Air University Review, March-April 1984

Airborne Raids

a potent weapon in countering transnational terrorism

Colonel Joshua Shani, Israeli Air Force

I believe, with absolute faith, in our ability to carry out any military task entrusted to us. I believe in Israel and in the general sense of responsibility that must accompany every man who fights for the future of his homeland.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netaniahu
Quoted in Ben-Porat, Entebbe Rescue

THE spirit embodied in these words of Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netaniahu is a fundamental prerequisite for successfully performing an airborne raid. Colonel Netaniahu can speak with authority, having led the special force into the Old Terminal at Entebbe to free hostages held by Palestinian terrorists on 3 July 1976.

A raid is an operation, usually small scale, involving swift penetration of hostile territory to secure information, confuse the enemy, or destroy his installations. It ends with a planned withdrawal upon completion of the assigned mission.1 In the context of this article, I would add "to save hostages and prisoners of war."

Most antiterrorist raids are against small terrorist groups or even, on occasion, against state-sponsored terrorism. International terrorism has affected many countries in recent decades. Perhaps a better term for this social cancer is transnational terrorism, since international has a false ring of legitimacy. Regardless of semantics, transnational terrorism could not survive without sponsors. The Soviet Union is by far the largest sponsor, but Cuba, Libya, South Yemen, and certain other countries have contributed their share as well.

Diplomatic efforts to solve this world problem continue, and every transnational terrorist incident begins with an attempt to resolve the situation by diplomacy without resorting to force. But national hypocrisy on this topic is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to counter terrorism quietly. The first to scream are the Communist bloc countries which, in many cases, prompt other nonaligned and, more significantly, more moderate countries to join the chorus. I personally subscribe to an attitude expressed in a letter of advice to Washington in the 1963 Congo crisis:

If we are going to be damned anyway, because we dare to rescue a group of people threatened with death and mutilation, we should have done this firmly, openly, with dignity and, if you wish, defiantly.2

People holding innocent hostages to achieve some end, whether it be monetary or political, deserve payment in their own coin but at higher interest.

As an aviator, I have chosen six well-known airborne raids to analyze, compare, critique, and evaluate. I shall briefly recount some details of each, establishing a common frame of reference for the reader.

The first raid to be considered is Dragon Rouge (1963), an operation involving a combined force of American C-130s and Belgian paratroopers. They freed a group of hostages held by Simba rebels in Stanleyville, the Congo. The paratroopers were transported by C-130s from Belgium to Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic, with refueling stops in Spain and later at Kamina, 550 miles from Stanleyville. From there to the drop zone near Stanleyville, the C-130s had an escort of B-26s of the Congolese Air Force. After the drop, the Belgians took the airfield, landing their jeeps and supplies. The Belgian paratroopers stormed the city and freed the hostages. Casualties included 3 soldiers dead and 7 wounded, as well as 27 dead among the hostages, but 2000 hostages were saved (later, hundreds more were executed in vengeance).

The next of the raids, chronologically, was the Son Tay prison camp raid in Vietnam on 21 November 1970. After several months of preparation, a very well-trained force flew from Thailand with HH-53 and HH-3 helicopters to rescue prisoners of war from the Son Tay prison near Hanoi. After air refueling and with a large-scale diversionary action staged by the U.S. Navy, the force landed to find the prison empty. Although the force met 200 enemy soldiers by mistake because of a helicopter's landing in the wrong compound, total casualties for the entire operation were one minor wound among the force members and a broken ankle suffered by a crew member during the planned crash-landing into Son Tay.

In the Mayaguez incident on 12 May 1975, the Cambodians captured an American merchant ship on the high seas, taking the crew to the mainland and leaving the ship at Tang Island, 35 miles from the mainland. Intensive U.S. Air Force activity did not prevent the Cambodians from taking the crew ashore, but the Air Force sank three gunboats and frightened them so that they freed the crew. Meanwhile, a strong U.S. Navy force of two destroyers and an aircraft carrier approached the area, and 1100 Marines advanced to Thailand. After four days, and while the Cambodians took the crew back to their ship, a strong attack was launched on targets on the mainland and on the island, with bombing by the Air Force, assisted by Navy planes and the landing of Marines by Air Force helicopters. Another group of Marines secured the Mayaguez. Casualties on the island were 18 killed and 50 wounded; the 39 civilian crewmembers survived.

In contrast, during the Entebbe raid on 3 July 1976, four Israeli C-130s flew to Entebbe to rescue 105 hostages held in the Old Terminal of the airport. One C-130 landed there, and after a few minutes the hostages were freed and the terrorists dead. The other three C-130s landed after a few minutes to secure the area and support the evacuation. The flight to Entebbe was nonstop from Israel, and on the return flight, there was a landing in Nairobi, Kenya. Casualties included 3 dead civilians and 5 wounded, 1 dead officer, and 4 wounded soldiers.

Another incident occurred in October 1977 when the West Germans pursued a hijacked Lufthansa airliner with two Boeing 707s carrying GSG9 commandos and a diplomat. On 17 October, the Lufthansa airliner landed at Mogadishu, Somalia, and after a few hours of preparation, a group of 28 GSG9 commandos stormed the hijacked craft. In the brief exchange, 3 terrorists (Arabs and a German) were killed and 1 wounded; 1 commando, 1 stewardess, and 4 passengers were slightly wounded.

