Eagle Claw

Also Known As “Desert One”… A Successful Failed Mission

By Colonel Roland D Guidry, USAF (Ret.)

This article was first published April 2012 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 1, Issue 3 page 18.

I am sick and tired of Eagle Claw being referred to as a disaster, a debacle, a fiasco, etc. Such criticism was recently renewed by the press in the reporting of the take down of Osama bin Laden — and the comparisons of the two missions — which provided the motivation for my writing this article. Few critics realize that this was one of the most difficult, complex, audacious, military rescue missions ever attempted…that almost succeeded. And even fewer realize all the good that came out of the ashes and dust of Desert One. The purpose of this article is not to lay out the facts of the mission; Colonel James Kyle, the Eagle Claw Air Force Component Commander, did a superb job of doing that in his book The Guts to Try. My purpose is to take a look at the positive aspects that resulted from Eagle Claw from a perspective of over 30 years of hindsight.

Background

The US Embassy in Tehran was taken over by Islamic militant students on November 4, 1979. A few days later, members of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt started scrambling to comply with requests for planning assistance from the Pentagon. These requests came from the leaders of an ad hoc task force formed from within the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The initial concept was not to plan a rescue mission but for a punitive option—deploy the AC-130 Gunships to Guam to be in position for a long range, multiple air refueling, deep surgical strike into Iran. So, the wing commander, Colonel Dick Dunwoody, and the Deputy for Operations, Colonel Tom Wicker, suddenly disappeared from Hurlburt, along with several Spectre Gunships, crews and support personnel. That left very little experienced leadership at Hurlburt among the key positions charged with planning a rescue mission. This included a deputy Wing Commander new to Special Operations and the author, a commander of the MC-130E squadron (8th Special Operations Squadron) who was new to the Hurlburt community and had been away from flying for eight years. However, my recent six years managing Operational Test and Evaluation projects, including special operations equipment and tactics, were to later come in handy.

USSOCOMIn those days there was no Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), no US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), or United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Special operations had been decimated four years earlier when the Vietnam War ended. Special Ops had little money, little emphasis, little priority, and antiquated assets. The AC-130 aircraft came very close to going to the “Boneyard”1 in 1977. On any given day, the 8th SOS had three to four MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft on station at Hurlburt, one of which was committed to the Combat Talon qualification course, then run from within the squadron.

During the drawdown at the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force did not know what to do with the 1st Special Operations Wing or where to fit it into the Air Force organizational structure that was re-orienting towards conventional and nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The 1st SOW was assigned to 9th Air Force (a fighter numbered air force) and Tactical Air Command (now Air Combat Command), neither of which knew what to do with, or cared much about, special operations. This turned out to be advantageous. As the planners at the Pentagon developed their plans for a possible hostage rescue, guidance and tasking for the Iran situation were very simple and streamlined: orders flowed from the joint task force at the Pentagon directly to the MC-130 and AC-130 squadrons, bypassing intermediate commands except for key people in the 1st SOW. The third flying squadron at Hurlburt, the 20th SOS, was equipped with only short range CH-3 and UH-1 helicopters and lacked heavy lift helicopters capable of performing a long range mission. The eight Pave Low helicopters in the Air Force all belonged to Air Rescue and Recovery Service and were not asked to participate in Eagle Claw.

A few weeks after the Gunships and the 1st SOW leadership disappeared, a few MC-130 aircrew members from Hurlburt were ordered to report to the Pentagon to assist in working out details of various rescue options. This happened even though President Jimmy Carter had publicly declared that a rescue mission was out of the question due to the risk to the lives of the hostages and the location of the targets almost 1,000 miles deep into the interior of Iran and halfway around the world. The hostages were held in two widely-separated Tehran locations; the US Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This complicated the planning due to the need to take down the dual targets simultaneously. The lack of suitable US bases near Iran initially complicated the planning for a rescue mission. As the situation evolved and a plan was developed that seemed feasible, the emphasis shifted from a punitive to a rescue option.

The planners set up shop in the office of JCS/J-3 SOD (Special Operations Division) and slowly expanded the staff by tapping into other special operators who had the expertise needed for the JTF. That person was then invited to join the planning group, signed a non-disclosure statement, and joined the JTF planning staff. One of the reasons this was an ad hoc joint task force based in the Pentagon was so that the JCS Chairman, USAF General David Jones, could personally direct and oversee mission planning as well as develop tasking of assets needed by the task force.  The reaction to the hostage situation was changing so fast and the situation was politically charged that the JCS leadership made the decision, just as with the Son Tay mission, to keep the joint task force at the JCS rather than assign the mission to one of the geographic combatant commands in Europe, the Pacific, or elsewhere.

