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What began as a noble attempt by the U.S. special operations forces ended in tragedy in the darkness of an Iranian desert. It was April 1980 when Special Forces Operation Detachment Delta, better known as "Delta Force," along with its Air Force and Marine aircrews, met with disaster. What Colonel "Charging" Charlie Beckwith did not know at the time was that the operation was headed toward disaster from the onset. Over the years there have been investigations, hearings, and countless articles written on why the mission ended in a debacle, so we will not belabor the issue here. All the Monday-morning quarterbacks had one conclusion in common, however: Operation Eagle Claw failed. This failure cost the lives of eight gallant troops, it cost the honor of the United States of America, and it hurt the credibility of U.S. special operations.
The Navy helicopters with Marine pilots proved to be the Achilles' heel of Operation Eagle Claw. One can only speculate on the compilations of mishaps that besieged the Sea Stallion helicopters. Some got lost in the desert and others malfunctioned, leaving the anxious force without the adequate airlift capability necessary to accomplish the rescue attempt. From the inception of the plan, they were "the" weak link. Were the pilots up to the task?
The Marine pilots, if we look at today's standards, had big boots to fill. They were being asked to fly at night. This alone was unusual practice for the "Flying Leathernecks." These pilots were now being asked to perform the extraordinary: launch off the deck of a carrier, at night, fly NOE (nap-of-the-earth), where radar could not detect them, and use no running lights. The pilots were issued PVS5 night vision goggles; however, they could be worn only for 30-minute intervals. This meant that the pilot and co-pilot had to alternate flying the huge helicopter every 30 minutes. The Marines had no pilots who had been trained in this type of flying. In fact, none of the service branches was prepared for such a contingency.
Following the disaster at Desert One, a review committee known as the Holloway Commission convened to look into problems within U.S. special operations. The outcome of this commission resulted in two major recommendations. First, the Department of Defense should establish a Counterterrorism Task Force (CTJTF) as a field organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), with a permanently assigned staff and forces. The JCS would plan, train for, and conduct operations to counter terrorist activities against the United States. The CTJTF would use military forces in the counterterrorism (CT) role. These forces could range in size from small units of highly specialized personnel to larger integrated forces. Second, the JCS should consider the formation of a Special Operations Advisory Panel (SOAP). This panel would consist of high-ranking officers to be drawn from both active service and retired personnel. The prerequisite for selection was a background in special operations or having served as a commander in chief (CINC) or on JCS level and having maintained a proficient level of interest in special operations or defense policy. The mission of the SOAP would be to review and evaluate highly classified special-operations planning to provide an independent assessment. Consequently, the progressive reorganization and resurgence of U.S. special operation forces began.
While this was occurring, the Air Force transferred responsibility for Air Force special operations from Tactical Air Command (TAC) to Military Airlift Command (MAC) in March 1983. The commander of the 23rd Air Force at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, would assume all control of the Air Force special operations units. This new-numbered Air Force was tasked with the worldwide missions of special operations, combat rescue, pararescue training, medical evacuation, and training of HC-130 and helicopter crewmen.
Subsequently, on March 1, 1983, in response to the Holloway Commission report, all U.S. Air Force special operation forces were consolidated into the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The 1st SOW would direct and coordinate active and reserve components of the Special Operation Squadrons (SOS). Active components consisted of the 8th SOS operating MC-130 Combat Talons and HC-130 Hercules Tankers, the 16th SOS operating AC-130 Spectre gunships, and the 20th SOS operating the MH53 Pave Low and HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters. The 1723rd Combat Control Squadron provided the combat control teams.
Reserve components of Air Force special operation forces included the 919th Special Operations Group (SOG) operating AC-130A gunships, the 302nd SOG operating the EC-130E command and control aircraft, and the Pennsylvania Air National Guard flying the Volant Solo EC-130E Psychological Operations aircraft.
In addition to traditional special operations skills, the 23rd conducted weather reconnaissance, security support for intercontinental ballistic missile sites, and training of USAF helicopter and HC-130 crewmen.
Operation Urgent Fury
In October 1983, the 23rd Air Force participated with other Caribbean forces in the successful rescue of Americans from the island-nation of Grenada. During the seven-day operation, centered at Point Salines Airport, the 23rd Air Force furnished MC-130s, AC-130s, and EC-130 aircraft, aircrews, maintenance, and support people.