On 24 April 1980, a force was launched to save American hostages being held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran. The first part of the mission was a flight of C-130 tankers from a site, probably in Egypt, to a rendezvous point with 8 RH-53s at a site designated Desert One in Iran. The C-130s were to refuel the helicopters on the ground for the continuation of the mission. Because of bad weather and technical problems, 5 helicopters were left at Desert One, and the mission was aborted. During the evacuation, there was a collision between an airborne RH-53 and a C-130 on the ground. In the ensuing fire, 8 crewmembers lost their lives. It was decided to leave the helicopters and evacuate the rest of the force in the remaining 4 C-130s.

(My sources for the backgrounds of these airborne rescue operations are limited, for the most part, to published accounts of the raids in the media. I do not have access to the classified documents that go into great depth about the raids. Still, from my own personal experience in such operations, I believe that I can shed enough light on certain points about these raids concerning planning, command and control, preparations, political attempts, and the execution itself to support some conclusions and recommendations. Because I shall discuss these aspects as they are illustrated by the various raids, I shall not necessarily adhere to the same chronological order used earlier. Certain raids are classic in their handling of certain concepts and deserve to be highlighted. In other cases, the raid is not particularly relevant to the concept, so it may be downplayed.)

The importance of airborne raids in support of hostage rescues from transnational terrorists cannot be underestimated. Transnational terrorists are choosing hostage holding as their mode of action with increasing frequency. Because airborne raids have had relatively great success in freeing hostages with minimal loss of life to the rescuers or to the hostages themselves, governments facing such situations in the future can gain some clear advantages if they understand and refine this option for action. Their ability to respond effectively may well depend on their familiarity with the composite lessons learned, for such raids may become increasingly difficult to execute successfully as the terrorist learning curve also goes up.

Let us now turn our attention to the first steps in a rescue attempt. In a typical hostage situation where terrorists are holding a nation's citizens for whatever reason, the government almost always tries to play its diplomatic card.

Political Attempts

Political initiatives are usually put into effect before or during the military planning stage. Sometimes these initiatives are just to gain time for planning and assessing the situation, but usually they are an effort to resolve the situation without resorting to force. Unfortunately, the brief history of special risk operations shows that political attempts have not been particularly effective in crisis resolution. Their major value has been to buy valuable time, which in some cases has made the difference between rescue and disaster. In the Mayaguez incident, the U.S. President instructed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to seek diplomatic assistance from China in an effort to persuade the Cambodians to release the crew and the ship. However, at the same time, he said:

Again, I wanted to be hopeful, but I also knew we had to make contingency plans in case the diplomatic initiatives were unsuccessful. At that meeting I told the Defense Department to start the movement of ships, to undertake the aerial surveillance, and to find out whether the crew was on the ship.3

Parallel to that, so it would be "perfectly clear" to the Cambodians, White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen made a brief statement:

We have been informed that a Cambodian naval vessel had seized an American merchant ship on the high seas.... The President ... considers the seizure an act of piracy. He has instructed the State Department to demand the immediate release of the ship. Failure to do so would have the most serious consequences.4

Thus diplomatic effort, military preparation, and a direct threat to the other side were all taking place at about the same time.. In other instances, it has not always been so. During the Entebbe operation, there were many diplomatic efforts, mainly through the French government, as well as direct calls to General Idi Amin by representatives of the Israeli government. The military option was not openly mentioned to anyone, and no threats were directed against Idi Amin. The North Vietnamese treated the American prisoners of war (POWs) in a terribly inhumane way in order to influence American public opinion against the war and frighten the American pilots who flew the missions over hostile territory. In a very real way, the POWs were treated as hostages, The U.S. administration tried all kinds of diplomatic efforts to improve the conditions of the POWs, but nothing changed. The North Vietnamese recognized the POWs as a card in their hand to be played for all it was worth.

During the hijacking of the Lufthansa jet on 13 October 1977, a military option was developed to counter a diplomatic failure, After the German government received the demands from the terrorists, its spokesman, Klaus Bolling, said that the ultimatum was being taken very seriously.5 However, the Germans did not waste any time. They sent their chief troubleshooter, State Secretary Hans Jurgen Wischnewski, to negotiate with the terrorists, but 31 additional troops from GSG9 accompanied him, along with another Boeing 707 and a GSG9 special force sent to Cyprus to intercept the route of the hijacked Lufthansa. Was it a diplomatic effort? No. First, there was no one with whom to talk (except to negotiate with the terrorists to buy time), and, second, leaders in the Schmidt government were so thoroughly angered by the Schleyer case (the West German industrialist who was kidnapped and subsequently murdered) that they were ready for immediate military action.

In the Iranian rescue attempt, the political consideration was the main issue for some time.

Washington, November 9: President Carter today asked Americans to suppress their outrage, anger, and frustration about the events in Iran and to support Washington's efforts through quiet diplomacy to win the release of the Americans held hostage in Tehran.6

At the same time, military planning was being conducted in Washington. The diplomatic efforts continued, including high pressure and political and economic sanctions, together with the military preparations. However, for the most part, the Carter administration seemed to think it could resolve the crisis without resorting to force.

