Desert One: From context to consequences | Mohammad Reza Pahlavi | Ruhollah Khomeini

WS 586

Research Paper

Desert One

From context to consequences

Chad KOHALYK War Studies Royal Military College

First Version, November 2006
9263 Words

In the spring of 1980 the United States launched a rescue mission to Iran to free 53 American hostages. It was the inaugural mission of the newly formed counter-terrorism team Delta Force. The mission failed and resulted in the death of eight American servicemen and the embarrassment of the President. No hostages were freed. The event has important significance in the transformation of the US military and how special operations forces are managed around the world. It is important that the debacle at Desert One be afforded a place of precedence in the study of special operations history. Much has been learned from it, and there is much yet to be learned. This paper will examine the history of the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw, why the hostage taking happened, what the rescue plan was and how the mission ended in failure. More importantly, the lessons learned from the disaster — and their consequences — will be presented and cross-examined. Though this paper concentrates specifically on the mistakes made during the operation, it must be remembered that many aspects were executed correctly, especially considering the urgency of the situation. In fact, a Special Operations Review Group commissioned to examine the planning, organization, coordination, direction and control of the rescue mission “encountered not a shred of evidence of culpable neglect or incompetence.” The chair of the group stated, “I think [the mission] had a 60 to 70% chance of success and ran into some terribly bad luck.” 1 An historiographical note Much of the information presented in this paper comes from four sources. The earliest is the Holloway Commission Report, released in declassified form late 1980. The second is Delta Force, the written memoirs of Colonel Charlie Beckwith, founder of Delta Force and leader of the ground assault team. Delta Force was released in 1983, but does not mention the Holloway Commission once. The third source is the memoirs of Colonel James Kyle, the on-scene desert commander for Desert One. His book, The Guts to Try, was published in 1990 after he conducted a personal follow-up investigation of the failed mission. He offers much criticism of the Holloway Commission Report, and some of his concerns are presented here. The fourth major source


Ryan, pp. 111 2

for this paper is Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah, an extensive account of the entire Iranian hostage crisis, released summer of 2006. Bowden has gone through the literature and has had the opportunity to interview many of the principles involved in not only the rescue mission, but the hostage-taking and the hostages themselves. Note that this paper presumes the reader’s familiarity of Operation Eagle Claw. Only a general description of the political background, mission plan and execution will be provided. The bulk of this paper is made up of the analysis of specific events and issues from the operation, and the lessons learned from these events. For more specific historical information please refer to the sources listed on the last page.

The Iran Hostage Crisis began on 4 November 1979 when radical student followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the US embassy in Tehran to protest American “imperialism,” calling for the extradition of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. After being ousted by an alliance of liberal, leftist and religious groups, the Shah fled Iran on 16 January 1979. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran 1 February 1979 from exile in France, and became the leader of the revolution. The American embassy had actually been over-run soon after this by students enraptured by the victory of the Islamic Revolution. The 14 February attempt on the Embassy was resolved peacefully. Protests in front of the embassy were frequent. Later that year, on 22 October the Shah was admitted to the US for medical treatment of lymphoma. This caused suspicion that the US was planning to overthrow the Islamic Revolution, reminiscent of the CIA-backed coup of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 which put the Shah in power for 25 years. Khomeini gave a speech urging “all grade-school, university, and theological students to increase their attacks against America.”2 There were mass demonstrations which finally resulted in the over-running of the embassy on 4 November. US intelligence has been criticized for not predicting such a strong reaction. This lack of insight was symptomatic of the larger problem of US intelligence activity in Iran. As Iran had

Bowden, pp. 14. 3

been such a close ally, American intelligence gathering in Iran was focussed on the Soviet Union. The US actually depended on SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police organization, as the prime domestic intelligence source. The US embassy in Tehran was the location of numerous protests and demonstrations since before the revolution. Under the cover of National Students Day, a massive gathering in honour of student protesters gunned down by the shah’s police one year earlier, a group of 300 students calling themselves Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line3 rushed the gate of the US embassy. Young men scaled the gate and swung open the doors from the inside, allowing more protesters to pour into the compound. Embassy staff were taken aback and security forces tried to keep the situation calm as they waited for the police. The mob seemed young, amateurish and nervous. They were armed with only clubs and loudspeakers, some had kerchiefs over their faces. The students repeatedly announced in both English and Farsi that the did not intend to harm anyone — that they were there just to “set-in.” Their stated aim was to have a sit-in and read a declaration. Many embassy staff believed this to be a re-enactment of the quickly resolved February takeover. Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires, was off embassy grounds returning from a meeting at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. By telephone he instructed the lead security officer that under no circumstances were the guards to fire on the demonstrators, but as a last resort could use tear gas. Demonstrators had worked their way into the buildings and had cornered staff. Soon things deteriorated and someone took the lead security officer hostage, pressing a gun to his head. Using this leverage the militants were able to gain access to the secure parts of the embassy buildings and take the rest of the staff hostage. 66 in all were captured on that day, including Bruce Laingen, Michael Howland and Victor Tomseth, who were held in the Iranian Foreign Ministry building. Six diplomats that were not on embassy grounds that morning were able to escape through the Swedish and Canadian embassies. On 19 November thirteen female and African-American hostages were released as gesture to “oppressed” black Americans and a demonstration of the “special status” of women under