During the Grenada operation, the 1st Special Operations Wing had two missions: the MC-130 Combat Talons were tasked with delivering U.S. Army Rangers to Point Salines, while Spectre gunships provided the air-to-ground support fire. Combat controllers were air-dropped in with the U.S. Army Rangers at Port Salinas Airport, making an unprecedented combat jump from only 500 feet. Each controller was laden with parachute gear and more than 90 pounds of mission-critical equipment. Upon landing, they quickly established a command-and-control radio net. They carried out air traffic operations for follow-on forces both at the airport and for other in-country missions. In addition to this, the combat control teams (CCT) performed as forward air control (FAC) for Air Force Spectre gunships, Navy fighters, and Army helicopter gunships. Throughout the operation, the crews of the 1st SOW continued in the tradition of the air commandos who preceded them. Flying in numerous sorties and fire missions, they performed mission after mission without sustaining any casualties during the entire operation.
The Grenada operation was not without its cost to the special operations community. Four U.S. Navy SEALs were lost at sea during a Rubber Duck insertion. This tragedy hit the SOF community hard. Operation Urgent Fury was also fraught with planning problems from the get-go; a lack of standardization of the special operations forces equipment contributed to making this plan gone awry. Though the special operations forces in Grenada did have a few rough edges, most of the planning problems were overcome because the special operations personnel from all three service branches excelled at what they do best: improvise, adapt, and overcome to achieve the mission's goals.
The Grenada mission became the springboard for the further consolidation of U.S. special operations forces. The Air Force particularly took a proactive stance by rebuilding a powerful special operations force. In May 1986, Congressman William Cohen, Senator Sam Nunn, and Congressman Dan Daniel introduced legislation that formed the basis for amending the 1986 Defense Authorizations Bill. This bill, signed into law in October 1986, in part directed the formation of a unified command responsible for special operations. In April 1987, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was established at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, and Army General James J. Lindsay assumed command. Four months later, the 23rd Air Force moved to Hurlburt Field.
In August 1989, General Duane H. Cassidy, MAC commander in chief, divested all nonspecial operations units from the 23rd Air Force. Consequently, the 23rd Air Force served a dual role, reporting to MAC but also functioning as the air component to USSOCOM.
Operation Just Cause
On December 20, 1989, at 1 P.M. local time, the United States launched an attack on Panama. The objectives of the attack were to protect U.S. personnel and installations, neutralize the Panamanian Defense Force, and capture General Manuel Noriega. During this operation the Air Force special operations units saw extensive use. Owing to their surgical firing capability, the Spectres were the ideal solution for the close-in urban combat environment with limited collateral damage. The Spectres were launched from the 16th Special Operations Squadron ("Ghostriders") at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Other Air Force special operations assets included an EC-130 from the 193rd Air National Guard stationed at the Harrisburg Airport, Pennsylvania, to perform psychological warfare operations during the invasion. Pararescuemen and combat control teams (CCTs) participated in operations with the U.S. Army's 75th Rangers at Torrijos Airfield and Rio Hato Air Base. Combat controllers would also be attached to U.S. Navy SEAL Team 4 in support of the frogmen as they assaulted Patilla Airport and disabled General Noriega's personal jet.
In retrospect, Operation Just Cause served as a proving ground for the future 1991 war in the Middle East. The night tactics and stealth weapons battle-tested in Panama later accounted for many of the successes in Desert Storm. (While some of the issues that plagued the Grenadian assault in 1983 had been addressed, Operation Just Cause did have its share of problems as well. One of the major short comings resulted in four Navy SEALs being killed and eight wounded during the raid at Paitilla Airport.) The invasion of Panama also established a strategy for the way U.S. special operations forces would be deployed and used in the future.
The Birth of the Air Force Special Operations Command
On May 22, 1990, General Larry D. Welch, Air Force chief of staff, redesignated the 23rd Air Force as the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Henceforth, AFSOC was responsible for the combat readiness of Air Force special operations forces. Headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Florida, the group would report directly to the Air Force chief of staff and be the Air Force's component of USSOCOM.
The new major command consisted of three wings—the 1st SOW, the 39th SOW, and the 353rd SOW—as well as the 720th Special Tactics Group, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, and the Special Missions Operational Test and Evaluation Center. The Air Reserve components included the 919th Special Operations Group (Air Force Reserve) at Duke Field, Florida, and the 193rd SOG (Air National Guard) at Harrisburg Airport, Pennsylvania.
AFSOC is the Air Force component of the U.S. Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM. Its mission is to provide mobility, surgical firepower, covert tanker support, and special tactics teams (STTs). These units will normally operate in concert with U.S. Army and U.S. Navy special operations forces, including Special Forces (SF), Rangers, Special Operations Aviation Regiment, SEAL teams, psychological operations (PSYOP) forces, and Civil Affairs units. AFSOC supports a wide range of activities, from combat operations of a limited duration to those of longer-term conflicts. They also provide support to foreign governments and their militaries. Subject to shifting priorities, AFSOC maintains a flexible profile allowing it to respond to numerous types of missions. CCTs provide qualified joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) who are attached to SOF teams and control the majority of close air support (CAS) missions required in emergency situations.
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From early August 1990 to late February 1991, AFSOC participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which involved the protection of Saudi Arabia and the liberation of Kuwait. It was the Green Hornets Pave Lows of the 20th Special Operations Squadron that began the air war in the Persian Gulf. In October 1990, U.S. Commander in Chief Central Command (USCINCCENT) General Norman H. Schwarzkopf had studied the multitude of maps, aerial and satellite imagery, and intelligence reports, and he pondered his next plan to action. It was the last week of the month when Colonel George Gray, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, met with the general. Col. Gray briefed Gen. Schwarzkopf on a plan called "Eager Anvil."
This plan included a flight of four MH-53 Pave Lows and an assault force of Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to execute the mission. The Pave Lows were equipped with forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR), terrain avoidance radar, a global positioning system (GPS), and other sophisticated electronics and navigational aids. The helicopters would cross into Iraq, leading the Apaches through the dark and over the featureless desert terrain to the target areas. Once on site, the Army pilots in their Apaches would "take out" two enemy radar installations simultaneously, with AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missiles. With these radar sites destroyed, a corridor would be opened for U.S. and coalition aircraft to begin the air campaign.
So critical was this operation to the commencement of Desert Storm that Gen. Schwarzkopf asked Col. Gray, "Colonel, are you going to guarantee me one hundred percent success on this mission?" Col. Gray looked at the general and answered, "Yes, sir." The USCINCCENT replied, "Then you get to start the war."
Lieutenant Colonel Richard L. Comer was a little taken aback at Col. Gray's commitment. Comer vowed that the mission would have to be perfect; he did not intend to make his boss a liar. He later commented, "This was the best joint helicopter flying operation I've ever seen." The Apaches were designed to shoot and destroy targets, and the Pave Lows were designed to get the AH-64s to the targets. It was a perfect match. The designation for the mission was "Task Force Normandy." There were two formations of two MH-53Js and two AH-64s. One group was assigned to the eastern site, the other to the westernmost installation.
At 2:12 P.M. local time, TF Normandy crossed the border and entered Iraq. All of the training that the 20th had under its belt was now paying off. The helicopters sped through the pitch-black night, flying no higher than 50 feet above the desert floor. Relying on the Pave Lows' computers and sensors, the Green Hornets' pilots zigzagged around Nomad camps, down into wadis (dry desert streambeds), flying nap-of-the-earth (NOE) to stay under the Iraqi radar. They staggered back and forth to avoid being observed by enemy observation posts.
The formations arrived on target, and at 2:38, the two sites were struck simultaneously by missiles. Within four minutes, the Iraqi radar installations ceased to exist. The air campaign had begun. Active-duty Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard components of AFSOC were deployed to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The 1st SOW with its AC-130s, HC-130s, MC-130s, MH-53s, and MH60s; the 193rd SOG with its EC-130s; and the 919th SOG with its AC-130s and HH-3s all deployed south of Kuwait. The 39th SOW deployed north of Iraq with its HC-130s, MC-130s, and MH-53s. Special tactics personnel operated throughout the theater on multiple combat control and combat rescue missions.
Air Force Special Operations Command combat control teams were responsible for the majority of air traffic control in the Persian Gulf theater of operation. In addition, the teams performed direct-action missions, combat search and rescue, infiltration, exfiltration, air base ground defense, air interdiction, special reconnaissance, close air support, psychological operations, and helicopter air refueling.
Excerpted from DEADLY BLUE by FRED PUSHIES Copyright © 2009 by Fred Pushies. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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