In the rescue of the hostages in the Congo (Operation Dragon Rouge), all political attempts involving Belgium, the United States, the Congo, Kenya, and others failed, and hundreds of hostages continued to be held in Stanleyville. The problem there was that the United States was greatly concerned about world opinion:

If we went in late, while both Dragon Rouge and Van de Waele were by "coincidence" assaulting Stanleyville at the same time, our hopes for understanding and acceptance might be hard to fulfill.7

Most of these special operations are conducted without the permission of the country involved. Sometimes they are contrary to that country's expressed wishes. Should these facts be a political consideration? Some operations may be condemned later in the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly. Is this to be a consideration? I believe transnational terrorism must be fought with force––sharp and immediate. Political attempts are acceptable for a limited time, but a government must never surrender to blackmail. Use of the diplomatic option to gain time is perfectly all right, but the responsibility of a country to save her own people is over and above the importance of world opinion or a U.N. resolution that is passed by hypocritic, narrow interests. So, from my perspective as a military aviator, strategists should begin to plan for a special rescue operation the moment a crisis situation arises, realizing that diplomatic efforts will probably not produce the desired release of hostages. In any event, even if the planning for the exercise of a military is not put into play, it serves a valuable purpose and trains the forces involved to be better prepared for times when they are actually called into action. It also makes those involved in negotiations on both sides aware that the aggrieved nation is not without recourse.


The military planning stage began at the onset of all the crises in question. In the Mayaguez incident, time was a critical factor. The main concern was that the Cambodians would take the crew to the mainland, making the rescue operation that much more difficult. For those in authority to make an educated decision, it was necessary that more than one plan be available. According to then-Chief of Staff General David C. Jones, five plans were prepared. The plan to use the twin-pronged Marine assault coupled with the bombing of selected targets––the plan that President Gerald Ford selected––was, in reality, option four.8 I believe that this number of options is excessive. The military echelon should eliminate a few options and let the President decide from two or three. In this incident, the plan decided on was a maximalist plan. Using 2 destroyers, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 Marine units with 12 helicopters, and numerous Air Force fighters and bombers, as well as reconnaissance aircraft, President Ford felt "a strong personal desire not to err on the side of using too little force."9 This type of decision is acceptable as long as time is not lost in gathering adequate forces. Later on in the execution phase, it becomes increasingly difficult to control and coordinate such a force to prevent it from overreacting, as happened in this case.

On the other hand, the Germans did not have sufficient planning time. The planning, in effect, was carried out simultaneously with the execution, which is possible only if a special force is ready for such a mission at all times. I am reasonably sure in the Mayaguez incident that if a special force such as this had flown from the United States (and there was time for this), the outcome would have been better.

In situations such as hostage rescue attempts, planning is usually based on assumptions or speculations, especially during the first hours or days of the crisis. In the Entebbe operation, the first plan was rehearsed but then canceled for many reasons, allowing only a little less than two days to conceive and rehearse the final plan. There was no way to make a detailed plan, so many points uncovered were left to the discretion of the command post and the military commanders upon execution of the operation.

During the Congo rescue mission, time was running out also, but the most complicated aspect was to make a quick plan involving American air crew members and Belgian paratroopers and coordinate it with France and Spain. In the plan, there was a stage of deception, and "the move to Ascension was to be described as a 'joint US-Belgian long-range airborne training exercise'."l0 Who would have bought it? Hundreds of hostages are being held in the Congo and by sheer chance 12 C-130s are landing paratroopers on an island not far from the Congo coast. It is better not to mention something unwise and attract unwanted attention, as happened in this operation. The plan to drop the paratroopers near the Stanleyville airport to capture the airfield so as to let the rest of the C-130s land was too time-consuming and complicated. In such operations involving hostages, time is of the essence. Instead of waiting for the C-130s with the jeeps to land, it was determined that jeeps would be airdropped with the troops so that the vanguard of the assault force would be able to continue immediately to the city while the rest of the force organized and followed the assault team.

In the Iranian rescue mission attempt, there was probably too much time. As stated in the Holloway Report:

Planning was adequate except for the number of backup helicopters and provisions for weather contingencies. A larger helicopter force and better provisions for weather penetration would leave increased the probability of mission success.11

I disagree. A failure of two of eight helicopters as a planning assumption is reasonable, and the planners' counting on better serviceability with the Marine helicopters is logical. I find the plan (up to Desert One) very good, but the fact that the planners chose (or were instructed) to let the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines participate in one special operation only complicated the later preparation and the command and control. An equal share of credit to all the services is not an essential element of a rescue plan––success is. Presenting the plan to the pilots only after arriving at the forward operating location (probably in Egypt) was also a flaw. One of the pilots noted in his ACSC student report: "We were all anxious to see the real plan. It turned out to be quite a surprise."12 Despite the need for operational security (OPSEC), this failure to acquaint the pilots with the particulars of the plan beforehand was a flaw in the operation.