Farsi = ‫ﺍﻣﺎﻡ‬

‫ﺩﺍﻧﺸﺠﻮﯾﺎﻥ ﻣﺴﻠﻤﺎﻥ ﭘﯿﺮﻭ ﺧﻂ‬

Islam.4 Richard Queen, the vice consul, was released 11 July 1980 because of severe illness which was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. In all, 52 Americans were held hostage for the entire 444 day crisis. The students had not achieved this spectacular feat with the backing or consent of Ayatollah Khomeini, and were nervously waiting to see his reaction. As the news spread thousands of people flooded the street to celebrate the victory over American imperialism. Initially, upon notification of the takeover by his foreign minister, Ayatollah Khomeini said, “Go and kick them out.”5 But once Khomeini realized how popular the takeover was he reversed his position and praised the students that evening on the radio in a fiery speech. The students were elated, and were instant national heroes. Soon public endorsements by many of the Tehran clerical establishment followed, catapulting Khomeini to an unprecedented level of power. Shortly after the Prime Minister and his entire cabinet resigned, collapsing the postRevolutionary provisional government. Thereafter religious conservatives dominated Iran’s political scene, sidelining the secular nationalists, communists and socialists they had joined with to overthrow the Shah. With the support of the religious establishment and the public, the students began to lose control over the embassy takeover. Initially only meant to be hours long, the takeover began to drag oon for days, weeks and months. Over the next six months US President Jimmy Carter attempted to reach a settlement through diplomacy. But the power structure of Iran was still unclear. Between the transitional government and the religious establishment, each made up of a series of factions, it was difficult to comprehend who held power in revolutionary Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini was the recognized leader, but refused to enter into direct talks. The US was forced to negotiate blindly with selfproclaimed representatives of the Iranian government. In those first six months three separate arrangements had been made in secret, but all were derailed by the mullahs — each time leaving Carter looking the fool. Carter’s patience was becoming strained. Finally he decided to pursue a military course of action.

4 5

Ibid. pp. 199. Ibid. pp. 93. 5

Two days after the embassy takeover, on 6 November 1979, military planners gathered together deep in the bowels of the Pentagon to plan a rescue. Throughout the planning stage alternatives to a rescue mission had been suggested. White House advisors were concerned that a bombing or invasion would put the hostages’ lives in more danger, and even invite Soviet interference. A naval blockade or the mining of Iranian harbours was suggested to put pressure on the Iranians. National security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski proposed the seizure of Kharg, an island off the Iranian coast that was the world’s largest offshore crude oil plant and principal sea terminal for Iran’s oil industry.6 Prior to the go-ahead on Eagle Claw, Brzezinksi also suggested developing a backup plan to bomb the Abadan oil refinery in case the rescue mission failed.7 Since the only military options that seemed available were a naval blockade or a rescue the Pentagon was tasked with developing a surgical rescue operation involving a limited-sized force, to be executed with as little violence as possible.8 This kind of mission was perfect for America’s brand new counter-terrorism force: 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, aka Delta Force. Delta Force was founded and commanded by Colonel Charlie Beckwith. Beckwith was an exchange officer to the SAS in the early 1960s. Afterwards he commanded a Special Forces unit code-named Project Delta in Vietnam. He had argued for an American version of the SAS for more than 13 years and finally got permission to put together Delta Force in 1977. In fact, Delta Force had its final evaluation exercise before being officially stood up on the same morning the students took over the US embassy in Tehran. At the time of the hostage-taking Delta had only 93 active members. The first plan brought hastily to Joint Task Force commander Major General James B. Vaught envisioned Delta Force parachuting in to Iran near Tehran, commandeering vehicles and finding their way to the embassy to free the hostages, fighting their way across the city to Mehrabad International airport where they would take and hold the airport by force until an Ameri6 7 8

Bowden, pp. 379 Bowden, pp. 481 Kyle, pp. 49 6

can plane could land and airlift the hostages and rescue force out. The conversation that followed the briefing between Major General Vaught and Colonel Beckwith has become infamous:9 “What’s the risk, Colonel Beckwith?” “Oh about 99.9 percent.” “What’s the probability of success?” “Zero.” “Well, we can’t do it.” “You’re right, Boss.” “I’ve got to buy time from the JCS.” Other plans included parachuting in and riding bicycles to the embassy; evacuating in trucks over the Turkish border; or using Escape and Evade tactics to leave Iran overland. The largest obstacle for a rescue mission was the distance to be covered. Iran was far from the sea and surrounded by nations unfriendly to the US. There were no helicopters in the US arsenal that could fly all the way to Tehran, pick up the hostages and rescue force, and have enough fuel to make it out of the country. Finally, planners developed a two stage operation where rescue helicopters would rendezvous with fuel planes in the desert, refuel and continue on with the mission. Operation Eagle Claw, as it was ultimately named, had many moving parts.10 During night one, three MC-130s would depart Masirah Island off the coast of Oman carrying Delta Force, a Ranger roadblock team and other personnel. Three EC-130s would follow carrying 18,000 gallons of jet fuel in rubber blivets for the helicopters. Meanwhile, eight RH-53D helicopters were to take off from the deck of the USS Nimitz sailing in the Gulf of Oman, south of the Iranian coast. These aircraft were to rendezvous at the fueling site southeast of Tehran designated Desert One. The roadblock team and combat controllers aboard the MC-130s would secure the site and guide in the fuel planes. Once the fuel planes landed, the first two MC-130s would return to Masirah to reduce congestion in the landing zone. The helicopters would then arrive at Desert One and begin the fueling procedure. It was considered critical to the mission that at least six helos


