Clear an hour on your schedule, and watch this video. It’s a 58-minute presentation by one of the lead United States Air Force planners in Operation Eagle Claw, the April 1980 attempted rescue of US diplomatic staff captured by Iranian revolutionary forces in Tehran.
Eagle Claw is often held as an example of overly-complicated and underdeveloped plans which are doomed to fail. To reach Tehran, eight RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters would launch from the USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman, and meet six Hercules transports (a mix of MC-130 and EC-130s) at a remote road, codenamed ‘Desert One’, in Iran, in the middle of the night.
Sea Stallion crews would refuel from fuel bladders carried on the EC-130s, and onload 120 Delta Force troops and their entourage for a flight to mountains outside of Tehran. The following night, Deltas would use trucks acquired by CIA operatives to storm Iranian revolutionary forces holding the US Embassy, and escape with the rescued hostages from the centre of Tehran to a disused military airfield by the remaining RH-53s. At this airfield, US Army Rangers take the airfield after disembarking from C-141 Starlifters, and the whole congregation would hightail it out of there in the jet transports, abandoning the helicopters.
Sound complicated? It was, but the raid was practiced at least seven times on home soil – and quite successfully, once it had come to the latter stages of execution. The key difference was how the Eagle Claw would play out in the real world, where a combination of factors led to the RH-53s arriving late, breaking down, or returning to the USS Nimitz. When the Defense hierarchy realised there were too few RH-53s to carry out Eagle Claw, the decision was taken to scrub the mission. As aircraft prepared to leave Desert One, an RH-53 mistakenly air-taxied in to a ground-idling EC-130, causing an explosion which killed eight US servicemen. All RH-53s were then abandoned on the ground, and all servicemen departed in the remaining Hercules. Operation Eagle Claw was judged a failure at best.
There’s some good cause to reflect on Operation Eagle Claw today, nearly 33 years after it took place. Just recently, the film Argo was released to some acclaim, covering both the events of the US Embassy’s capture, along with the escape by six American citizens who received refuge in the Canadian Ambassadors Residence in Tehran. Later this month, the film Zero Dark Thirty will be released in cinemas, covering the events of Operation Neptune Spear – the Osama Bin Laden raid in May 2011 – which was another long distance airborne raid by special forces, albeit launched 31 years after Eagle Claw. Unquestionably, the success of Neptune Spear was rooted in many of the lessons learned from Eagle Claw.
Despite the considerable drama involved with the United States sending nearly 150 servicemen and 14 aircraft in to a hostile country, the events of Eagle Claw have gone otherwise unrecognised on the cinema screen. Fortunately, we have some outstanding literary accounts. Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah covered the crisis in its entirety (you can read the Eagle Claw chapter here), while Colonel Charlie Beckwith’s Delta Force (which I recently read) recalls the formation of the synonymous special forces team that would execute the raid itself, along with detailing how the raid was intended to take place. This account is nicely complemented by Colonel James Kyle’s The Guts To Try (which I plan to re-read this year), covering the United States Air Force’s point of view in the raid’s planning and execution.
The hostages in Tehran would ultimately spend 444 days at the hands of their captors before their negotiated release. Eagle Claw became a footnote and lesson in military failure, but it can easily be overlooked for what benefits it brought the United States. While a mission of Eagle Claw’s scale has (to the best public knowledge) not been repeated, there have been a number of organisational changes which would leave the US military better prepared. The failure of Eagle Claw led to the creation of Joint Special Operations Command and later United States Special Operations Command, which would oversee future combined joint operations within a single pillar of command (rather than rely on the cooperation of disparate units from all services, as was the case during Eagle Claw).
The Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) too was established to be a dedicated airborne support element to special forces in future, rather than drawing on the skill of ordinary units. Some unfair demands were placed upon the Navy and Marine crews flying the RH-53 Sea Stallions in Eagle Claw, required to draw upon skills and abilities they had only experienced during mission training. While the choice of Sea Stallions was deliberate so to not warn Soviet spy ships stalking the USS Nimitz, they were poorly kept in the lead up to Eagle Claw, resulting in their ultimate failure. The establishment of specialist aviation units would at least help create a body of knowledge which could foresee some of the environmental, technical and aviation issues which plagued the mission.
Eagle Claw also achieved several successes in itself. A combined CIA and US Department of Defense team operated clandestinely within Iran in the lead up to the operation, and established an airfield at Desert One utilising a DHC-6 Twin Otter in the days leading to the raid. The attempted raid also vindicated the efforts, training and equipment of Air Force’s MC-130 and EC-130 Hercules, who were lucky enough to be executing a role that they (largely) practiced for – undetected infiltration and exfiltration of enemy airspace. Some first-time experience at operating in to austere airfields under Night Vision Goggles was developed for the mission. Following Eagle Claw, the Air Force and Lockheed modified two MC-130s following in to ‘Super STOL’ transports, code-named ‘Credible Sport I’, intended to land in a soccer stadium opposite the US Embassy for another rescue attempt. One of the aircraft was destroyed in trials and the rescue attempt was abandoned..
The only questions which remain are, if Eagle Claw had have made it through its first night successfully, would it have survived its second? And had Eagle Claw have gone to plan, how would the United States conduct special operations differently today? I’m inclined to argue that given how close run Eagle Claw was during its first couple of hours, then its chances of failure – and the likelihood of further casualties – was substantial on night two. What stood in the raid’s favour was the element of surprise and sheer weight of the force the United States was bringing to the Embassy, which Iran could not possibly have foreseen. That being said, the Delta Force teams were highly vulnerable and susceptible to discovery once they made it to Tehran, and many moving parts still needed to ‘click’ in the right way for them to make it out alive with the rescued hostages.
Had the raid concluded successfully (and with a minimum of casualties), it would have delivered a huge boon to the imagination of the US Department of Defense, by way of what could be achieved with dedicated special forces units. Following a successful raid, I like to think that the organisation would have seen where its faults lay, and attempted some of the resolutions and re-organisation which it did in real life. Undoubtedly, the need for a single command for special operations would have been demonstrated if Eagle Claw was a success. The establishment of units such as Delta Force too was born from the success of foreign military raids such as the Israeli success at Entebbe, meaning a successful Eagle Claw may have led to the creation of additional dedicated units (such as the afore-mentioned 160th SOAR).