Operation Eagle Claw

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Due to the criticism Carter received for ignoring the safety of American citizens, he finally ordered a small-scale rescue mission on April 24, 1980, after 173 days of captivity. Operation Eagle Claw, as it was codenamed, was a total and complete failure due to poor leadership and management.[1]

Contents

Political Motives

There is some speculation that since in late April 1980, President Jimmy Carter was losing ground to challenger Ted Kennedy in a close primary for the Democratic nomination for president. Carter's main weakness was the ongoing Iran Hostage Crisis, and Operation Eagle Claw was an attempt to free (or at least appear to try to free) those hostages.[2]

The impetus for the rescue mission was not, as Carter had often claimed it would be, that the lives of the hostages were in immediate danger; in fact, Carter and all of his advisers believed that the hostages would be kept alive and unharmed for at least three months, as indicated by the memo above. Again, on April 23rd, only hours before the rescue mission was to commence, Carter received a last-minute intelligence report which Carter states in his memoirs that the heart of the memo was that "there was little prospect of the hostages' release within the next five or six months" (Carter 1982, pg. 513). Why was this time frame of five to six months so important to Carter? It is at least interesting to note that at the time of Carter’s decision, the November election was just over six months away.

Excecution and Failure

Eight U.S. helicopters were deployed in the Iranian desert before heading to Tehran. Despite requests from the mission commander, no spare helicopters were permitted, even though the commander warned that losing more than two helicopters would doom the mission.

Due to flying too low, sand caused equipment failure in two of the helicopters, so the rescue mission was called off before it was even really started. When the Americans began retreating, a helicopter crashed, killing eight American servicemen. The bodies were recovered by Iranian forces, and used in a street demonstration protesting the “invasion.” Khomeini credited the “victory” to the divine intervention of Allah on his behalf. This increased Khomeini’s ever-growing support from the Iranian public.

... the helicopter pilots were told to fly at or below 200 feet to avoid radar. This limitation caused them to run into a haboob, or dust storm, that they could not fly over without breaking the 200 foot limit. Two helicopters lost sight of the task force and landed, out of action. [1]

A second rescue attempt was conceived but not implemented.

Analysis and Criticism

An analysis published by Maxwell Air Force Base said:

In 1980, President Carter authorized OPERATION EAGLE CLAW, a joint military service operation, to rescue hostages at the American embassy in Iran. The plan called for resources from all four services, including Air Force C-130 and C-141 aircraft, Navy helicopters, and Army Delta Force Rangers. The mission was overly complex and lacked an overarching organizational structure to assume command and control of operational forces. These factors, coupled with a lack of planning and other operational mishaps encountered during the employment phase, led to the mission being aborted at the initial landing site that was designated as “DESERT ONE.” The Air Force was doctrinally unprepared to enter into the complicated joint and conventional operations posed by OPERATION EAGLE CLAW. The failed operation raised serious doubts regarding the ability of the Air Force and the other services to effectively integrate as a joint team. [2]

Delta Force commander Col. Charles Beckwith said:

"...the assault plan was sketchy. Its chances for success were very slender indeed. The basic scenario looked very complicated. It also revealed that at this time the Armed Forces of the United States had neither the present resources nor the present capabilities to pull it off. [3]

A naval combat officer in the RSN said that the rescue plan was complex and tightly-coupled task, i.e., "an accident waiting to happen" [4]

Veteran Navy SEAL "Demo Dick" Marcinko lambasted the Carter Pentagon for poor planning and micromanagement and suffered a whistleblower's penalty.

External links

by LTA Chua Lu Fong

Notes

  1. The mission was overly complex and lacked an overarching organizational structure to assume command and control of operational forces. These factors, coupled with a lack of planning and other operational mishaps encountered during the deployment phase, led to the mission being aborted at the initial landing site that was designated as “DESERT ONE.” The Air & Space Power course - U.S. Military
  2. http://72.14.209.104/search?q=cache:67hJq9Z_RBUJ:sobek.colorado.edu/~isaacson/Research_files/Isaacson-%2520National%2520Interest%2520vs.%2520Re-election.pdf+%22Ted+Kennedy%22+%22Jimmy+Carter%22+%22Operation+Eagle+Claw%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us
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