Beckwith, pp. 221 The following is excerpted from Kyle, pp. 202-209 7


made it to Desert One. Any less than that would call for an abort. Once the helicopters refueled they would load up the assault force and proceed to Desert Two, approximately 50 miles southeast of Tehran. Then the remaining four C-130s would return to Masirah. Once at Desert Two, the helicopters would drop off the assault force and proceed to a hide site near the town of Garmsar. Here they would wait until called by Delta Force on night two. The assault force dropped off would be met by an advance party that would sneak into Iran prior to the mission to gather intelligence and set up transportation into the city via truck. The team would lay in hiding outside of Tehran and wait until the next evening. JTF headquarters in Weda Kena, Egypt, would monitor communications to determine whether or not the insertion was detected by the Iranians. If all went well, on night two four MC-130s would depart Wadi Kena at dusk with a 100man Ranger force that would take and hold a small airstrip southwest of Tehran called Manzariyeh. Three AC-130 Spectre gunships (plus one spare) would also depart Wadi Kena to provide close air support for Delta over the embassy, suppress any Iranian fighter activity at Mehrabad airport, and to cover Manzariyeh. Two C-141 Starlifters would airlift the hostages and rescue force out of Iran from Mazariyeh. One of the planes is a hospital jet to tend to any wounded personnel. While all this air activity is underway Beckwith will enter Tehran to reconnoiter the embassy. If he judges the situation a go, Delta Force will drive into Tehran hidden aboard six twoton trucks and make their way to the embassy. A separate vehicle, with a special 13-man assault team, will use a different route and head to the foreign ministry to rescue the three diplomats held there. The assault was scheduled for 2300 hours with a plus or minus 40 minute leeway depending on the situation. Once Beckwith gives the call, close air support units will appear over the embassy and airport, and the assault on Manzariyeh would begin. Delta Force was be split into three teams. Red Team, consisting of 40 operators will cover the west side of the embassy; Blue Team, also 40 operators, will take the east. Finally, White Team, 13 operators, will cover the street outside the wall of the embassy with light machine guns. Once Delta breaches the embassy wall with a well-placed explosive, Beckwith will radio for the RH-53Ds. It is estimated that the rescue of the hostages will take approximately 45 minutes. Once the hostages are released they will be ferried across the street, under cover of White Team, to Amjadieh Stadium. Delta will use the stadium as a defensive posture to hold off any


Iranian forces. The C-130 Spectre above will provide close air support with its cannon. Four helicopters will land in the stadium to retrieve the hostages and the rescue force. The two remaining helicopters will airlift the Foreign Ministry rescue squad plus the three hostages. All helicopters will then proceed to Mazariyeh. Upon arrival hostages and rescue personnel will board the two waiting Starlifters which will take off to Wadi Kena. The Ranger team responsible for taking Manzariyeh will board their MC-130s and follow with the C-130 Spectres close behind. The helicopters would be abandoned. The plan had been constantly evolving since the hostage situation had began. Incremental changes were continuously made when planners figured out a way to do a certain part better. There was never a “finalized” plan simply because the assault could be called on at any point to go, and as time went on political shifts could have massive repercussions to any plan set in stone. The planners had to be extremely flexible. The execution of the plan, unfortunately, was not so flexible.

On 16 April 1980 Colonel Charlie Beckwith received President Carter’s approval to go. The following morning he informed his troops that Delta was moving forward to Egypt. The various elements began pre-positioning themselves at Wadi Kena and Masirah. A complex flowchart developed by mission planners managed the deployment of the 34 special forces and 20 support aircraft without raising suspicion.11 On 21 April Delta arrived in Wadi Kena. There they waited and reviewed the assault plans. On the afternoon of the 24th they were moved even further forward to Masirah. This was it. The execute order was delivered by General Vaught at 1720. The lead plane (“Lead Talon”) took off from Masirah (“Gravel Pit”) filled with 56 members of Delta lead by Beckwith, the roadblock team, two Iranian generals (advisors), the desert commander Colonel Kyle and a combat control team to manage incoming aircraft from the ground. An hour later followed the four fuel planes and a fifth C-130 carrying the rest of Delta.


Kyle, pp. 229 9

Hundreds of miles away, the eight RH-53D Sea Stallions had lifted off from the deck of the Nimitz in near total darkness. Just after dark the lead MC-130 passed over the coast of Iran at 250 feet, below Iranian radar. One inland the plane rose up to 5000 feet above sea level, averaging between 1000 and 3000 feet above the Iranian landscape. As they neared the landing site the plane passed through a strange haze, a curious milky cloud that restricted visibility. Air Force Major John Carney, who had previously flown into Iran to reconnoiter the Desert One locale identified the condition as a haboob. He had learned about haboobs from the CIA pilots who had flown him in earlier. Shifting air pressure would force fine desert sand thousands of feet up into the air, to be suspended for hours. It was a desert phenomenon that would cause no problems for fixed-wing aircraft, but could be difficult to maneuver through with a helicopter. Colonel Kyle decided to inform the command center at Wadi Kena (“Red Barn”) about the haboob. Red Barn would then inform the helicopter element (“Blue Beard”) to take caution. Lead Talon would pass through two haboobs that night, the second being twice as long as the first, at an estimated one hundred miles. Unfortunately, the SATCOM operator wasn’t able to send a message to Red Barn. There were no codewords to construct a message that would explain the haboob, so they decided to maintain radio silence rather than speak openly over the command net. As Lead Talon approached the landing site at Desert One a moving vehicle was spotted on the ground. There was one road that passed through the landing site. Intelligence had indicated that it was a rarely used road. Upon landing, part of the Ranger roadblock team exited the plane in a flurry to give chase to the truck barreling down the dirt road. They had to capture the driver to ensure that the Iranian authorities were not notified of an American plane landing in the desert. Meanwhile a second vehicle came down the road towards the plane. It was a night bus, carrying forty Iranian passengers from Yazd to Tabas. At that moment a huge fireball lit the night sky. One of the Rangers had fired an anti-tank weapon at the fleeing truck which happened to be loaded with fuel. The driver of the fuel truck had leapt out before the impact and jumped into a following vehicle which escaped the Rangers. In the blazing light of the fuel truck fireball, the passenger bus rolled to a stop as Rangers had fired at the tires disabling it. Delta operators used their hostage handling techniques to offload the bus, herding and searching the scared Iranian tourists


