Lessons from Operation Eagle Claw

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The execution of military operations requires the application of certain fundamental principles, and tenets that have been the keystone of strategy development and conflict planning, since the appearance of organized forces. In addition to these tenets and principles, the military relies on the experience of front line leaders, and lessons learned to ensure operations evolve to focus on current and emerging threats. Currently, the United States military is waging wars on two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan. To be successful, these operations require the coordinated efforts of all branches of service, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Unfortunately, joint and special operations haven’t always been executed as smoothly as the current Middle-Eastern conflicts. Operation Eagle Claw is one such example. Operation Eagle Claw failed, but it was the catalyst of change needed to identify serious shortcomings, in how the U.S. military conducts joint and special operations warfare. In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was seized, and fifty-two Americans were taken hostage. The American forces’ ability to respond to such a crisis had dwindled since the Vietnam War. The Army provided some specialized training in guerilla warfare and hostage crisis response to the Delta Force operators, but budget cuts after Vietnam, severely impacted availability of funds. Furthermore, the Air Force focused attention on updating aircraft after the war, and provided no funding for sustainment of special operations forces. In fact, there was no centralized authority or command and control established of forces organized to respond to such a threat. Initially, the American government looked to diplomacy to gain the release of the hostages. When diplomacy proved unsuccessful, the government considered several other options. These options included the use of the Army’s elite Delta Force, which recently received operational approval, but had no way to get to Iran without support, and they were unable to execute a clandestine approach to the U.S. Embassy. Additionally, Washington considered the insertion of the Army’s 82nd Airborne, but the idea was later tossed out. To ensure the safety of the hostages, President Carter preferred diplomatic negotiations, as he feared any military action would result in their execution. Unable to negotiate a peaceful release President Carter had to improvise. After breaking diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980, on the advice of top military leaders, he directed a combination of forces be mobilized to recuperate the hostages. The basic plan of the operation involved inserting elements of Delta Force operators into Iran the night before the operation was to launch. After the special operators assault the embassy and rescue the hostages, they would return to their insertion point and bring the hostages home. In its planning stages, Operation Eagle Claw encountered many hurdles that had to be crossed before the mission was executed. Unfamiliarity of unconventional operations forces led to distrust from conventional forces officers, and Operation Eagle Claw was not exclusively a military operation. The presence of Central Intelligence Agency agents added further uncertainty to operations, due to civilians being imbedded among the military forces. Additionally the CIA was unwilling to share intelligence information with the military planners. Gathering the resources to execute proved difficult, as each branch of services owned the parts and pieces necessary to be successful. The army owned the Delta Force, the Air Force owned the transport aircraft and the Navy owned the helicopters chosen for the mission. However, the Navy pilots were not accustomed to flying long missions, so Marines were chosen to operate the helicopters for the mission. Initially, ten of these helicopters were requested to support the mission, but only eight were dispatched to Desert One. The helicopters were unable to make the trip from aircraft to...
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