The planners of the Son Tay raid also had adequate planning time. They could afford to make as nearly perfect a plan as possible, and it was excellent except for the intelligence failure. However, I find the massive deception operation by the Navy after two years of no Navy strikes quite implausible, particularly since they were dropping flares instead of bombs. However, since there were many Navy fliers being held, I suppose service pride would demand that the Navy also participate. I think that the deception effort was unnecessary and possibly had the potential to alert the North Vietnamese. Overall, too many personnel were involved in the operation, and too many questions were asked later. Getting into the details of the medical evacuation of the prisoners was also unnecessary and violated the principles of OPSEC. Brigadier General Donald D. Blackburn (the father of the operation), after taking part in this section of the planning, was worried about alerting the North Vietnamese and what "could be done to prevent that system from 'going hot.' "13 I also find that too much equipment was planned for a mission such as this when the weight of the helicopters was so critical (air refueling and the planned crash landing into Son Tay). To quote a participant:

It was quite an arsenal for 56 men, 111 weapons in all…11 axes, 12 pairs of wirecutters…150 cans of water, 100 cans of survival food…and so on.14

Going to such great detail is obvious when there is sufficient time, but doing so may hurt the security around the operation and may create a situation where there is a problem dealing with unnecessary details. It is fair to say that this was not the issue in the Son Tay raid. In this rescue attempt, the real problem lay in the nature of the intelligence.


Israel collects intelligence data relating to her Arab neighbors, since she is still engaged in a hostile relationship with most of these countries. But no information was available concerning African Uganda. How can one plan without having basic knowledge of the situation? The Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Mordechai Gur, said:

A second point was that intelligence data was not sufficiently complete, and for an operation like this with all its possibilities, it is very important that intelligence should be as precise as possible.15

So, handicapped by a lack of critical intelligence data, the intelligence community started to work. Information about the airport at Entebbe was not a problem. In open publications, one can get the runways, taxiways, towers, terminals, obstacles, and all other needed information. Some information about the Ugandan forces could be gleaned from the passengers who had passed through that airport. Good information about the terrorists, their weapons, and locations was available from non-Israelis who had been released a few days before the raid. In a short time, as complete a picture as possible had been fleshed out.

In contrast, intelligence played almost no part in the Mogadishu rescue operation. The only consideration was that the Germans were determined to follow the hijacked plane until it landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, using civilian controls and commercial pilots. This particular operation was almost reflexive in nature, reacting to the development of events and responding appropriately.

Conversely, intelligence played a vital part from the very beginning of the Mayaguez incident.

Within a few minutes Jim Larkins and his Ready Alert Bird were airborne. By 1410 Zulu, or 10:30 p.m. at Cubi Point Naval Air Station, Jim Messegee, had received his first report on the Mayaguez. It was too dark for Larkins and his crew to eyeball the ship. But they could see the captured merchant vessel on their radar screens as a bigtarget flanked by two little targets.16

From that time, the area of action was covered nonstop by reconnaissance and surveillance planes, which gave the decisionmakers a very good picture. Coverage was so good that the pilot of the P-3 reported Caucasian faces on a fishing boat, a fact that supplied a crucial bit of information about the location of the Mayaguez's crew.

For the planners of Dragon Rouge, the rescue mission in the Congo, accurate and current information was not available on the situation in Stanleyville.

They were planning in the dark without information of antiaircraft defenses, rebel strength, and location in the city, or even of the location of the 800 or so hostages they were supposed to find and evacuate.17

As was the case in the Entebbe raid, reconnaissance was not possible because an airplane flying over the target would risk triggering carnage among the hostages. The only intelligence available for the rescuers' use were some photographs taken far out on the outskirts of the city. Even without the intelligence, the execution phase was well executed.

In the Son Tay raid, poor intelligence proved to be the pivotal issue. The obvious material about the routing and the threat were done very carefully and over a considerable period of time, but the main question remained whether the POW's were still in Son Tay.

Did some senior members of the intelligence community know in July or early August that the prisoners at Son Tay had been moved? Were they moved because of a flood caused by American rainmaking operations?…In August of 1970, the Son Tay planners knew only of "decreased activity" at the prison compound.18

High-altitude air photos were made when weather permitted, but low-level photography was not performed near the time of the operation for security reasons. Last-minute problems with the SR-71 and bad weather the last days before the raid put the decisionmakers on a 50-50 chance basis. But as things turned out, Son Tay had been empty for some months. I cannot believe the U.S. intelligence community, with all its sophisticated equipment and well-trained personnel, could not find out that simple fact. It was a sad ending to an otherwise beautiful operation.

I must assume that the decision to let the rescue mission go into Tehran involved very delicate, complicated, and courageous activity on the part of intelligence personnel. But little was known about the situation in Iran at the beginning of the hostage crisis.

There was no immediate hope of getting better information on the whereabouts of the hostages. The seizure of the embassy had left the CIA without a single agent in Iran.19

I do not know whether this statement is accurate, but I suspect that it is not far from the truth.

I suppose that to prepare such a complicated operation took a lot of effort and talent from numerous highly skilled personnel. I cannot comment more than that, due to a lack of inside information, but there is one question that has bothered me since I learned of it. Why was Desert One chosen, so near a major road? Were there not other places to land the aircraft in this huge desert? I know from experience that trained crewmembers can land C-130s on all kinds of runways, dust included, after the necessary crew preparation. I suppose these questions and others like them will eventually, be answered in someone's memoirs, but possibly not for quite some time.


The Holloway Report said:

Preparation for the mission was adequate except for the lack of a comprehensive, full-scale training exercise. Operational readiness of the force would have benefited from a full-dress rehearsal.20

I find this information quite surprising. A rendezvous of eight helicopters and five C-130s in a remote desert field, at night, in enemy territory is an extremely complicated thing to do. Every crewmember must necessarily know perfectly what is going on––when and where. The only way to do this is by means of comprehensive rehearsals. If there were to be an accident, by all means let it be in the desert of Nevada and not in Iran. I learned from one of the participants the unbelievable fact that "none of us had ever landed on sand before."21

Landing on sand creates many problems, and the last place on earth one wants to face them for the first time is on an actual operation deep in enemy territory. Although, as I learned from the ACSC student report, the participants did finally manage to accomplish some training on a dirt strip, it was, in reality, a matter of too little, too late. Crews that are candidates for these types of missions should have years of training and experience if the mission is to have any reasonable chance of success.

Another disturbing fact is that the choppers did not practice refueling on the ground with the C-130s. An unusual, extremely difficult, and complicated maneuver like this being done for the first time on the mission itself? In the words of the student report, "I couldn't believe they were having so much trouble with the refueling maneuver since I assumed they had practiced it before."22 So, if I were responsible for preparing a report on the Iranian rescue mission, I would phrase my report differently. I would begin, "Preparation for the mission was not adequate, because of......"

In preparing for the Son Tay operation, the Army and Air Force carefully selected personnel to participate in the raid. Brigadier General Leroy J. Manor and Colonel Arthur D. Simons, the Air Force and Army commanders of the raid, selected a training site at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. They chose Eglin's Auxiliary Field Number 3.

History was repeating itself: the Doolittle Raiders had trained nearby 28 years earlier ... a mockup of the Son Tay compound [was] built so that the assault could be rehearsed under terrain conditions as close to those in North Vietnam as could be found in the United States.23

Since time was not a critical factor, such a plan was the best idea to ensure the best training and preparation for the mission. To avoid possible security leaks, the mockup was built so that it could be dismantled during daylight hours. And since the training took place mainly at night, it was that much more realistic. Updating the details about the Son Tay compound was possible by the photo data provided by the SR-71 flights as well as those of photo drones. However, as none of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) personnel were cleared for this operation, I fully agree with the officer from the SAC Reconnaissance Center who said, "a more intimate knowledge of the requirements would [have aided] considerably in obtaining the desired coverage."24

The flying part of the preparation was very intensive and dealt extensively with all kinds of required maneuvers. Again, as time was not a factor, there was nothing wrong with giving so much attention to such a wide-scale training and preparation program. But if the situation had been time-critical and the crew members had had only days, not months, to train, luxuries like basic training in night flying, refueling practice, and close-formation work would not have been available. These skills should be in the blood and marrow of crewmembers designated for such missions of a special nature.

The Mogadishu rescue mission was certainly an example of launching a mission without preparation at all. This kind of operation can succeed only if there is a special force available that is not only specifically trained but maintained in readiness through continuous training. It must be stated here that the Mogadishu operation, although brilliantly executed, was relatively simpler than these other raids.

In the case of the Mayaguez incident, there simply was not time for the Navy, Marines, and Air Force personnel involved to prepare. They had to react in a real-time situation with what was available at hand. Parallel to reconnaissance flights of P-3 aircraft from the Philippines, "the Third Marine Division on Okinawa was alerted [with] 1,100 Marines ... flown to Utapao Air Base in Thailand."25 Also, Navy destroyers and an aircraft carrier were rushed to the scene. Even so powerful a nation as the United States cannot be prepared to respond globally to all terrorist situations instantaneously, but I pose the question of whether it would not have been better to have used a specially trained force to assault the island and the ship rather than relying on an incidental unit that happened to be in the proximate vicinity to do the job. There was clearly time to fly such a force from a centrally located U.S. base. In my opinion, having a number of units like this is a part of readiness and preparation. Such units could respond as a fire department extinguishing the small blazes that erupt but would leave the job of overall national defense to the regular forces.

In Dragon Rouge in the Congo, the Americans and Belgians had not rehearsed jointly before undertaking the actual operation. More than that,"… the Belgians and the Americans involved had never before participated in a joint airborne exercise, nor had the Belgian paratroopers ever jumped from C-130 aircraft."26 Thus, there was more involved here than simply never having rehearsed before. Both applicable training and basic understanding between the joint forces were lacking. Even the languages were not the same, so communication was naturally difficult. I would venture to say that it took a great deal of intestinal fortitude (or irresponsibility?) to approve the execution of a mission under such distinctly adverse operational conditions.

In Israel, under the threat of the hijackers' ultimatum, very intensive preparations for the Entebbe raid were carried out. According to the Israeli Chief of Staff:

I flew with the squadron commander and the pathfinder navigator and posed them certain problems to see how they would be solved. After two hours of flight, I decided that the air aspect was strongly enough covered.27

A full rehearsal was held the night before the operation including all Air Force and Army participants, with all the aircraft and vehicles and even a stylized mockup of the Entebbe terminal, pieced together in a few hours' time. In practice, everything went off without a hitch. Further training was unnecessary, since all those involved had a thorough grasp of the basics and knew the business at hand. All that remained now was the execution.

Execution and Command,
Control and Communications

Command control, and communications (C3) in the Mogadishu operation was basically an improvisation. From the beginning, the Germans tried to maintain contact with the hijacked Lufthansa airliner by asking control centers and individual pilots to provide information. The two Boeings that followed––the one with Wischnewski, the State Secretary, escorted by a group of troops from GSG9, and the other 707 with a second group of the same unit––were in constant communication with Frankfurt; the orders they were receiving were directly from the Chancellor. As it was difficult to continue giving orders in light of rapidly moving events, an urgent message came from Schmidt, "The Minister (Wischnewski) has a free hand in all ... negotiations with the countries."28 Certainly, this decision not to waste valuable time in lengthy communications played an important role in the success of the mission. Later in the operation, the 707 with the GSG9 group was ordered to land in Djibouti, which was a mistake because of operational security as well as the possibility of the aircraft's developing technical trouble. As it turned out, they did not land because of probing questions originating from Djibouti. Then they were ordered to land after dark at Mogadishu and to execute the operation. Under these adverse circumstances, C3 was the best that was possible. After their disastrous rescue attempt of the Israeli hostages at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, the Germans had established the Grenzschutzgruppe Neun/GSG9, which was later commanded by Colonel Ulrich Wegener. This group performed to perfection in Mogadishu.

In reviewing the U.S. rescue mission attempted in Iran the Holloway group found:

Command and control was excellent at upper echelons but became more tenuous and fragile at intermediate levels. Command relationships below the Commander, JTF, were not clearly emphasized in some cases and were susceptible to misunderstanding under pressure.29

It is true that the highly sophisticated means of communication allowed the President to command the operation from Washington. But was it necessary? Is it to the benefit of the success of an operation like this to have such a long, complicated chain of command? The President had to make the decision to execute, and this is reasonable in his role as Commander in Chief. However, I would contend that the responsible military officer on the scene of the operation should make operational decisions. Only if, in the onsite commander's opinion, the situation warrants a decision of a political nature should the marvels of high-tech communication be used to secure an answer. A decision to abort a mission because of technical problems is clearly a decision of a professional military commander. The fact that Army, Air Force, and Marine personnel were in the same spot at Desert One contributed to the "misunderstanding under pressure."

As for the performance itself, the C- 130's part of the mission was faultless, the Marines' RH53Ds were not good enough for an operation like this, and the terrible accident was the result of failure to rehearse under such conditions and sheer bad luck. Accidents can and do happen. As for the part of the mission that was never executed, I do not have the necessary details to present an informed opinion. It must, of necessity, have been an exceptionally difficult operation requiring maximum courage; and had it succeeded, it would have become the operation of the century.

In operation Thunderball to Entebbe, command and control was from military headquarters directly to the lead pilot in the first stage. Upon landing and within a half hour later, command and control was directed to the forces executing the rescue from an Israeli Air Force 707 that flew in the vicinity at the critical time with the deputy commander of the armed forces and the commander of the Air Force. During the remaining time on the ground, command was passed to Brigadier General Dan Shomron, on site at Entebbe. The ability to talk home was there, and it was used mainly as an information channel. Operational decisions were made, as they should be whenever possible, at the scene of the action.

A participant in the Iran rescue mission writes:

The scenario for the Entebbe raid was ridiculously simple when compared to ours. Their target was a lightly defended, remote airfield. Ours was a heavily defended target in the middle of Tehran. The Israelis, by their own admission, were willing to lose hostages during their rescue. We were not. To compare the two missions was totally out of line and showed a definite lack of insight into military operation.30

I accept without reservation that getting into Tehran was more complicated than getting into Entebbe, but the part of the operation up to Desert One was not. I believe that the planners of the Tehran rescue mission, like the Israeli planners, assessed that they would suffer casualties in their operation. And as to the simplicity of the Entebbe operation, there was a serious effort made to keep things simple because simple plans can have fewer things to go wrong––i.e., they have a higher chance of success. In philosophy there is the test of any hypothesis, called Occam's razor, which maintains that in choosing between two similar hypotheses, the simpler is preferred. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said after the Entebbe raid:

This perfect operation was the fruit of imagination, initiative, boldness, and many years of training. It was performed by young men, both conscripts and regular army, who traveled a long way in a very short time after a minimum of preparation.31

As in the case of the Entebbe operation, actual military activity to free the Mayaguez and her crewmembers began immediately. Not only were reconnaissance and surveillance flights made, but USAF aircraft flew strike missions as described by one of the crew members of the Mayaguez: "F-4 Phantoms ... swooped down to strafe and rocket in front and back of the Mayaguez.32 Later on, under direct orders from the White House, F-4s, A-7s, and F-111s sank Cambodian gunboats and tried to prevent a fishing boat carrying the captured crew from getting ashore to the mainland. "We told the aircraft," said the President, "that they should use whatever legitimate means they could to head off either the ships to the mainland or vice versa."33

That was an especially effective order, because without being able to control the happenings from nearby, the best means is to convey intent to the onsite commander and to allow him to improvise the means of execution. As matters turned out, this course of action was extremely effective and helped the Cambodians understand the magnitude of their act and the fact that the Americans were not bluffing.

But subsequent activity seemed to many observers an overreaction, considering the nature of the situation. Attacks on selected targets on the mainland were perceived as punishment of the Cambodians (which they deserved) rather than a necessity for the rescue operation. Certain aspects of the military execution are interesting. I am not clear as to the need to consider the use of B-52s other than that they had previously been used to considerable effect elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The use of a C-130 to drop the 15,000-pound bomb to clear a helicopter landing zone is interesting. However, I feel that the heavy casualties sustained by the Marines and their helicopters were unjustified in an operation such as this where the preponderance of force was clearly on the side of the United States.

After the debacle in Southeast Asia, the United States needed an operation like the Mayaguez.

... the success of the action provided more than a soothing balm to the American psyche and a lift for US allies. Most important, the incident in the Gulf of Siam was a clear statement, in this uncertain time, of the firm intention of the President of the US.34

Although I think that militarily the execution could have been performed more efficiently, I admire the brazen self-confidence of the U.S. administration and the bravery of the U.S. Marines in carrying out the rescue. The captain of the Mayaguez said later: "I cried. People were killed trying to save me."35

While no one was killed in the Son Tay raid, men at least risked their lives to save the unfortunate prisoners of war from their North Vietnamese captors. Brigadier General Leroy J. Manor commanded the operation from his command post near Da Nang. Possibly, this site was a bit far from the scene of the action, but it was the best available under the circumstances and was better than having the operation conducted from Washington. Unfortunately for the success of the operation, the sophisticated technology so important in a remote command like this failed to meet the needs of the situation. Consequently, "Manor [was] able to pick up only a hazy picture of what had happened at Son Tay."36

Actually, the real command of the operation was in the hands of the participants, namely Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons. The Pentagon command center followed the actions with a few minutes' delay. Good C3 requires all three components (command, control, and communications) to be effective. But in the case of Son Tay, communications failed at a crucial moment and "the commander of the raid [was left] without his eyes and ears."37

However, the operation itself went smoothly. Refueling at low altitude and at night is a difficult operation, particularly when there is turbulence. In this operation, it went off without a problem. The landing itself inside the prison was possibly a bit too hard, but nothing adverse happened; the mistake Simon's pilot made of landing 400 meters off target was recovered quickly and efficiently. Bull Simons said later:

What are you telling me, Don, that we got a black eye? I'm not mad at anybody. I thought the thing was great. Okay, so we didn't get them. Christ, the thing was worth doing without getting them.38

There was doubt as to whether the POWs were there. This doubt may have been justified but too many people wanted to go anyway. Don Blackburn admitted later, "I didn't want to know, I wanted to go."39 And go they did, outstandingly, save for the nonpresence of the POWs.

The command problem in the Congo was equally complicated. Just who was to be in command, an American officer or a Belgian?

In the joint planning [phase] ... [it was] agreed that the United States would have operational responsibility for the joint command right up to the assault on the drop zone, when the Belgian commander would take over.40

This was an admirable agreement, The question within the U.S. command structure of moving from one command to another (from USEUCOM to STRICOM) was solved by the expedient of turning command over to the Belgians on reaching Congo soil.

The use of a specially configured C-130 as a "'Talking Bird" for communications was a very important component in an operation in that part of the world. This is particularly true since Washington disapproved a request to use the Collins radio of the onsite U.S. Army liaison officer, Lieutenant Colonel Donald V. Rattan, to coordinate the military activity in the area and to report to Leopoldville. "This was a strange answer since Rattan was already within the column, and a classic example of a political override of sound military common sense."41 I must agree, very strange indeed.

Performance during the execution phase was very good. The C-130s dropped the paratroopers who secured the airfield, allowing the other commandos to land with the vehicles. One C-130 with four armored jeeps was an hour late. As it turned out, the Belgian commander's decision to wait for the jeeps was a sad mistake. In an operation involving hostages, time and surprise are terribly important. The delay in this case cost some of the hostages their lives. In retrospect, the Belgian commander should have moved quickly without the four jeeps. Other than this mistake, Dragon Rouge was a very well-executed operation without extensive preparation and with simple C3.

Terrorism can be stopped if the international community is willing to take up the fight. To do so will require firm stands by the heads of state because of predictable international repercussions in some quarters. For example, the Soviets considered "any move into the Congo ... as serious interference in the internal affairs of another state."42 Such an attitude is not conducive to saving the lives of hostages as in the Congo situation, where women and children became victims of massacre, rape, and carnage. Was there any other way to save them? I do not claim to have the answer, but what does matter is that most of them were, in fact, saved.

Hence, governments must have the will to use counterforce when fighting transnational terrorism. They must also understand that it is necessary to take this step as early as possible in such a complicated situation because waiting often provokes the inevitable with innocent people suffering needlessly. Specially trained antiterrorist units should be ready at all times to react instantly to transnational terrorist activity. There is no time for basic training. It may be impossible to be prepared for all potential contingencies, but there are certain basic rules and procedures to follow in a hostage situation and military skills that can be sharpened. By keeping the force at a high state of readiness, much time can and will be saved, as well as many lives of both hostages and rescuers. Although planning cannot account for all future scenarios, trained planners should be constantly updated on new developments and available at any hour of the day or night. In addition, those who are to participate should be a part of the planning process. Basic knowledge about equipment needed for airborne operations should be available immediately. There is no need to think and plan some things; for example, a flyaway kit for a C-130 that is going to land in the desert could be prepositioned for immediate use. This kind of information should be ready in the form of checklists for special operations. Since one plan is not enough, there must always be an alternative, However, five plans are too many. It becomes confusing for the political decisionmakers to decide from many possible alternatives. Also, it is advisable for crews to practice on the actual equipment they will use in the crisis.