before securing them. Besides the fireworks, the team had dealt with these unexpected events quickly and effectively. The only question now was what to do with the prisoners. A message was relayed to the White House which replied that the only recourse was to fly all the Iranians out that night and return them to Iran once the mission was complete. Soon the rest of the C-130s had landed and the ground crew prepared for the helicopters, positioning the fuel planes and unloading equipment. They had already been on the ground for two hours. The helicopters were late. At approximately 140 miles inside Iran, two hours into flight time, Bluebeard-6 made a precautionary landing. The Blade Inspection Method (BIM) warning lights had gone off, indicating a cracked rotor blade. Helo 8 was passing by and landed to pick up the crew of Helo 6. Within fifteen minutes Bluebeard-8 was back on course and eventually caught up with the others. At 200 miles inland the helicopters entered the first haboob. It looked like a “wall of talcum powder.”12 The pilot of Bluebeard-1 only realized it was dust when he tasted it and felt it collecting in his teeth. While inside the haboob cabin temperature increased uncomfortably. Then, as suddenly as they had entered it, the helicopters broke free of the haboob. Looming ahead they could see the second haboob. Assuming they would pass through it as they had the first, the helicopters plunged in. Unfortunately this haboob was much bigger. Visibility was severely degraded to the point that the pilot of Bluebeard-1 could not see the ground or even the external safety lights of the other helicopters in formation, except for his wingman’s. The helicopters continued on, navigating solely by their instruments. After an hour and forty-five minutes Bluebeard-5 began having instrument difficulties. The compass was not working, and other navigational gear was being affected by the heat. Furthermore, the rest of the formation was not visible, not even his leader. Bluebeard-5 had become separated and decided to turn back to the Nimitz. Unbeknownst to the pilot, he had only 25 minutes left before exiting the dust and having a clear flight all the way to the landing zone. Eventually, the remaining six helicopters reached Desert One. They were ninety minutes late. This was a concern as the next stage of the operation — unloading the assault force at De-


Kyle, pp. 286 11

sert Two and hiding the Sea Stallions — had to be done before sunrise, which was fast approaching. The helicopters began the refueling procedure. While enroute, Bluebeard-2 had experienced a partial hydraulic failure, but continued to Desert One believing it could be repaired there. Once landed the helicopter was shut down so the leak could be inspected. It was found that the backup hydraulic pump for the flight controls had burned out. Unfortunately the only spare pump was aboard Bluebeard-5 which was heading back to the Nimitz. The lead pilot of the helicopter element decided Bluebeard-5 was unsafe to fly. Now the mission had only five operational helicopters. The plan had called for an abort if less than six helicopters made it to Desert One. Some deliberation happened regarding the possibility of going on with only five helicopters, but Beckwith refused. “I need every man I’ve got and every piece of gear. There’s no fat I can cut out.” he said. The signals intelligence at Wadi Kena gave no indication that the force had been discovered. The operation could be put on hold until the following evening. Now the force had to refuel and reorganize in preparation for leaving Iran. The fourth C-130 was getting low on fuel and had to take off as soon as possible. Bluebeard- 3 and -4 were positioned behind the C-130, and were directed to move out of the way or be buried in a blizzard of sand.13 Earlier, in landing in the filmy dust of the desert, Bluebeard-3 has suffered a bent nose wheel. The pilot, Major James Shaefer, was unable to ground taxi out of the way and elected to air taxi. While lifting off Bluebeard-3 dipped forward to the right and collided into the cockpit of the C-130.14 Bluebeard-3 had just been refueled and the C-130 was still carrying some fuel in the bladder in its hold. Both vehicles were engulfed in flames. Several


There are conflicting accounts in the literature of the reason for re-positioning Bluebeard-3. The Holloway Commission (pp. 10) reports that one helicopter had to reposition to let another refuel, when the first helicopter crashed into the C-130. Beckwith (pp. 307) says that Major Schaefer had to refuel, and while repositioning struck the airplane. Kyle (pp. 332) says the helicopters were repositioning to let Hal Lewis, pilot of the C-130, get turned around for takeoff. Finally, Bowden (pp. 459) agrees with Kyle’s account.

Once again the literature gives different reasons for the crash. Bowden (pp. 459-60) says that in the ensuing brown out caused by the dust kicked up by the rotors, Shaefer fixed on the only object he could see, a combat controller on the ground. The controller stepped back under the wing of the C-130 to escape the dust storm. Shaefer was keeping his nose pointed at the controller, and in the dust didn’t realize that he had moved. Kyle (pp. 332-333) emphasizes that the controller was an observer, not responsible for directing Shaefer. In the Guests of the Ayatollah documentary, combat controller Major John Carney suggests that the torque of the rotor caused the helicopter to dip forward and to the right. 12

other helicopters were struck by shrapnel and exploding ammunition. The remaining C-130s hurriedly taxied away from the explosion. The decision was made to transfer all helicopter crews to the remaining C-130s and evacuate. All together 8 servicemen (five USAF aircrew in the C-130, and three USMC aircrew in the RH-53D), one C-130 and five helicopters were lost. That morning at 1AM (9:30AM in Tehran) the White House issued a statement announcing the cancellation of the rescue operation due to “equipment failure.”15 President Carter was

widely eviscerated in the media.16 Delta travelled back to America, dejected. After hearing Carter’s statement Iranian military investigators swarmed the crash site, gathering the dead bodies. The bus passengers were questioned. At a press conference the next morning the remains of the dead crewmen were put on display. Islamic revolutionaries believed that Allah had a hand in the demise of the American rescue attempt. Groundwork for another rescue plan was being laid in the Pentagon, but the Iranians decided to scatter the hostages across Iran, effectively nullifying a second attempt.17 Finally, after 444 days the hostages were released on the hour of President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, 20 January 1981. The propaganda value of the hostages had long since diminished and Iran had become deeply engaged in the war with Iraq.

