Document created: 21 september 2006
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Tercer  Trimestre 2006


Operation Eagle Claw: The Iran Hostage Rescue Mission

Charles Tustin Kamps

Operation Eagle Claw

On November 4, 1979, more than 3,000 Iranian militant students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
66 Americans were seized and held hostage, precipitating a confrontation with the United States. The result of this
crisis would change the course of a presidency, and affect the relations between the two nations.

In military history one can stand out as a splendid example or a disastrous reminder. The brave men who attempted to rescue American hostages in Iran in April of 1980 unfortunately became a disastrous reminder of the need for unity of command, joint training, and good communications, and the dangers of overly complex and needlessly compartmented planning. The failure of their mission, Operation Eagle Claw, would be a prime motivator in the subsequent formation of US Special Operations Command.

Ayatolah Ruhollah Khomeini

Ayatolah Ruhollah Khomeini

Background

In the late 1970s, the regime of the Shah of Iran, long a regional bulwark against the USSR, lost favor with the Iranian people and was overturned by an Islamic theocracy under the leadership of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah left the country and was finally allowed to enter the United States for cancer treatment by President Jimmie Carter. Demanding the Shah’s return, the Iranian revolutionary government seized the US Embassy compound in Tehran on 4 November 1979, taking American diplomatic personnel hostage. After selective release of some prisoners, the number of Americans finally being held amounted to some 53 on the Embassy grounds, and a further three, including US Chargé d'Affaires, Bruce Laingen, at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

President Carter sought a diplomatic solution, but Khomeini would have none of it. He preferred to use the hostage issue as an embarrassment to the Carter administration, which it indeed remained until Carter’s last day in office. As a secondary solution, the President approved planning for a military option, on the proviso that it be kept secret. At the time there was no joint special operations command to take up the mission, leaving Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs David Jones little option but to stand up an ad hoc planning cell from within the Joint Staff’s J-3 Special Operations Division. This was done and on 12 November the operational planning group was dubbed “Rice Bowl.”

President Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter

Major General James B. Vaught (US Army) was appointed Joint Task Force commander, and a team of officers was assembled to lead the various components, including: Colonel Charles A. Beckwith (founder of the Army’s new Delta Force counter-terrorist group) to be the ground assault commander; Colonel James H. Kyle (long-time USAF MC-130 special operator) to command the fixed wing contingent; and Marine Lieutenant Colonel Edward Seiffert (an experienced night-vision flyer) to lead the helicopter force. From the beginning the idea that all the services should have a “piece of the action” plagued the operation and led to bad decisions. This was the first major mistake.

 

Planning

In the realm of military planning there are plans that might work and plans that won’t work. In the cold light of history it is evident that the plan for Eagle Claw was in the second category, but since the planning process was deliberately kept compartmented and secretive, no outside group could review the finished plan for a “reality check.” This was the second major mistake.

General James James Vaught and Colonel Charles Beckwith

From the left to right, General James James Vaught, commander of the Eagle Claw mission and Colonel Charles Beckwith, founder of the Delta Force antiterrorism group.

The concept seemed straight forward enough: from the Persian Gulf penetrate to the capital of Iran through a variety of air and ground means; secure the hostages; and exit Iran through another variety of air means. The devil is in the details however, and to say that the plan for accomplishing Eagle Claw was overly complex would be an understatement. It would require the proverbial seven simultaneous miracles for Eagle Claw to work. The only way this can be brought home to the reader with sufficient magnitude is to provide a thumbnail outline of the way the plan was supposed to work:

1. First night: USS Coral Sea decoys Soviet “trawlers” away from USS Nimitz (carrying eight RH-53D Navy minesweeping helicopters to be used for the mission). Mistake: RH-53Ds were used because of operational
security (they looked “right” on a carrier), in spite of having a bad operational readiness rating and no in-flight refueling capability. USAF HH-3E special operations helicopters would have been a better choice, with steps
taken to disguise their appearance.

2. Three USAF MC-130E Combat Talons take off from Masirah Island (Oman) carrying the Delta Force, accompanied by three EC-130E aircraft (usually a command & control platform) which carry fuel bladders to refuel the helicopters at a rendezvous called Desert One. Mistake: Desert One would not have been necessary if USAF helicopters had been used and provisions made for in-flight refueling.

Map of the planned operations

Map of the planned operations for the first night in Desert One

 

3. One MC-130E lands at Desert One (pre-surveyed by the CIA) and sets up navigation aids for the remaining force. Radio silence is maintained. Mistake: inadequate provision for tactical communications would prove a hindrance during the operation.

4. Remaining fixed wing aircraft arrive and drop off Delta Force. EC-130Es remain to refuel helicopters. Mistake: timing for ground rendezvous was very tight, and could not be met by participants. Possibility of having to continue in daylight.

5. Fixed wing aircraft depart Desert One for Masirah, where MC-130E crews board other aircraft for transport to Wadi Kena, Egypt. There they ready themselves for the second night when they are to transport an Army Ranger force to secure Manzariyeh airfield, Iran, where hostages will be extracted by C-141s. An interesting problem in overtaxing aircrews.

6. Helicopters depart Desert One and drop off Delta Force at a hide site 50 miles southeast of Tehran and then proceed to their own hide site elsewhere. More possibilities to compromise the operation.

Helicópters RH-53D Sea Stallions
Helicópters RH-53D Sea Stallions in the USS Nimitz

7. Delta Force meets with in-country agents providing trucks for overland movement to Tehran on night two.

8. Night two begins with Delta Force driving to a Tehran warehouse in six trucks to stage for the assault.

9. Delta Force moves to the Embassy compound (while a Special Forces team goes to the Foreign Ministry) and has 45 minutes to extract the hostages. Incomplete intelligence makes the extraction process hit-or-miss.

10. Hostages and escorts move a couple of hundred yards to a soccer stadium to meet with the helicopters for lift to Manzariyeh airfield, while being covered by an Air Force AC-130 gunship. The possibility of Iranians gaining a position to hinder the helicopter extraction is an ever-present problem.

Debris of an abandoned C-130 airplane

Debris of an abandoned Sea Stallion

Debris of an abandoned C-130 airplane in the Desert One base in Iran. Debris of an abandoned Sea Stallion helicopter in the Desert One base in Iran

11. MC-130Es deliver Rangers to Manzariyeh airfield to hold it and prepare for arrival of C-141s (from Saudi Arabia), and hostages in helicopters from Tehran. Other AC-130s provide covering fire.

An American hostage
With his eyes covered and his hands tied, an American hostage is paraded by young militants in front of the American Embassy in Tehran, on November 8, 1979.

12. Hostages arrive at Manzariyeh airfield by helicopter and depart in C-141s with Delta Force. Helicopters are destroyed in place. Provision for helicopter destruction not well thought out, and didn’t work in operation execution.

13. Carrier-based fighters provide suppression of any Iranian Air Force activity during the extraction process.

14. Air-to-air refueling provided as needed on return trip.

Finer pieces of coordination have been left out of the above outline, as well as the multiplicity of backup options which still did not cover many single point failure issues. The main theme here is that there was a lot that could go wrong. In the event, the things which did cause the mission to abort were probably merciful compared to the greater catastrophe which might have taken place if the scenario had progressed further than the Desert One rendezvous.

Training

Helicopter collided with a C-130

Helicopter number 6 collided with a C-130 in Desert One.

If planning was complex and compartmented, so was training. In order to make up for deficiencies in the chosen equipment, e.g., the helicopters, refueling on the ground at night had to be practiced in desert terrain. Marine pilots, who ended up flying almost all of the helicopters, had little experience in long distance flying over land with night vision goggles. They were not special operations personnel, and had no experience with sand storm conditions.

RH-53
RH-53 number 6 is abandoned after a crack is found on the main rotor blade

Component training was mainly carried out in widely separated locations: Hurlburt Field, Florida for the Air Force; Yuma, Arizona and Twenty-nine Palms, California for the Marines; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina for Delta Force. Rarely did participants see members from other services, and there was no “full up” dress rehearsal. In fact, problems which surfaced during training tended to reappear during the actual mission. However, crewmen seemed satisfied that their individual parts in the operation would work as expected, and they were confident of success.  

The Mission

 After five months of planning and preparation, the Eagle Claw participants were deployed for mission execution. Just after seven p.m. on the 24th of April, 1980, the eight helicopters (called “Bluebeard”) departed from the Nimitz, nearly 60 miles off the coast of Iran. They had been preceded by the EC-130 refuelers (“Republic”) and the MC-130s (“Dragon”), carrying Delta Force, from Masirah.

Less than two hours into the mission, Bluebeard 6 had an indicator light warn of a main rotor blade spar crack. This was often a false reading on RH-53Ds, but the crew landed (followed by Bluebeard 8) and decided to abandon the helicopter after inspecting the rotor blades. The two crews flew on to Desert One in Bluebeard 8. The mission was now down one helicopter.

Penetrating deep into Iran, the fixed wing contingent ran into a phenomenon called a “haboob” – fine dust particles which obscured vision. A short time later they ran into another haboob which was much more intense than the first one. Kyle attempted to warn the RH-53s, but had no luck with his communications gear. While these presented minor obstacles to the airplanes, they upset the cohesion of the helicopter flight, which had to disperse in order to avoid collision. The helicopter pilots had never even been briefed on the existence of haboob conditions, or their effects on low-flying formations. In the middle of this, Bluebeard 5 had an electrical power problem which convinced the crew to abort back to the Nimitz. Maintaining radio silence, they were unable to alert Kyle or Seiffert that they were pulling out. The mission was now down two helicopters.