Many readers of the Air Commando Journal (ACJ) have attended a briefing on Operation Eagle Claw, also known by other names such as “Desert One” or “Rice Bowl,”...or they may have read one of the books on the mission, such as “The Guts to Try” by Colonel James Kyle, the JTF Air Force component commander. But few may realize how degraded Air Force special operations was when the embassy fell, and how much progress was made in developing tactics, procedures, and hardware in three periods that followed the embassy takeover. Those three periods were the 5 ½ months between the November 1979 embassy takeover and rescue attempt in April 1980; the next 6 months during which Project Honey Badger, preparations for a second rescue attempt, was organized and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was formed; and the early JSOC period between the fall of 1980 and the release of the hostages in January 1981. This article focuses on the first period and leaves the other two periods for future articles. I was involved in all three periods, first as commander of the 8th Special Operations Squadron leading up to Desert One; then as one of the primary fixed wing planners during Honey Badger; and finally as the first Chief of Air Operations and a founding member (“Plankholder”) of JSOC.

With that as background, here is how the rescue mission evolved. By coincidence, the assault force received its final certification from Army brass as fully ready for combat operations on the very day the embassy fell on the 4th of November 1979. So, from the beginning, the assault force would be the “over the wall” force to rescue the hostages. The challenge the planners faced from the beginning was how to get the assault force to the targets undetected…and how to extract the force and the hostages from the middle of Tehran after the rescue. If there is a war or other air-intensive military conflict going on, it is relatively easy to cover the movement of aircraft to position them for a rescue mission. During the special operation to rescue the POWs from Son Tay in 1971, it had been relatively easy to cover the repositioning of aircraft within Southeast Asia. The aircraft movements blended in all the other aircraft movements and were undetected by the North Vietnamese. However, in 1979, the world was at peace and the clandestine movement of mission and support aircraft from the United States to halfway around the world was very challenging.

Operation EVENING LIGHT

A right side view of six RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters in flight, just after lifting off the flight deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS NIMITZ (CVN-68). The helicopters are taking part in Operation Evening Light, a rescue mission to Iran.

The plan called for Navy RH-53D mine sweeping helicopters from Norfolk to launch from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and for Rangers from the 75th Ranger Battalion from Hunter Army Air Field, GA, to secure a drop zone, landing zone, or airfield in the Iranian desert on the first night. The location would be used to refuel the helicopters on night one and to trans-load the Rangers to the helicopters after being airlifted to the site by MC-130s . The assault force would board the helicopters for insertion into a second “hide” site (Desert Two) south of Tehran.  Colonel Charlie Beckwith, commander of the assault force, was dead set against his men being transported to the aircraft carrier and then fly all the way to the Desert One refuel site and on to Desert Two by helicopters. This was why the assault force was transported to the refuel site on the MC-130s to a rendezvous with the helicopters. On the second night, the Rangers would seize another airfield some 40 miles southwest of Tehran for use as a trans-load site to transfer the assault force and the hostages from the helicopters to fixed wing aircraft for extraction.

The Task Force commander was a rough and tough Army general officer named James Vaught who was known for playing a key role in many operations by Special Forces where he stressed unconventional tactics. His Air Force Component Commander was Colonel James Kyle, a Vietnam War AC-130 Gunship veteran who had extensive special operations staff experience at various levels of command within Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). From the very start their guidance to the Air Force commanders, planners, and crews was to develop tactics, procedures, and hardware to do everything blacked-out (total darkness)…no visible light and no unnecessary electronic emissions…and to maintain radio silence until the assaulters went over the wall on night two. Here are some tidbits on how our marching orders were implemented that may be of interest to those who wish to learn more about how difficult rescue missions are put together.

Enhanced Night Operations

The following paragraphs describe the various aspects of implementing the mandate that all operations would be conducted blacked-out. The Night Vision Goggle (NVG) picture of a C-130  (pictured on page 22) landing blacked out tells it all: no lights, minimum electronic emissions, no radio calls, no advance party to set up portable lights, and very little sound if the runway is long enough for the C-130 to use normal wheel braking for deceleration rather than the noisy reverse thrust of the propellers.