Lessons learned
The Desert One debacle was immediately analyzed by a Special Operations Review Group appointed in May 1980 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Holloway Commission was tasked to “conduct a broad examination of the planning, organization, coordination, direction, and control of the Iranian hostage rescue mission, as a basis for recommending improvement in these areas for the future.” 18 The commission was named after its chair, retired Admiral James L. Holloway. The group’s methodology was first to review all written materials including planning documents, training reports, mission debriefs, congressional testimony, after-action reports etc.

15 16 17 18

Bowden, pp. 468 See excerpts from a number of contemporary news sources in Bowden, pp. 481-2 Coogan, pp. 216 Holloway Commission Report, pp. i 13

The commission had access to all levels of intelligence. Interviews were conducted of all the principles involved in the planning and conduct of the operation “in a position to contribute substantive testimony.”19 The commission travelled to selected Defense Department organizations to receive command presentations, technical briefings and examine equipment first hand. The group also witnessed live fire weapons demonstrations and special operations exercises. The Commission identified twenty three issues for analysis. In the final report, each issue is outlined followed by the JTF rationale for decisions made. The group then submitted an alternative course of action and evaluated the impact such an alternative course would have on the success of the mission. Where consensus was not achieved among the group, separate views were noted in the document. Eleven of the issues were designated as being “major” lessons learned. They include:

• • • • • • • • • • •

OPSEC — Too stringent restrictions Plan Review — No independent plan review board Organization, Command and Control, and the applicability of existing JCS plans — Reliant upon ad hoc arrangements, having no ready-made planning framework Comprehensive Readiness Evaluation — No full dress rehearsal with all elements held Helicopter Force Size — Too few helicopters Overall coordination of Joint Training — Training of disparate elements not coordinated well Command and control at Desert One — Chain of command not well defined Centralized and integrated intelligence support external to the JTF — Not enough support and utilization of existing intelligence apparatuses Alternatives to the Desert One site — Road near the LZ was more of a risk than expected Handling the dust phenomenon — More direct interaction between weather team and pilots C-130 Pathfinders — For conducting weather reconnaissance

The commission did not interview every individual that participated. 14

Colonel James Kyle, the on-scene desert commander for Desert One, relates that the “general feeling” of the Holloway Commission was disappointment because “they had little or no background in Special Operations.”20 Of the six panel members, one had a Special Forces and Ranger background, one had “staff assignments related to special operations” and one had “command combat experience” in special operations units.21 Regardless, Kyle was troubled by the findings in the report. Out of the commission’s eleven major findings, Kyle believes only two had any major bearing on the failure of the mission: the lack of a full rehearsal; and the poor interface between the pilots and the weather officer in recognizing the haboob. The Holloway Commission concluded that the operation was justified and the risks were manageable. The group wanted to pinpoint where the mission went wrong. The major concern for both Kyle and the Holloway Commission was not the disastrous collision between the helicopter and the C-130, but the factors that caused the mission abort itself. The collision was regarded as purely accidental, yet resultant of the decision to abort. If six or more helicopters were operational and could move onto the next stage at Desert Two, then the collision would not have happened. This of course does not preclude another possible accident later on in the operation. The Holloway Commission Report acknowledges that it is “virtually impossible to precisely appraise the remaining part of the operation and to measure probability of success.”22 The Holloway Commission identified two factors that directly caused the mission abort: helicopter failure rate; and low visibility. Kyle highlighted four issues from the Holloway Commission’s twelve lower-priority issues, considering them the “major reasons the mission failed.”23

Alternate helicopter pilots (USAF Special Operations or Rescue Service H53 pilots) should have been selected to team with Marines.

20 21

Kyle, pp. 363

Respectively, these are Lieutenant General Samuel V. Wilson, US Army; Lieutenant General Leroy J. Manor, US Air Force; and Major General Alfred M. Gray, Jr. US Marine Corps. See panel bios from pages 1-3, Holloway Commission Report.
22 23

Holloway Commission Report, pp. 57 Kyle, pp. 365 15

• • •

Helicopter aborts—pilots lacked certain knowledge vital to reaching an informed decision whether to abort or proceed. Enemy radar threat—helicopter pilots based low-level tactics on erroneous intelligence report. Helicopter communications—pilots lacked secure modes of communication to receive vital mission information.

Colonel Charlie Beckwith also laid the blame for the failed mission on “those bloody helos.”24 Three of the eight helicopters, Bluebeard-6, Bluebeard-5 and Bluebeard-2 all aborted the mission for different reasons. However, the aborts were linked to the fact that the pilots were forced to make a decision without sufficient information. 140 miles into Iran, before the first haboob, Bluebeard-6’s dashboard lit up with a Blade Inspection Method (BIM) warning light. The pilot immediately decreased speed and gently landed for inspection, just as precautionary procedures dictated. The aluminum rotor blades are filled with pressurized nitrogen. A BIM warning means that pressure is lost, resulting from any number of things including a leaky valve to a cracked rotor blade. The pilot, Major Bill Hoff, inspected the aircraft’s external BIM warning light and decided that helicopter no longer airworthy. Bluebeard-8 was there to retrieve the crew of helicopter 6, which was abandoned in the desert. This decision was criticized by Kyle who describes the difference between how a Navy pilot and a Marine pilot view a confirmed BIM indicator warning.25 The Navy RH-53D has an improved cockpit warning system. To a Navy pilot a BIM warning simply means a loss of nitrogen pressure and will continue to fly. Marine pilots, on the other hand, who fly CH-53s, are trained that a BIM warning means a cracked rotor, an automatic mission abort. Sikorsky tests done in 1974 had shown that an RH-53D with a BIM warning can be flown at 100KTS for up to 79 hours before rotor blade failure. The Marine crew were not aware of the BIM procedures for the Navy’s RH-53D and aborted the mission when they could most likely have continued. The second helicopter abort happened four hours into the mission. Bluebeard-5 had been flying in the dust of the haboob for nearly two hours. His copilot had vertigo and his instruments
24 25

