Operation Eagle Claw: Disaster In The Desert

In early November 1979, rioting Iranian students entered the American embassy in Tehran and seized fifty-two government employees.  Whether this was a spontaneous act, or a planned operation by Iran’s revolutionary government, is still open to debate; but in either instance, the nation’s clerical leadership moved quickly to exploit the crisis.  In the United States, the Carter administration was still reeling from the shock waves sent out by the fall of the Shah, who had long been an American ally in the region.  There was a sense of confusion, even paralysis; and the problem was compounded by the fact that the Americans had very little knowledge of what was happening in Tehran.  There were no eyes and ears on the ground.

There then followed months of ineffective wrangling with the new Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.  He had only recently returned to Iran from exile in France, and before that had lived for many years outside his country.  His first priority was to consolidate his control, and implement his revolutionary plans for his conception of an Islamic state.  The hostages were a useful tool for this purpose.  The legacy of the hated Shah could be held before the public; those he believed responsible for the Shah’s excesses could be castigated, perhaps even put on trial; and the captivity of the foreigners could be used to extract concessions from Washington.  These were the objectives he pursued.

President Carter’s responses to Khomeini’s gambit seemed to recall the Shah’s vacillating and feeble actions of 1978 as he frantically sought to keep his throne.  Every attempt to outmaneuver Khomeini failed.  The wily cleric always seemed to be one step ahead of the Shah, constantly escalating and calling his opponent’s bluffs.  Carter assumed he could work out some sort of arrangement with Khomeini, but it eventually became clear that the Iranian leader was more interested in maintaining the state of tension than in negotiating a speedy release of the hostages.  He wanted the Americans to deliver him the Shah for trial; and this was a condition that the US could not, or would not, agree to.  Khomeini was implacable, and not actuated by the usual motives that animate Western politicians.  What mattered to him was implementing his vision of an Islamic state:  everything else was to service this end.

The situation was untenable for Carter.  It was draining confidence in his presidency, and making him look helpless in the face of blackmail.  But what could be done?  Iran was a vast, mountainous country, far from any substantial American military presence.  And even if a military option were available, what should be done?  Drop bombs and hope to see a change of heart?  Was this even a realistic option, or a prudent one?  Or would some sort of expeditionary force be a better option?  And if so, what could it realistically do?  The truth was that there were no good options.  The US cut diplomatic relations with Iran in April 1980.  After much study and reflection, military planners, together with the Carter administration, settled on the idea of a hostage rescue operation.  National security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was one of the most prominent voices calling for this solution.

Command of the operation—which came to be called “Eagle Claw”—fell to Army general James B. Vaught.  Assisting him would be Colonel Charles Beckwith (serving as Delta Force commander) and Air Force colonel James H. Kyle, who would handle the air support aspect of the operation.  The plan eventually developed was a fearsomely complex one.  In essence, C-130 aircraft and various helicopters would penetrate Iranian airspace and land in a staging area (called “Desert One”) about two hundred miles southeast of Tehran.  The helicopters would refuel and transport military personnel to another staging area (“Desert Two”) closer to the city, from which the actual raid would be conducted.  The following night, the combat personnel were to land on the embassy grounds, seize the hostages, and then fly to a previously seized airfield (Manzariyeh Air Base) in the city.  From there, everyone would be flown out to Cairo.  Kyle’s book, The Guts to Try, describes the planning of the operation in detail.  Perhaps too much detail, it seems to this reader.

The operation had many stages, each one requiring luck and proper execution.  Unlike the Israeli raid on Entebbe, Uganda, the Americans would not be landing in some remote, sparsely defended location.  And it must be said that the Iranians were a more formidable enemy than the Ugandans.  In Iran the American embassy was in the middle of an urban area, and the logistical and communications challenges were dauntingly convoluted.  Besides the sheer physical difficulties, there were a great number of things that could go wrong.  What if the hostages were not even at the embassy?  What if they had been moved?  Or what might happen to them once the Iranians got wind of the raid?  Was it realistic to expect that the raiding force would be able to operate at night in unfamiliar terrain and climate conditions?  But President Carter, quite rightly, decided that the time had come to act.  The existing situation could not continue.

The flights to the Desert One staging area would come from the island of Masirah (off the coast of Oman), and Navy helicopters flying from the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf.  There were about one hundred Delta Force soldiers participating in the operation.  The flight from Masirah would have to cover one thousand miles; the flights from the Nimitz, about six hundred.  They would be assisted by some ground intelligence personnel who had already been smuggled into Iran and who were waiting near the embassy.  Manzariyeh Air Base was to be captured and secured by a detachment of Army Rangers.  Aircraft were then to fly in from Saudi Arabia, pick up the freed hostages and military personnel, and get everyone out.  This was the plan, painted in broad strokes.  Secretary of State Cyrus Vance thought the mission was impossible and would resign in the wake of its failure.

