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Guest Column - Force Magazine
Think it Through

Special Forces’ Command may be required, but not without a long-term perspective

Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd) Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

On 23 April 1980, President James Carter and the top military hierarchy of the US assembled with bated breath, awaiting the outcome of the first operation by ‘Delta Force’, acknowledged today as one of the world’s premier Special Forces. Following the Iranian Revolution, students belonging to the ‘Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line’ had seized the American Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979, taking 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage.

President Carter evaluated various military options, including seizure of Iran’s oilfields, retaliatory bombing, imposing a total blockade of Iran, mining of harbours and a rescue attempt. His restraint initially earned the admiration of all, doubling his approval ratings. As time passed and continued diplomatic effort failed to provide a solution, restraint began to appear like weakness and indecision.

On 11 April 1980, over five months later, he finally opted for a rescue operation codenamed ‘Operation Eagle Claw’, leading to the resignation of his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in protest. The operation brought together manpower and resources from the US Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and the Central Intelligence Army (CIA), under the command of Maj. Gen. James Vaught, operating from Wadi Kena in Egypt, reporting directly to the President.

The Indian Navy’s Marcos during maritime security drills in the Krishna-Godavari Basin on 24 November 2010 The plan called for 120 Delta Force personnel under the command of Colonel Charles Beckwith, the creator of Delta Force, to fly from Masirah aboard an MC-130 aircraft to a disused airstrip in an uninhabited location named ‘Desert One’ about 300 miles South East of Tehran. Eight RH 53D Sea Stallion Helicopters from USS Nimitz, operating in the Gulf of Oman, would rendezvous with them there. The helicopters were essential to airlift Delta Force personnel into the vicinity of Tehran and airlift the team plus hostages out after rescue. A minimum of six were needed for the airlift; two were standby in case of failure. Three EC-130 aircraft were also to arrive at Desert One carrying fuel bladders to refuel the helicopters, which would already have flown near the limit of their ferry range. After refuelling, the helicopters and Delta Force personnel would move the same night to a hide called Desert Two, 50 miles short of Tehran, while the aircraft went back. The rescuers would be met at Desert Two by a covert CIA team led by Dick Meadows, who would take them the next night to Tehran aboard six hired Mercedes trucks. The Delta Force teams would then assault the foreign ministry building and the American Embassy and rescue the hostages. The helicopters would be called in to land in the Embassy parking lot (with a nearby stadium as an alternate helipad) and fly the hostages and assault team to Manzariyeh airport, South of Tehran. AC-130 gunships would provide air cover and prevent Iranian forces from interfering. A US Army Ranger team was tasked to fly in to seize Manzariyeh and hold it till the hostages arrived. The helicopters were then to be abandoned and all personnel flown out on C-141 Starlifter aircraft.

The plan started going wrong in the first phase itself. When Dick Meadows and his team surveyed Desert One in early April, they found the surface packed and hard, suitable for aircraft operations. A haboob (dust storm) a few days later dumped a large amount of fine sand into the site, resulting in a completely changed operating environment. The aircraft carrying fuel landed safely on 23 April 1980 despite another haboob, but the helicopters found the sand reducing visibility to near zero and going into their engines causing overheating. Two failed to reach Desert One due to equipment failure. A third arrived with a hydraulic defect that could not be repaired, leaving only five helicopters for transportation: necessitating trimming of the assault force. But a reduced assault force was not acceptable to Col Beckwith, so he aborted the rescue, a decision approved by President Carter.

The helicopters had to refuel to go back. Sand prevented ground taxiing. The helicopters had to hover taxi to refuel, throwing up large amounts of sand into the air, reducing visibility. During this process, one helicopter’s main rotor collided with a parked EC-130. The resulting fire and explosion killed five crew on the aircraft and three on the helicopter. The remaining helicopters were then abandoned and all personnel flew out on the EC-130s. President Carter believed that the failed rescue was a major factor in his re-election bid failing, amply justifying the need for special operations abroad to invariably be under the direct control of the highest political authority.

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