Deceptions and diversionary tactics are important, even essential in some instances. But they must be scrutinized with great care. An overly elaborate ruse can cause the other party to become suspicious and can become a two-edged sword. Also, whenever possible, it is better if the participants know one another personally and have an idea of one another's capabilities. In operations requiring precision, success or failure may depend on knowing what the other members of the operation are able to do.

Still another factor is important to mission success. There is no place in a hostage rescue for service proportionality; it must not matter who is doing what or how much. The hostages, with their lives on the line, do not care whether the Air Force may be doing more than the Marines. Nor can a rescue operation be measured by a balanced budget. Whatever cost must be paid should be paid up front. In such a situation, another spare can never be considered too many. As a general rule, terrorists are more frightened and less experienced than the troops confronting them, and this extra measure of fear and inexperience must be taken into consideration. While it may be to the advantage of the rescuers, it may drive terrorists to irrational acts, needlessly endangering the hostages. Allied to this is the nature of operational security, which is a necessary part of any mission, but the mission is paramount. Thus, OPSEC must not drive the mission.

As examination of the various operations has amply demonstrated, C3 is an essential part of any operation. Ideally, it should be kept as simple as possible. It is not necessary for everyone to know everything every minute of an operation. That the commander on the scene of action should have authority goes without saying, yet this is too often ignored, with political considerations taking priority over military necessity. The commander on the scene has the picture because he knows the objectives, and he was specially chosen for the job. He can be depended on to do it. And, in this regard, there should be a margin of tolerance for changes and improvisations by the field commander. There is no way to cover all the possibilities in planning; and even if there is time, excess information may cause confusion under the pressures of the situation.

Debriefing after the operation should be as sharp as a razor. There can be no overly polite smoothing-over of what took place. Everything must be examined in a cold light with a severely critical eye. Mistakes should be emphasized and analyzed carefully. Violations must be condemned and punished. There is no room for compromise in special airborne raids. Failure to assess an operation realistically is setting the stage for future disaster.

In special airborne raids, medals and decorations are necessary but should be awarded only for truly exceptional performance––not across the board to everyone who took part. Otherwise, the awards and decorations become valueless and lose their meaning.

Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhah Rabin said after the Entebbe raid:

The Entebbe hijacking was not the first terror action nor, sorrowfully, will it be the last. Events since Entebbe have confirmed that. Yet we are steadfast in our determination not to allow terror to harm us. We shall strike at them, in any place and at every opportunity.43

The nations of the Free World have the capability to counter transnational terrorism; indeed, they have the right to counter it. Have they the will to counter it? Time will tell. One thing is sure: airborne raids against transnational terrorism are effective tools, as has been shown time and again.

Air War College
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


1. "Raids and National Command," Military Review, April 1980, p. 20.

2. Fred E. Wagoner, Dragon Rouge: The Rescue of Hostages in the Congo (Washington: National Defense University, 1980), p. 203.

3. Roy Rowan, The Four Days of Mayaguez (New York: 1975), p. 69.

4. Ibid., pp. 69-70.

5. "A Detour to Dubai," Newsweek, 24 October 1971, 24 October 1971, p. 62.

6. "The Iranian Hostage Rescue Attempt," ACSC Student Report (Maxwell AFB, Alabama, March 1982), p. 3. Hereafter referred to as ACSC Student Report.

7. Wagoner, p. 163.

8. Rowan, p. 142.

9. Ibid., p. 42.

10. Wagoner, p. 143.

11. Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret), Chairman, Special Operations Review Group, "Department of Defense Rescue Mission Report," Washington, 23 August 1980. Also referred to as the Holloway Report.

12. ACSC Student Report, p. 26.

13. Benjamin F. Schemmer, The Raid, (New York, 1976), p. 168.

14. Ibid., pp. 193, 194.

15. Israeli Defense Force spokesperson, press conference with Israeli Chief of Staff, 8 July 1976.

16. Rowan, p. 72.

17. Wagoner, p. 132.

18. Schemmer, p. 96.

19. "Inside the Rescue Mission," Newsweek, 12 July 1982, p. 17.

20. Holloway Report, p. 3.

21. ACSC Student Report, p. 26.

22. Holloway Report, p. 37.

23. Schemmer, p. 91.

24. Ibid., p. 98.

25. Rowan, p. 69.

26. Wagoner, p. 133.

27. Israeli Defense Force spokesperson, press conference with Israeli Chief of Staff, 8 July 1976.

28. "Terror and Triumph at Mogadishu," Time, 31 October 1977, p. 43.

29. Holloway Report, p. 3.

30. ACSC Student Report, p. 50.

31. Ben-Porat, Entebbe Rescue (New York, 1977), Introduction.

32. Rowan, p. 83.

33. Ibid., pp. 90-91.

34. "A Strong But Risky Show of Force," Time, 26 May 1975, p. 18.

35. "Ford's Rescue Operation," Newsweek, 12 July 1982, p. 27.

36. Schemmer, p. 211.

37. Ibid., p. 212.

38. Ibid., p. 266.

39. Ibid.

40. Wagoner, p. 133.

41. Ibid., p. 162.

42. Ibid., p. 164.

43. Ben-Porat, Introduction.


Colonel Joshua Shani is an Israeli Air Force Wing Commander who served in the 1967 War, the War of Attrition, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As a Squadron Commander, he flew the lead ship in the Entebbe raid. Colonel Shani is a graduate of the Israeli Air Force Academy and the USAF Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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