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UPDATE Document Friday: SecDef Gates recalled Operation Eagle Claw during Operation Geronimo

August 26, 2011

The wreckage from Operation Eagle Claw at Desert 1.

Update: Looks like I was on the same page as Robert Gates.  The New Yorker’s revealing –but opaquely sourced— account of the Bin Laden raid states that Gates had Operation Eagle Claw on his mind.

“On March 29th, McRaven brought the plan to Obama. The President’s military advisers were divided. Some supported a raid, some an airstrike, and others wanted to hold off until the intelligence improved. Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, was one of the most outspoken opponents of a helicopter assault. Gates reminded his colleagues that he had been in the Situation Room of the Carter White House when military officials presented Eagle Claw—the 1980 Delta Force operation that aimed at rescuing American hostages in Tehran but resulted in a disastrous collision in the Iranian desert, killing eight American soldiers. ‘They said that was a pretty good idea, too,‘ Gates warned. He and General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, favored an airstrike by B-2 Spirit bombers.”

The New Yorker article also quotes a “senior Defense Department official” who claimed Operation Geronimo was less difficult than Operation Eagle Claw.  The anonymous official stated, “This was one of almost two thousand missions that have been conducted over the last couple of years, night after night” and described it as, “mowing the lawn.” 

The piece also confirms that President Obama, unlike President Carter, ordered additional helicopters to hover just outside Pakistan.  “He wanted to feel assured that the Americans could ‘fight their way out of Pakistan.’ Twenty-five additional SEALs from DEVGRU, pulled from a squadron stationed in Afghanistan, sat in the Chinooks that remained at the border; this ‘quick-reaction force’ would be called into action only if the mission went seriously wrong.”  Two additional Chinooks landed at a “hide spot” in Pakistani territory.  It was a smart move.  After one of the Blackhawk helicopters crashed, the SEALs boarded a Chinook sent from the “hide spot” to pick them up.  After refueling inside Pakistan, every US soldier made it home safely. 

A few more updates below.


On 2 May 2011, President Barack Obama announced, “Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

Almost 30 years earlier, on 25 April 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave a much different speech.  He announced that he had “canceled a carefully planned operation which was underway in Iran” to rescue the 52 American hostages, held since 4 November 1979.  As the elite team of Delta Force troops aborted and returned to aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, “two of our American aircraft collided on the ground following a refueling operation in a remote desert location in Iran….To my deep regret, eight of the crewmen of the two aircraft which collided were killed, and several other Americans were hurt in the accident.”

Operation Eagle Claw was one of the most disastrous covert operations in American history.  Operation Geronimo was one of the most successful.  Months after Operation Eagle Claw, the Joint Chiefs of Staff drafted the Holloway Report “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.”

My immediate reaction to reading the Holloway Report in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid was that the military and intelligence officers who had conducted Operation Geronimo had done their homework and read their history.  Many of the specific recommendations made by the Holloway Report were followed in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. 

(Of course, Operation Eagle Claw was probably much more complicated than Operation Geronimo.  Determining the location and rescuing 52 people from a hostile country was probably orders of magnitude more difficult than determining the location of and killing one person in a quasi-friendly country.)

Update: A “senior Defense Department official” confirmed this.  He likened the Abbottabad raid to “mowing the grass.” A “special operations officer said, “it was like hitting a target in McLean [Virginia, a DC suburb].”  Apparently raids like this are common in Afghanistan; the big difference was that, “this one took off and went right [to Pakistan],” not left to Afghanistan.  

Here’s a brief summary of the doomed Operation Eagle Claw.  This is just the bare bones, summarized primarily from the Holloway Report’s chronology.

Six RH-53D helicopter as seen from the deck of the USS Nimitz.