Beckwith, pp. 312 Kyle, pp. 376 16

were being affected by the increased heat inside the haboob. Furthermore, he had gradually lost sight of the external safety lights of his wing leader. Bluebeard-5 had become separated. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Rodney Davis, calculated that he might have enough fuel to return to the Nimitz and decided to turn back. He was unaware that he had only 25 more minutes until he was free of the dust, and 45 minutes until Desert One. Flying in the haboob was extremely difficult. Visibility was extremely limited, exacerbated by the night-vision goggles. Moreover, not having previous knowledge of the dust clouds was disorienting. The Holloway Commission criticized the lack of direct contact between the US Air Force’s Air Weather Staff and the pilots.26 Gathering information on Iran’s weather was a difficult job. There were several small weather stations throughout Iran with the capability of sharing weather information with the world. But since the overthrow of the Shah these stations had been abandoned.27 The AWS team though, did have information on the haboob phenomenon, but since weather information was filtered through an intelligence officer the information was not passed on to the pilots. What made the job more difficult was the perceived enemy radar threat. Unsubstantiated intelligence regarding Iranian air defenses, passed directly to the aircrews without formal confirmation by intelligence staff, was interpreted to mean that the entire mission would have to be flown at 200 feet to avoid radar detection.28 The fixed wing element knew to cross the Iranian coast at 200 feet, but thereafter increased altitude up to 5000 feet. The helicopters, upon entering the haboob, opted to fly through it instead of trying to go over it, for fear of being detected by Iranian radar. At one point, Bluebeard-1 climbed to 8000 feet, breaking out of the dust cloud momentarily to get their bearings. Once they figured out their location they plunged back into the haboob.29 This made the mission far more difficult than it had to be. The third helicopter, Bluebeard-2, had warning lights flash while in the haboob but elected to continue for two more hours to Desert One. The second-stage hydraulic system, the backup for

26 27 28 29

Holloway Commission Report, pp. 38 Beckwith, 259. Kyle, pp. 381, Holloway Commission Report, pp. 47 Bowden, pp. 449. 17

the flight control hydraulics, had been lost. The pilot had to be very careful since any rapid maneuvers could cause a complete lockup, and hoped that the damage could be repaired at the rendezvous. Upon arriving at Desert One, the helicopter was shut down and two crewmen found the hydraulic pump burned out. The only spare pump was on its way back to the Nimitz aboard Bluebeard-5. Though the helicopter could have proceeded on one hydraulic system, the flight leader considered it too risky and aborted. Both Colonels Kyle and Beckwith suggested the skill level of the pilots were to blame. Rather than the Navy and USMC pilots who had no special operations experience, US Air Force special operations or emergency rescue pilots should have been used. Beckwith blames the choice on those in the JCS wanting to make sure that “each of the services had a piece of the action.”30 The Holloway Commission stated that while pairing USAF pilots with the Marine may have been more effective, there is no evidence to suggest that they could have flown the mission better than those who flew it on 24 April.31 The fact remains that seven crews on six helicopters made it to the Desert One rendezvous point. Obviously the flying skills of the pilots were sufficient, unfortunately the pilots’ lack of knowledge about Iranian radar was not. One issue threads all these helicopter aborts together: the lack of free-flowing information. There is a lesson to be learned here, one that wasn’t sufficiently emphasized in the Holloway Commission Report or other post-operation literature: the overwhelming importance of communications. The communications procedures for this mission were in complete disarray. Satellite radios were a relatively new technology and only Delta Force had any experience with them. There were not enough radios to go around, so radios were only placed on select aircraft. Furthermore, due to the logistics of the rare transmitters, they were unavailable for most of the mission training sessions. Lead Talon and the last C-130 were the only airplanes with SATCOMs installed. The SATCOMs had to be installed separate from the radio operators panel, which meant an additional operator had to be aboard. Since the transmitter was not wired into the system, aircrew couldn’t

30 31

Beckwith, pp. 250 Holloway Commission Report, pp. 36 18

listen to transmissions had to rely on the operator to pass messages back and forth.32 Beckwith had a portable SATCOM transmitter stowed on the third C-130, which wasn’t available when Lead Talon’s SATCOM broke upon landing. Bluebeard-1 and Bluebeard-5 were the only helicopters with satellite radios. Unfortunately these radios were for ground use. The only way a helicopter could use the radio in flight was to hold the antennae out of the window. The C-130s had encrypted SATCOM transmitters that the helicopters could not decode, thus any message to the helicopter had to be relayed through the command post. The helos did have regular non-secure radios aboard, but were warned against using them for reasons of operational security. The helicopters had been trained to operate in complete radio silence. Communication was to be via hand signal or Morse code by a hand-held lamp. Obviously these methods were nullified in the reduced visibility of the haboob. Conveying information over the radios was also arduous. The SATCOM units were manned by ground operators, unfamiliar with aeronautical terms. An elaborate matrix of codewords was used to construct encoded messages for transmission, which resulted in extremely slow communications.33 When Lead Talon tried to warn the command post about the haboob, the aircrew member gave up, “… the matrix was worthless.”34 An efficient communications regime would have had profound impact on the first stage of the mission, allowing more flexibility in the face of adversity, an important quality not only for special operations, but any military mission. Firstly, open (and secure) communications equipment would have allowed Lead Talon to notify the Bluebeard element of the dust storm directly. Lead Talon could have recommended that the helicopters fly over the haboob. This would have brought the misconception of Iranian radar capabilities out in the open. A quick confirmation message from Wadi Kena would clear the helicopters to increase their altitude, saving them much difficulty in navigating the haboob.

32 33 34

Kyle, pp. 162-3 Kyle, pp. 253 Kyle, pp. 284 19

The Holloway Commission suggested an extra C-130 could be used for weather reconnaissance. 35 This still would not have been useful under the strict radio procedures. Furthermore, the pilot of Bluebeard-5 stated that if he had known that visual and meteorological conditions at the landing site were clear, he would have continued.36 Even if the helicopters did not fly over the haboob, Bluebeard-5 could have been reassured that it was worth forging on and not turned back to the Nimitz. Moreover, if Bluebeard-5 had known of the other helicopter’s abort, and that his helicopter was increasingly necessary for the mission to continue, he might have elected to keep going. Better communications between the helicopter could also have reversed the first abort, since there were Navy airmen with the proper knowledge of the RH-53D BIM procedure within the helicopter element.37 Lastly, since the only spare hydraulic pump was aboard Bluebeard-5, Bluebeard-2 could have been repaired once both arrived at Desert One. At that point the operation would have had seven operational helicopters at the rendezvous, barring any other mechanical malfunctions. The pilots and helicopters were entirely capable of completing the first stage of Operation Eagle Claw. The unproductive restrictions on communications forced a rigidity on the execution of the mission, denying the pilots the flexibility they needed to handle unexpected “friction” on the battlefield. The Holloway Commission criticized excessive operations security standards not just for the difficulty it caused communication, but also in general planning, calling it an “over-riding concern.” Operational security was paramount to the planners of Eagle Claw. All planning and preparation had to be kept secret to maintain the element of surprise. If surprise was not achieved, the mission would fail. Thus, extreme measures were taken. During planning contacting existing Special Operations points of contact was explicitly prohibited.38 Planners had to be cautious regarding documents and conversations. The operation was originally named “Rice

35 36 37 38

Holloway Commission Report, pp. 44-43 Holloway Commission Report, pp. 30 Kyle, pp. 213. The pilot lineup consisted of 11 Marines, 5 Navy and 1 Air Force. Kyle, pp. 39 20

Bowl” to deceive anyone who actually became aware of the planning sessions, directing their attention to southeast Asia.39 Soviet intelligence activities were also a consideration. It was feared that if the Soviet Union detected American military movement, they would realize what was going on and alert the Iranians. The moving of aircraft for training purposes was timed to provide robust cover to probing eyes. Flights were manipulated worldwide to provide cover for the comings and goings of special operations aircraft.40 One factor in choosing the Sea Stallion as the helicopter for the mission was its use for mine clearing which would provide an easy cover, explaining their presence in the Indian Ocean.41 On the day before operation launch the Coral Sea, a US aircraft carrier near the Persian Gulf, headed toward Pakistan at high speed, drawing a nearby Soviet fleet away from the Nimitz in a deception operation to free the Nimitz of surveillance.42 Delta observed operational security measures while conducting its training. Operators were moved to the training location at Camp Smokey in small groups using rented vehicles.43 To practice the assault on the compound Delta used electrical tape to lay out a silhouette of the compound buildings on the grass. When Soviet surveillance satellites were known to be passing overhead the tape could easily be taken up. 44 Training had to be planned to fit into the regular schedules of the soldiers so as not to raise suspicion. Commanders found it difficult to let the men go home for Christmas in case someone spoke. It was decided that keeping the men from their families would raise suspicion, and be more of a security risk.45 OPSEC concerns would override decisions at every turn.

39 40

Ibid. pp. 64.

The operation had a close call four days before execution when military personnel in Masirah reported the presence of US aircraft to London, speculating a possible rescue operation in Iran. A State Department was quickly dispatched to brief Prime Minister Thatcher and head off any public reaction. Kyle, pp. 237
41 42 43 44 45

Ibid, pp. 56 Cogan, pp. 211-2 Beckwith, 212. Bowden, pp. 224. Kyle, pp. 134-5 21

This resulted in boundaries to information-sharing and dissemination which contributed to various mission elements having different understandings of the same issue, for example the helicopter pilots’ unsubstantiated fear of Iranian radar. Information was compartmentalized, which was a good thing, but no avenues had been constructed to allow information to travel to where it was needed most. The Commission had concluded that operational security standards for Eagle Claw were too strict, though they conceded that “secrecy was successfully preserved” until after the rescue force had left Iran.46 The review group felt that many of the alternatives suggested in the Holloway Commission Report could have been incorporated had there been a “more precise OPSEC plan ... based on selective disclosure rather than minimum disclosure.”47 [emphasis added] The Commission tied the lack of a nuanced OPSEC policy to the lack of a carefully structured planning organization. The ad hoc-ness of the Joint Task Force that planned Operation Eagle Claw has been one of the most criticized aspects of the failed rescue mission, and by far the biggest lesson learned for the future. The Joint Task Force was stood up on 12 November 1979, 8 days after the hostage crisis began. It involved the Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Operations Division, the Air Force, Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, Delta Force, the US Marine Corps and the US Navy. It was the ultimate joint operation. In putting together such an organization on the fly, there was no infrastructure to base planning on. To attain even the most basic mission readiness to deal with the hostage crisis an organization had to be formed, commanders appointed, staff gathered, units selected and forces had to be trained. This ad hoc approach lead to uncoordinated training and immature OPSEC standards. The JTF never developed a system for managing finances, which lead to problems in procuring equipment. 48 Furthermore, command and control relationships, constantly evolving due to the crisis and changes in plans, were never clearly defined.

46 47 48

Holloway Commission Report, pp. 58 Ibid, pp. 60 Kyle, pp. 67 22

Beckwith himself criticized the organization, and expressed it right after the mission when he faced a congressional hearing:49 In Iran we had an ad hoc affair. We went out and found bits and pieces, people and equipment, brought them together occasionally and then asked them to perform a highly complex task. The parts all performed, but not necessarily as a team. Nor did they have the same motivation. Beckwith continued: My recommendation is to put together an organization which contains everything it will ever need, an organization which would include Delta, the Rangers, Navy Seals, Air Force pilots, its own staff, its own support people, its own aircraft and helicopters. Make this organization a permanent military unit. Give it a place to call home. Allocate sufficient funds to run it. And give it sufficient time to recruit, assess, and train its people. Otherwise, we are not serious about combatting terrorism. Senator Sam Sunn’s reply was simply, “Fine.” The Holloway Commission concluded its report with two recommendations. First was the formation of a Counterterrorist Joint Task Force, a permanent field agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that would plan, train for and conduct counter-terrorist operations outside of the United States. The second recommendation was the establishment of a Special Operations Advisory Panel, which would provide planning oversight to the proposed CJTF. This did not go nearly as far as what Beckwith proposed, but was the first in a chain reaction of recommendations and legislation that would lead to the formation of an organization similar to what Beckwith envisioned. The failure at Desert One fanned the flames of a movement to re-instate special operations forces which had been stood down after the Second World War. The military was concerned with countering the conventional Soviet threat, which meant expensive procurement campaigns for planes, tanks and missiles. A certain group of people in the defense establishment recognized the need for a special operations capability that would not only serve in a counter-terrorism capacity, but also battle the Soviet Union in the Third World. Following Desert One a number of proponents of “SOF revitalization” began showing up in various committees and sub-committees. Desert One was considered an exclamation point on

Beckwith, pp. 326 23

the unlearned lessons of the Son Tay prison raid of November 1970. During that event a joint task force was formed and took six months to agree upon a plan to rescue US prisoners of war. Though the operation was executed without any aborts, the rescue team arrived first at the wrong location, and then when they found the correct camp they found that the prisoners had been moved days earlier.50 Movement towards a new SOF establishment began. The Counterterrorist Joint Task Force recommendation of the Holloway Commission was implemented over the next three years. General Edward “Shy” Meyer proposed the Strategic Services Command (STRATSERCOM), which unfortunately was not able to garner support.51 The unified Commanders in Chief (CINCs) were not ready to make room for a separate combatant command, especially one that would operate within their theater. General Meyer instead combined all Army special operations unit into a new command, 1st SOCOM. This was a positive step towards a permanent SOF capability, but it was only happening in one service. Finally, in 1986, true transformation began. This time it was instigated from outside of the military. The Goldwater-Nichols Act legislated the reorganization of the Department of Defense, strengthening the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and effectively ending the great independence of the Army, Air Force and Navy. The goal was to promote more integration between the services and place more emphasis on joint operations. The Goldwater-Nichols Act was followed by the Nunn-Cohen amendment, which consolidated all the special operations forces from the various services and brought them under a single command: the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). In the build-up to the legislation, Senator Sam Nunn often referenced the “disaster of Desert One” in his speeches.

Still learning
Two major lessons can be drawn from the debacle at Desert One, one strategic, one tactical. The first is the importance of being prepared for crisis which means having the equipment, planning and manpower available for instant response. This strategic lesson has been learned by the US

50 51

Marquis, pp. 117 Marquis, pp. 73 24

with the forming of USSOCOM. Unfortunately, the US government May have over compensated in giving SOCOM too many responsibilities and resources, such as CIMIC, PSYOPS and the Marine Recon Regiment. The tactical lesson remains half-learned. Operation Eagle Claw failed because the team wasn’t afforded one of the most important things for a special operations unit: flexibility. Flexibility in a team environment is facilitated by communication. Communications has been recognized as one of the most important issues of the military today, particularly in a military that is trying to reconcile the effects of the information revolution. Communications technology has come a long way since 1980. High tech equipment is a fraction of the cost it used to be; personal radios and the like are now widespread at the lowest levels. Distribution of communication technologies is no longer an issue today as it was during Operation Eagle Claw. But today, as in the time of Eagle Claw, a problem remains at a deeper level. The culture of the military has not yet caught up with the communications revolution. Information-sharing benefits from a flat organizational structure, where information can pass from one side of the network to the other in just a few short jumps. Hierarchical approaches to information-sharing are counterproductive. The hierarchical information flow of Eagle Claw, with ground forces having to relay messages to other forces in theater through the command post at Wadi Kena, was not an efficient system. Delta faced the same problem in Somalia in 1993 during The Battle of Mogadishu. Embattled Hum-Vees were being directed by overhead aircraft who were relaying information back to USSOCOM base in Florida. By the time directions were relayed back to the troops on the ground, the situation had rapidly changed. All because information flow was trapped in the chain of command. Steward Brand once said, "Information wants to be free." This statement represents the problems facing both the military and the state in the information age. The Desert One debacle is an important event in the evolution of special operations forces because it set in motion a profound change in the organization of the military. This change has not been limited to the United States but has influenced other countries such as Poland to reorganize their special operations forces in a similar way. Thus, the unsuccessful mission of 1980 deserves a perennial place in the study of special operations history.


Beckwith, Charlie and Donald Knox. Delta Force. New York: Avon, 2000. Bowden, Mark. Guests of the Ayatollah. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006. — “Desert One Debacle.” The Atlantic Monthly, May 2006. Cogan, Charles. “Desert One and Its Disorders.” Journal of Military History, Jan 2003 Department of Defense. The Holloway Commission Report. 1982. Fong, Chua Lu. “Operation Eagle Claw, 1980: A Case Study in Crisis Management and Military Planning.” Pointer, V28 N2, Apr - Jun 2002. IACSP Interview with Mark Bowden. “The Iranian U.S. Hostage Standoff: 25 Years Later.” Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International, Vol. 12 No. 2, Summer 2006. Kyle, James and John Eidson. The Guts to Try. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002. Martin, David. “Inside the Rescue Mission.” Newsweek, July 12, 1982. Marquis, Susan. Unconventional Warfare. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1997. Ryan, Paul. The Iranian Rescue Mission. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1985. Sullivan, William. Mission to Iran. New York: Norton, 1981.

Guests of the Ayatollah Documentary. Wild Eyes Productions (2006) “In Depth: Mark Bowden.” BookTV. C-SPAN 2, 4 June 2006.


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