Night Vision Goggle (NVG) Operations

C-130 landing blacked out

C-130 landing blacked out

In the mid-70s, the US Army was pressuring Air Force special operations units to develop enhanced nighttime capabilities which required NVGs during flight operations. An operational test and evaluation project was conducted to evaluate the first generation AN/PVS-5 NVGs for flight operations. The conclusion was that these early models of NVGs were unsafe to fly with in fixed wing aircraft. General Vaught ignored this finding and gave the two MC-130 squadrons involved, the 8th and 1st Special Operations Squadrons, the mandate to do what was necessary to develop the procedures and tactics to land blacked-out when seizing airfields or landing at desert landing zones. The third MC-130 squadron stationed in Europe, the 7th SOS, was not directly involved in the execution phase of Eagle Claw because their aircraft had not yet been modified for aerial refueling, a necessary requirement for the long range insertions and extractions needed for Eagle Claw. At that time, Global Positioning System (GPS) was only a gleam in some inventor’s eye. And the few sets of NVGs available required general officer intervention to release them to elements of the task force. The development of blacked-out operations would never have happened in normal peace time with the primitive goggles available at that time. The national attention and sense of urgency of the hostage crisis provided the necessary permissive “laboratory” environment to do as General Vaught and Colonel Kyle commanded.

The MC-130 squadrons were blessed with the best stick and rudder pilots I have ever flown with in my C-130 flying career dating back to the early 60s: Bob Brenci, Bob Meller, Jerry Uttaro, Hal Lewis, and Russ Tharp to name a few under my command. Other MC-130 crew members – navigators, flight engineers, loadmasters, radio operators, and electronic warfare officers - were equally highly qualified in their respective specialties. We deployed to Norton Air Force Base, CA, in December 1979 to develop the blacked-out landing capability and to start training with the mission helicopters. The initial, and obvious, choice was to exploit the “see in the dark” feature of Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) that was available only on the PACAF MC-130s from the 1st SOS. The FLIR could be used to display the terrain ahead of the aircraft flight path on short final approach. But the MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft at the time were designed such that the landing gear and the FLIR turret could not be lowered at the same time. This negated using FLIR as a short-final-approach landing aid on the lead aircraft in blacked-out airfield seizures. However, when a preliminary low pass that would not tip off the enemy was appropriate, a preliminary FLIR low pass (landing gear up, FLIR turret extended) was very useful in observing remote landing zones to check the suitability of the area for landing. This tactic was actually done at the Desert One landing site. But for seizing a defended airfield where a preliminary low pass might alert ground personnel, here is what we actually tried at Norton during our tactics development effort. The lead FLIR-equipped aircraft would come down final approach with FLIR turret extended but landing gear up, make a low pass over the runway or landing zone, and drop a string of portable lights to guide the following MC-130, 30 seconds in trail and containing the airfield seizure Rangers rigged and ready for landing, to seize the airfield. We hoped that the string of dropped lights would be useful in guiding the airfield seizure aircraft to short final approach from which to make a blacked-out landing. The portable lights we tried (don’t laugh; we were thinking out of the box) were multiple chem-lights taped around the cardboard center from rolls of toilet paper. This did not work because the following aircraft could not pick up the string of lights far enough out to find the runway…so we abandoned this method.

NVG cockpit

MC-130 Aircrew members wearing early NVGs.

We next tried putting goggles on the copilot of the MC-130 containing the Rangers, with the navigators directing the pilot, who was not wearing NVGs, to the runway with an Airborne Radar Approach (ARA). When the copilot on NVGs obtained visual contact with the runway or landing zone, he would fly the aileron and rudder to line up the aircraft with the runway, while the pilot continued to fly elevator and throttles to control glide slope and airspeed. The pilot focused on his flight instruments, but was blind as to the approaching runway. The early NVGs were fixed focus, and there were no Heads-Up Display (HUD) or other precision landing aids such as GPS on the aircraft. At the last minute the pilot, still not wearing NVGs, would hope to see the runway illuminated only by moonlight and complete the landing safely. After several hard landings and near accidents, the MC-130 aircrew members finally came up with the following procedure that worked: NVGs on both pilots, with the pilot focused on infinity and the copilot focused at 18 inches so he could see his flight instruments. The copilot flew the ARA on instruments to short final approach where the pilot would take control when he had a visual of the runway or landing zone. From then on, vertical velocity, absolute altitude, and airspeed were fed to the pilot verbally over the interphone since he could not see his flight instruments because his goggles were focused on infinity in order to see outside. This requires a very skilled pilot and supporting aircrew since having airspeed and vertical velocity provided verbally robs the pilot of trends and other “quality of approach” visual cues he would normally pick up by cross-checking his flight instruments. At the direction of Colonel Kyle, the procedures were standardized between the two MC-130 squadrons, including the addition of a third pilot added to the cockpit crew to aid the pilot and copilot in situational awareness. The standardized procedure worked very well and was used for many years until technology (better NVGs, heads-up display, GPS, etc.) caught up.

Blacked-Out Aircraft Landing and Taxi Lights

Blacked-Out Lighting Modification Parts

C-130 Landing Light and Blacked-Out Lighting Modification Parts.

Midway through our development of blacked-out landing capability, a CIA officer appeared at Hurlburt and provided a box of rolled-up special black paper informing us that lights modified with the paper would illuminate items that could be seen only by persons wearing night vision goggles. We whipped out a pair of scissors and some aircraft speed tape and attached the paper to C-130 landing lights. Bingo, it worked….but the heat of the landing lights burned through the paper and the paper tore off at 200 knots. So we got the help from the Ontario, CA facility of Lockheed Aircraft to come up with two circular plates of tempered glass and inserted the paper between the two layers to make the modification to the landing lights that would survive high speed flight and not burn up from the heat of the landing lights. But we had a security problem once we modified our landing lights. We would be repeatedly called by airport control towers to turn on our landing lights when landing since our only set of landing lights had been modified to a blacked-out mode invisible to all but persons equipped with NVGs. We solved this problem by installing a second set of both landing and taxi lights; one set of regular lights and a second set for blacked-out operations. This lighting system did not unilaterally help us find the runway in total darkness, but it did provide runway illumination on short final approach and helped with depth perception to accomplish a safe landing. Precise navigation by MC-130 navigators provided the necessary guidance to accomplish an Airborne Radar Approach that was needed to direct the aircraft to the runway. This combination of precise Airborne Radar Approaches and modified landing lights allowed us to land blacked-out safely and without the threat of go-arounds and resultant tactical warning to the bad guys.

Airfield Seizure

The old way to seize an airfield prior to Eagle Claw was to airdrop Rangers, which is fraught with vulnerabilities such as injured paratroopers, spread-out assault force and weapons, limited equipment that can be airdropped, delayed reaction time to engage the enemy, etc.). Gen Vaught and Col Kyle instructed the MC-130 aircrews, the Combat Controllers, and Rangers to plan to use the tactic of landing rather than parachuting to seize airfields in order to reduce the vulnerabilities. The tactic dictated that a string of MC-130s would come down final approach and land at 30 second intervals, blacked-out. Two MC-130s would be on the runway at the same time, one rolling to the end and hugging the left side of the runway; and the second one stopping short and hugging the right side. Night after night MC-130 aircrews, Rangers, and Combat Controllers (now known as Special Tactics Units) developed, trained and rehearsed until Airfield Seizure was a polished new tactic.

Airfield Seizure Training

Daytime photo of Rangers Exiting an MC-130 During Airfield Seizure Training.

Seizing an airfield was a completely joint operation. First, intelligence would inform the Ranger commander of the threats and opposition at the airfield to be seized. The commander then determined the number of Rangers, gun jeeps, motorcycles, etc., needed to neutralize the threats, including how quickly and in what order the ground force needed to be inserted. The air commander then designed the flow and spacing of aircraft needed to accomplish the Ranger’s airfield seizure plan. Contingency planning was incorporated to address go-arounds that might disrupt the airfield seizure plan or blocked runways which would require in-flight reconfiguration to the airdrop mode. We were initially supposed to use this new procedure on night one of Eagle Claw to seize the small Iranian airfield for the refueling and trans-load operations, and were programmed to also use it on night two to seize the extraction airfield. The clearing pass by a FLIR-equipped MC-130 provided useful information, such as an Iranian vehicle on the road next to the landing zone. The clearing pass also confirmed that the lights planted weeks earlier had come on when remotely activated on short final approach and had correctly pinpointed the intended landing area where soil samples had been collected to assure sufficient load bearing capability of the desert landing zone.