Yet, as anyone who has participated in a complex undertaking of any kind knows, events in real life have ways of not conforming to our plans.  There will always be this intervention of Fortune, or as Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus calls her, Adrastia.  We make our plans, but Fortune always has her say.  And some enterprises in retrospect seemed fated for disaster from the outset.  Eagle Claw was an incredibly complicated raid; had it succeeded, it would have become legendary in the annals of rescue operations.  The initial landing at Desert One from Masirah, while difficult, was successful.  One of the helicopters (RH-53Ds) flying in from the Gulf encountered mechanical difficulties, however, and decided to make an emergency landing in the desert when its sensors detected a cracked rotor blade.  The remaining helos then encountered a strange phenomenon known as a haboob:  an immense cloud of suspended dust particles, so thick as to eliminate visibility.  Colonel Kyle describes the scene:

I vaguely remembered Stormy Buchanan’s talking about these unusual occurrences of suspended dust in Iran, but I had never flown through anything like this anywhere in the world, especially at night…The condition is caused by the downrush of air associated with distant thunderstorms (usually several hours earlier).  The air pressure forces the fine powdery sand up into the air (usually up to one hundred miles from the storm’s center), and it hangs there for hours.  Haboobs are difficult to predict and had not been mentioned in our permission forecast.

Predicted or not, this was the situation.  Nevertheless six of the helicopters did reach Desert One, although they were about an hour behind schedule.  Other mechanical problems intervened, with the result that there were only five functioning helicopters available for the next leg of the mission, the move to the Desert Two staging area.  The involved ground and air leaders felt that the mission could not continue as planned; Col. Beckwith did not think he could accomplish the mission with less men, and the aviation element thought their equipment was not sufficiently serviceable.  Col. Kyle therefore advised General Vaught that the mission should be terminated.  Vaught informed the president, who reluctantly agreed.  As Kyle would later concede, his recommendation to abort would become a controversial one.

But the raid team was not out of the forest yet.  The aircraft had lost a great deal of fuel idling on the ground for over an hour, waiting for confirmation of the abort order.  On April 24, 1980, while trying to refuel at Desert One, one of the RH-53 helicopters collided with one of the C-130 transports, causing an explosion that killed eight men; the cause of the accident was a lack of visibility caused by the dusty environment.  Five men were injured.  The remainder of the raid force left Iran without incident.

President Carter publicly acknowledged the failed operation on April 25, taking full responsibility for what had happened.  The effect on public opinion was uniformly negative; Carter seemed cloaked in failure no matter what he tried to do.  An investigation conducted in 1980 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the Holloway Commission) found many deficiencies in the operation, including a lack of unified planning, and inadequate training.  Col. Kyle strenuously maintains that the real reasons for the operation’s failure were the following:

  1. Disastrously wrong weather forecast.
  2. Flawed command structure and inadequate communications equipment.
  3. A controversial pilot abort decision.
  4. Restrictions on tactics.
  5. Flight planning factors.

The first point refers to the haboob that the aircraft encountered; and in one sense, this falls into that category of “acts of God.”  Stated another way, this was just bad luck.  It is the third point that so troubled Kyle in his memoirs.  One gets the clear sense that he believed the helicopter pilots were too quick to give up, and that they should have risked continuing with the operation.  (I myself agree with him):

It is all too easy to blame an abort situation on mechanical failure since, with human factors involved, most commanders hesitate to challenge a pilot’s decision.  But in this case, I think we have to ask the question, “Did the machine fail the man, or did the man fail the machine?”

Kyle had had a long career before Eagle Claw; he had flown numerous combat mission in Vietnam, and I believe he knew what he was talking about.  The raiding party was already fully committed by the time they reached Desert One; they should have taken the risk to continue the operation.  The leadership element, in my view, was too willing to accept failure and disgrace.  Their thoughts should have centered on the success of the mission at all costs; they should have been mindful of the demoralizing effect that failure would produce on the national honor.  When Colonel Doolittle launched an air raid on Tokyo at the beginning of the Second World War, he was less concerned with his and his team’s safety, as he was in accomplishing the mission; and there is a lesson to be drawn from this.  He knew some of his pilots would crash land in Japan, dive “into the drink” (the ocean), or in Japanese-occupied China.  He and his men wanted to succeed above all else; fear of death or failure did not control their minds.

Did the machines fail the men, or did the men fail the machines?  Kyle’s question is a valid one, and one that deserves serious and honest reflection.  I think he knew the answer to this question, and I think it haunted him to the end of his life.  Operation Eagle Claw would eventually become synonymous with ineptitude and humiliation.  One wonders if it would have been remembered differently if the operation had failed only after its commanders had resolved, with an iron determination, to risk everything, and to fight to the death for victory.



Read more on daring military tactics in Sallust: