Congress: U.S Special Forces Status Report 1990, (Office of the Defense Secretary), Section II.
 Interview with Colonel James Roberts, USA (RET). Colonel Roberts was the Foreign Area Officer
(FAO) in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. He latter was attached to SOF unit that was going to do
 Interview with Colonel Seiffert, USMC (RET).
 Ibid., p 33. By 1979, the military capabilities were stripped for the ½ war contingency. It is no
exaggeration to state that Carter made some incredibly inaccurate assumptions on the potential threat of
Third World nations to the country. In addition, he assumed that horizontal expansion would not be
realized from a war in Europe.
 Interviews with LtCol Lenderman, USMC and Colonel Rance Niemeyer, USMC.
 Record, Revising U.S. Military Strategy, p 102.
 Ibid, p 102-104.
 Smith, Morality, Reason and Power, p 246.
 Ibid, p 48.
 Ibid, 245.
 Ibid., p 243.
 Ibid, p 245.
 Reason, Revising the U.S. Military Strategy, p 100-104.
 James A. Bill, Iran and the Crisis of 1978, Foreign Affairs, 57, No 2 (Winter 1978-1979) 387.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, p 434.
 Vance , Hard Choices, p 314.
 Ibid., p 317.
 Brzezinski, Power and Principles, p 314.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, p. 437.
 Ibid, p 243.
 Brzezinski, Power and Principles, p 355.
 Smith, Morality, Reason and Power, p187.
 Ibid, p 189. Brzezinski believed in the principles of Crane Brinton. He endorsed and accepted the
theory that no regime with the confident use of force had ever been dislodged by a revolution. Interesting
to note that 1989 in China-the old communist regime proved this theory to be correct in a square in
 Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power, p 191.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, p 453.
 Ibid., p 16.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, p 459.
 Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power, p 198.
 Gary Sick, All Fall Down, (New York: Random House, 1985) 206-207.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, p 465.
 Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p 477.
 Record, Revising U.S. Military Strategy, p 37.
 Ryan, The Iranian Rescues Mission: Why It Failed, (Annapolis: Hoover Institute, 1985) p 11.
 Robert L Earl, A Matter of Principle, Proceedings, (Providence: Naval War College, 1983) 30.
 Earl, A Matter of Principle, p 34.
 John L. Holloway, The Holloway Report: The Iran Rescue Report, (Washington: DOD Press, 1980)
 Beckwith, Delta Force, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983) 189.
 Carter, Keeping the Faith, p 509.
 Ibid, p 509.
 Kyle, The Guts to Try, (New York: Orion, 1990) 37. This was later rectified.
 Ibid. Other options for refueling that were rejected included the dropping of bladders for ground refueling
or an airfield seizure for refueling.
 Ibid., p 72.
 Gabriel, Military Incompetence, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985) 93.
 Interview with Seiffert, Lenderman, Niemeyer.
 Doing the math, 74% of eight will yield 5.92 helicopters after the first night of flying. This leaves a very
small margin especially when the mission capability rate is not the actual rate for the aircraft flying.
 It is unclear what the actual mission capable rate of the mission helicopters was before the launch. It is
unlikely that the mission aircraft would have as high a rate as the fleet average.
 Gabriel, Military Incompetence, p 109. Full Mission Capable is interpreted as all the systems on the
aircraft being functional and working properly. Mission capable rate includes not only the aircraft that are
full mission capable but also partial mission capable, which is being able to fly but not all the systems are
 Ibid. The blades that had been removed for BIM failure warnings, the Depot level maintenance had not
found a crack.
 Gabriel, Military Incompetence, p 91.
 Ibid., p 507.
 Kyle, The Guts to Try, p 239.
 Ibid, p 178.
 Interview with Lenderman.
 Ibid, p 270-271. There are conflicting reports as to whether anyone on the command net heard that the
flight of helicopters had lost a second helicopter in route. To this day no one actually was aware that the
flight was down to six helicopters until they reach Desert One.
 Interview with Lenderman.
 Interviews with Niemeyer, Seiffert, and Lenderman.
 Interview with James Roberts of the DOD. He told me that a comprehensive review of the mission is
done every five years to ensure that the corrections were made for the military were viable and working.
The JCS J-3 staff does the review and submits a report to the CJCS. Last review of the mission was done
in May of 1992.
 Ryan, The Iranian Rescue Mission, p 109.
 Holloway , Rescue Mission Report.
 Ryan, The Iranian Rescue Mission, p 111.
 Gabriel, Military Incompetence, p 109.
 Ibid, p 110.
 James L. Campbell, Downfall at Desert One: The Cost Of Operational Security in The Iranian Rescue
Mission, (Newport; Naval War College, 1990) 24.
 John M. Shalikashvili, A Word from the Chairman, JFQ, (Autumn, 1996) 5.
 Ibid, p 6.
 Ibid, p 4.
 Cheney, U.S. Special Operations Forces Status Report, Section II.
 Shalikashvili, A Word from the Chairman, p 3.
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