Hatch-mounted SATCOM Antennas

SATCOM Hatch-Mounted Antenna

SATCOM Hatch-Mounted Antenna in Proximity to C-130 Airborne Refueling Receptacle

An assault force radio operator appeared at my office carrying a Satellite Communication (SATCOM) antenna about the size of a toilet seat and told me General Vaught wanted it mounted on the lead MC-130 for one of our final rehearsals. At that time, there were only a few of these antenna available and General Vaught wanted it mounted on the aircraft that would be the lead aircraft on the actual mission. Knowing that we would probably use a PACAF FLIR-equipped aircraft as the lead aircraft--but the aircraft was in the Pacific area at that time, we had to come up with a way to transfer the scarce antenna from one aircraft to another rapidly and easily. We again obtained help from Lockheed Ontario to mount the antenna on a spare C-130 overhead escape hatch that could be easily transferred from one C-130 to another. Hatches are inserted into the opening in the top of the aircraft fuselage from within the aircraft, requiring the antenna diameter to be smaller than the hatch opening. Luckily, the diameter of the antenna was slightly smaller than the hatch opening. We installed the antenna-modified hatch and took the aircraft to altitude and slowly increased the airspeed, observing the integrity of the hatch and the antenna as the aircraft accelerated. The hatch and antenna remained stable even at high speeds.

The easiest of the three C-130 hatches to get to from within the aircraft is the forward hatch but it is located close to the aerial refueling receptacle. So we flew an airborne refueling mission to make sure the hatch-mounted antenna did not interfere with air refueling. This was the genesis of hatch-mounted SATCOM antennas and was used throughout the Air Force for many years until operational aircraft were eventually equipped with permanently-mounted SATCOM antennas. This capability is still occasionally used to this date by communication squadrons who carry their own antenna-modified hatches for use in the aircraft they deploy on to provide en-route satellite communications. Development of this new capability was not done by a Flight Test Center….it was done by MC-130 crewmembers and members of a communications unit with help from Lockheed.

Silent/No-Electronic-Emission Air Refueling

Silent/No-Electronic-Emission Airborne Refueling

AC-130 conducting Silent/No-Electronic-Emission Airborne Refueling

Because of the great distances to the target for both the punitive and the rescue options, airborne refueling of mission C-130 aircraft would have to be done in areas of the world where electronic and radio transmissions could be intercepted by nations friendly to Iran. The threat of mission compromise was particularly critical due to the concern of being detected on the first night of the two-night mission. Therefore, the aircrew members of the 16th SOS AC-130 Spectre Gunship squadron and special KC-135 aircrews from Plattsburg and Grissom Air Force Bases developed special air refueling procedures. They developed a very simple approach to a refueling rendezvous—the tanker arrived at the assigned pre-contact location at the appointed time and altitude and the receiver, at 1,000 foot lower altitude, arrived at the same time and location, with neither aircraft emitting any electronic, radio, or other signals that could be intercepted. If communication was required, light signals or hard-wire communications through the refueling boom could be used.

Extreme Heavy Weight Flight Operations

The lack of human intelligence on the two targets in Tehran had a significant effect on mission planning. The commander of the assault force needed to know how heavily defended the embassy and the other target were, the military preparedness of the guards, how many guards were present and what their weapons and work habits were,  how much vehicular traffic was there between Desert Two, the embassy, and the soccer stadium, etc. What little was known came mainly from television coverage available from the nightly news and not from “eyes-on-the-target” so necessary to a tactical commander. So, to account for the unknowns, the number of assault force operators was increased significantly. This had a ripple effect in that it increased the number of helicopters needed, which in turn increased the amount of fuel needed at the refuel site, which then increased the need for space in the fuselages of the C-130s for the fuel bladders. Because the MC-130 cargo compartment could accommodate only one 3,000 gallon fuel bladder, we quickly ran out of available MC-130s to carry the necessary fuel for the helicopters. We borrowed regular “slick” C-130s that were modified for aerial refueling and could accommodate two 3,000 gallon fuel bladders internally. These fuel-carrying aircraft served as numbers 4, 5 and 6 C-130s during Eagle Claw.