Almost immediately after the US Embassy in Tehran was seized after the Iranian Revolution, US military planners began drawing up a plan to win the release the US hostages.  The operation they conducted, Operation Eagle Claw, was an extremely complex, multi-stage mission.  The first part required eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters to fly from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean to a site known as Desert 1 in the southern, sparsely populated Iranian desert.  There, the helicopters would rendezvous with three MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft (which carried members of the Delta Force assault team) and three gigantic EC-130E Hercules (which would refuel the eight RH-53D helicopters).  The landing of the MC-130Es and EC-130Es planes was the only part of Operation Eagle Claw that was successfully conducted.

Update:  Operation Geronimo also utilized a “hide site.” “[Two] Chinooks were each outfitted with a pair of M134 Miniguns. They followed the Black Hawks’ initial flight path but landed at a predetermined point on a dry riverbed in a wide, unpopulated valley in northwest Pakistan. The nearest house was half a mile away. On the ground, the copters’ rotors were kept whirring while operatives monitored the surrounding hills for encroaching Pakistani helicopters or fighter jets. One of the Chinooks was carrying fuel bladders, in case the other aircraft needed to refill their tanks.”

The next phase was even more daring.  The Sea Stallion helicopters would fly to Desert 2, a “hide site,” just outside of Tehran. There, they would offload the Delta Force assault troops.  According to the plan, the CIA would secretly transport troops to the embassy in trucks.  (The CIA already had a secret operation in Tehran).  Then, the CIA would kill the electricity to the area and the US troops would overpower the Iranian soldiers guarding the US embassy.  After the fight, US troops would escort the US hostages to the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium where the Sea Stallion helicopters would pick them up.

In the final phase, the Sea Stallions would transport the hostages to the Iranian Manzariyeh Air Base, outside of Tehran.  By this point –according to the plan– Army Rangers would have taken over the Air Base and allowed C-141 transport planes to land, which would have transported the Delta Force and hostages out of Iran under the protection of fighter jets.

To me, with the benefit of thirty years hindsight, the plan seemed doomed from the start–too many moving parts.  But my opinion is contradicted by the –highly critical– Holloway Report which argued that the mission could have been a success with better implementation and that, “Only the United States military, alone in the world, had the ability to accomplish what the United States planned to do.  It was risky and we knew it, but it had a good chance of success and America had the courage to try.”

The helicopters and planes at Desert 1. Note that only six –not eight– helicopters made the rendezvous.  From wikipedia.

Operation Eagle Claw was aborted in its first phase.  Of the eight Sea Stallion helicopters that left the USS Nimitz, two were damaged in a sand storm (one returned to the Nimitz, the other crash landed) and one made it to the Desert 1 rendezvous site, but had damaged hydraulics and could not continue.  The mission called for a minimum of six helicopters to carry out the raid on Tehran.   (Earlier plans called for as few as four, but this was likely because they underestimated the number of troops needed to assault the Embassy.)  Because the requisite number of undamaged helicopters did not exist, the mission commander suggested that the mission be aborted.  President Carter agreed.

Update:  The helicopter that crashed in Pakistan also crashed because the conditions on the ground in Pakistan were different than the conditions that the pilot had rehearsed on US soil.  “When the helicopter began getting away from the pilot, he pulled back on the cyclic, which controls the pitch of the rotor blades, only to find the aircraft unresponsive. The high walls of the compound and the warm temperatures had caused the Black Hawk to descend inside its own rotor wash—a hazardous aerodynamic situation known as ‘settling with power.’ In North Carolina, this potential problem had not become apparent, because the chain-link fencing used in rehearsals had allowed air to flow freely.”

Then, as the five undamaged helicopters refueled for their trip back to the USS Nimitz, one crashed into a EC 130E Hercules and exploded, killing eight soldiers and burning many more.  Ammunition aboard both aircraft began exploding and damaging the remaining air craft.  Finally, the Holloway Report recounts, “with time and fuel running out for the C-130s, the decision was made to transfer all helicopter crews to the remaining C-130s and to depart the area [leaving the RH-53D Sea Stallions for the Iranians.]” A failed mission.

The downed US helicopter at the Abbottabad complex. Is it a upgraded, stealth-optimized MH-60?