A fuel truck burns

A bus is stopped and a fuel truck burns after being attacked during Desert One

The MC-130s and EC-130s arrived at Desert One after midnight without mishap and waited for the helicopters, over an hour past their scheduled arrival time. Delta Force debarked from two of the MC-130s which then, according to plan, departed from the scene. A Ranger team and Delta troopers set up security around the site and immediately had problems. A bus full of Iranian civilians had to be stopped and detained as it was passing through, and a fuel truck (probably run by smugglers) was shot with a 66mm rocket when it refused to stop. In the light of the burning fuel, the raiders could see the driver escape in a pickup truck which was following the tanker.

Six helicopters out of the original eight made it into Desert One. However, Bluebeard 2’s secondary hydraulic system indicated failure, and Seiffert made the call that it was “no go” for that helicopter. With only five helicopters left, Beckwith was forced to conclude that the mission could not go on, as six had been the agreed minimum needed for the operation. In reality, five may have sufficed, but Beckwith knew that the operation was tight – down to the last button – and he could not afford to risk mission collapse by continuing with only part of the force. A disappointed Kyle radioed Vaught (who was headquartered at Wadi Kena) and Washington recommending mission abort. Astoundingly, within 20 minutes the word had reached President Carter and gotten back down to Kyle to abort the mission.

As the force prepared to depart, Bluebeard 3 hovered into Republic 4 and started a conflagration which spread to other aircraft and killed eight men. In the confusion, Kyle made sure that all the live personnel were accounted for, released the Iranian civilians, and loaded up the surviving 130s to evacuate the area. Unfortunately some of the helicopters could not be reached for “sanitizing” and their classified material (including names of Iranians working for the Americans) fell into the hands of the revolutionary government.

After somewhat harrowing takeoffs, the remaining 130s got airborne and returned to Masirah. The agent contacts in Iran went to ground, and the other aircraft and units assigned supporting parts in the mission stood down.

Destroyed helicopter
Debris of a destroyed helicopter in Desert One during the failed rescue

Aftermath

After the failure of Eagle Claw, another even larger and more ambitious rescue planning effort was started, but it would go nowhere. The Iranian hostages and Desert One would continue to haunt Carter and help to elect his successor, Ronald Reagan.

Congress took an immediate interest in the flawed operation and both houses opened hearings. These faded rather quickly in favor of the Department of Defense’s Special Operations Review Group, better known as the Holloway Commission. This body examined some 23 issues and provided ten conclusions. While these highlighted some of the more egregious faults, they soft pedaled others.

The systemic problems which led to the outcome of Eagle Claw would not be comprehensively addressed until the advent of the Cohen-Nunn amendment to the Fiscal Year 1987 National Defense Authorization Act. This set up a joint US Special Operations Command to leverage the capabilities of the services, and provided for Major Force Program 11 (MFP 11), a dedicated funding mechanism for special operations that is independent of the services. The enduring legacy of Eagle Claw, therefore, is the highly successful special operations organization which now supports the war on terrorism.

For more information, consult:
Gabriel, Richard A. Military Incompetence, Why the American Military Doesn’t Win. Toronto: Collins Publishers, 1985.

Isby, David C. Leave No Man Behind, Liberation and Capture Missions. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004.

Russell, Edward T. “Crisis in Iran: Operation Eagle Claw” in Warnock, A. Timothy, ed., Short of War, Major USAF Contingency Operations 1947-1997. Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000.

Thigpen, Col. Jerry L. The Praetorian Starship: The Untold Story of the Combat Talon. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001.


The Fallen

The Fallen

By the end the prestigious group of special operations Delta Force had lost 8 of its members, 7 helicopters,
 a C-130 aircraft, and had not even made contact with the enemy. The mission was a complete disaster.


Colaborador

Charles Tustin Kamps Charles Tustin Kamps (BA, Norwich University; MA, Kansas State University) is currently professor of war gaming at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He previously served as a combat arms officer in both the US Army and the US Navy. He is a military historian who has authored numerous defense-related books and articles and has designed several commercially published war games and educational-software applications. His books include The History of the Vietnam War (1988), Armies of NATO’s Central Front (1985), and Peripheral Campaigns and the Principles of War (1982). He is a graduate of Air War College.

Declaración de responsabilidad:

Las ideas y opiniones expresadas en este artículo reflejan la opinión exclusiva del autor elaboradas y basadas en el ambiente académico de libertad de expresión de la Universidad del Aire. Por ningún motivo reflejan la posición oficial del Gobierno de los Estados Unidos de América o sus dependencias, el Departamento de Defensa, la Fuerza Aérea de los Estados Unidos o la Universidad del Aire. El contenido de este artículo ha sido revisado en cuanto a su seguridad y directriz y ha sido aprobado para la difusión pública según lo estipulado en la directiva AFI 35-101 de la Fuerza Aérea.


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