The Holloway Report lists 23 issues that caused Operation Eagle Claw to fail.  I suspect that the planners of Operation Geronimo spent much time studying the failure of Operation Eagle Claw –and likely the Holloway Report itself.  Here are several “issues” related to Operation Eagle Claw, and how –in my opinion– they compare to Operation Geronimo.

    • “The Concept of a small clandestine operation was valid and consistent with national policy objectives.”  This appears to be the case in 2011 as well.
    • “OPSEC [operational security] was an overridding requirement for a successful operation.”  Ditto.
    • “Planning was adequate except for the number of backup helicopters and provisions for weather contingencies.”  This one is interesting.  As we know, Leon Panetta asserted that two helicopters took part in the raid; one malfunctioned and was destroyed.  But as David Axe at Danger Room points out, this raises eyebrows.  “Two of the copters together can just barely squeeze in 25 people plus their weapons and other gear. But it’s inconceivable that a single surviving Blackhawk could have transported all 25 members of the assault team. Anyone who’s ridden in a Blackhawk knows that.”   At any rate it appears that –reported or not– there was adequate transport to get the troops in and out of the compound.  Photos of the downed copter, showing strange, previously unseen features, have the “aviation geeks” abuzz over what kind of new craft it could be.  Hopefully it was designed to withstand sand storms, or, at least, it avoided them.   A final question: where did the helicopters fly from?  My guess is from across the Afghan border from Bagram or Jalalabad Air Force base .  I doubt they had to rendezvous to refuel… But the government has been mum.  Update:  The helico0pters took off from Jalalabad.  As stated above, two “stealth outfitted” Blackhawks raided the compound.  Two Chinooks flew to a “hide spot” inside Pakistan.  They were each outfitted with two M134 miniguns.  Two additional Chinooks hovered on the Afghan side of the Af-Pak border.  Six helicopters total.  According to the New Yorker, Bin Laden’s body was flown to Jalabad AFB and then to Bagram AFB.  From Bagram, was loaded onto a V-22 Osprey that again flew across Pakistani air space without permission to the USS Carl Vinson, floating on the Arabian Sea. 
    • “Preparation for the mission was adequate except for the lack of a comprehensive, full-scale training exercise.”  According to the Gaurdian, in preparation for Operation Geronimo, the Navy SEALs constructed a mock up of Osama’s compound at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan which was “authentic to the last detail”  and practiced the raid extensively.
    • And finally, “The ad hoc nature of the organization and planning.”  Much of the organization and planning for Operation Gerinimo remains unknown.  But the decision to use a Navy SEAL unit to conduct the operation (rather than, say, an amalgamated JSOC unit) appears to have been a wise one.

Operation Eagle Claw was a disaster.  Operation Geronimo, a success.  It appears that the US military has learned from its mistakes.

  1. Bob Brown permalink
    May 10, 2011 12:07 pm

    In 2009 my brother, a former Marine, and I took a small flats boat Across the Atlanic in honor of the three marines that died in Operation Eagles Claw. It was the Wounded Hero Voyage cross the Atlantic. I am dedicating the book I just finished writing to them and need help locating their familes to get the personal stories and dreams of the three marines. Can you give me any help or a directin to start looking for them? Bob Brown

    • Nate Jones permalink
      May 10, 2011 2:35 pm

      Will look into it. Give me a few days. Can’t wait to read your book!!

      Nate Jones

  2. May 22, 2011 11:43 am

    Are you sure?

    Bin Laden Raid:
    Operation Was Not Successful – Eye Witness Claims:
    “We saw the helicopter burning, we saw the dead bodies, then everything was removed and now there is nothing”
    True or not, there is a unpleasant ring of reality in this story that is lacking in all others, a reality proven out by the helicopter wreckage found at the scene. This is the only real proof there was an operation at all.

  3. August 29, 2011 10:01 am

    Well done, brother Nate. I reckon its gonna be another thirty years before we know all of the details of Geronimo, unfortunately.

  4. April 13, 2013 3:26 pm

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