When a C-130’s internal wing and pylon tanks are full, then add in two 3,000 gallon bladders of fuel with the accompanying sleds, straps and chains to restrain the bladders, plus the hoses, pumps, and fuel-handling personnel, the gross weight of these fuel carrying C-130s significantly exceeded 190,000 pounds. This was more than 35,000 pounds over the normal peacetime maximum operating weight of 155,000 pounds and almost 20,000 pounds over the emergency wartime gross weight limit of 175,000 pounds. MC-130s 1, 2 and 3 were also heavily over-grossed. The software for the Terrain Following/Terrain Avoidance (TF/TA) system had to be modified to allow it to work above the normal maximum setting of 135,000 pounds aircraft weight. And because the three fuel-carrying aircraft were not equipped with TF/TA systems, they flew low-level, at night, blacked out, in formation with number 3 MC-130 leading. The extremely over-grossed C-130s used modified terrain-following flight procedures through in mountainous terrain. Those aircrews earned their flight pay that night! And the ruggedness of the C-130 aircraft was significantly tested. The venerable, old Hercules, designed in the early 50s and in continuous production ever since, met the test. Unfortunately, the ultimate failure of the mission masked the superior feats of airmanship of the C-130 aircrews that would have reaped accolades and aviation awards had the mission succeeded. But then they are those quiet professionals, who knew what they accomplished that night and needed no formal recognition other than knowing that they made the best out of a bad situation by getting everyone still alive out of Desert One. Unfortunately, we had to leave the bodies of eight brave fellow warriors behind to suffer the desecration of their remains by the Iranians.

Dealing with Higher Headquarters Tasking

The daily communications while preparing for Eagle Claw involved constant communication between the flying squadrons at Hurlburt and the Task Force headquarters in Washington, DC. All normal protocol and chain of command were done away with for expediency. One day General Wilbur Creech, Commander of Tactical Air Command, came to Hurlburt Field and was escorted to my office. He closed the door and he asked me to brief him on what was going on. Satisfied that all was in order, he told me to continue responding to orders from the Pentagon and to contact him directly if anyone denied my squadron any needed assets or assistance.  His visit was followed a few days later by the Chairman of the JCS, General David Jones.

We needed an office in a secure area to do all the coordination with the Pentagon, the Rangers, the assault force, bilateral training, rehearsals, and to coordinate the thousands of details associated with equipping and training the elements of the Task Force. To complicate matters, for security reasons, the Pentagon did not want to use aircraft outside of the Task Force for administrative airlift….so our mission aircraft were constantly being tasked by the Joint Task Force for administrative airlift.  As a result, Colonel Kyle directed the 1st SOW to come up with a dedicated operations center in some out-of-the-way location on Hurlburt Field to solve the problem of securely communicating and coordinating with the Pentagon and other elements of the Task Force. I was instructed to turn over day-to-day operations of my squadron to my very capable operations officer, Lt Col Bob Brenci, and to establish and man the operations center in a remote upstairs corner of a maintenance hangar. Our little office was manned by MC-130 aircrew members (Duke Wiley, Bill Diggins, and Lyn McIntosh) as an additional duty. Our communications link with the Pentagon was made using a “Park Hill” device that secured a regular telephone line. A teletype machine was added to send secure documents within the Task Force network. Our little office continued into project Honey Badger, the early days of JSOC, and for many years thereafter and was known as “D-O-S” – the staff office that dealt with higher-headquarters tasking and coordination.

Special Ops Buildup

Besides the tactics, hardware, and procedures we developed to support Eagle Claw that later revolutionized special operations, an equally-significant result of Eagle Claw was the shock wave the mission abort and subsequent accident sent through Congress and the Pentagon. This reported “disaster” led to the realization that the future of military operations would be characterized by “little dirty wars” with limited objectives that would require highly trained specialists and special operations forces with unique capabilities. How prophetic this turned out to be! The validation of Congress’ decision to rejuvenate and revitalize the nation’s special operations forces is illustrated by the fact that at the time of Eagle Claw, the highest ranking special operations officer in the US military was an Army colonel, the head of JCS J-3 Special Operations Division. Today, USSOCOM is a combatant command with a global mission and is headed by a 4-star general or admiral. SOF was given its own funding (Major Force Program 11) that cannot be raided by the military Services as it had been in the years after Vietnam. The USSOCOM budget for fiscal year 2012 is approximately $10.5 billion, to support a force of over 66,000 highly-trained special operations soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

It is questionable if USSOCOM and SOF would have gotten to where it is today without the sad events that night at Desert One. But, what I refer to as a “successful failed mission” was the spark that accelerated the process and allowed Congress to push the Services to make US Special Operations Forces what they are today. The process of change is always faster after failure than after success. Consider where the force might have been after September 11, 2001, if Eagle Claw been an operational success.

These are a few of the war stories about Hurlburt in the dark days between Vietnam and the buildup that followed the “successful failure” at Desert One. The tactics, procedures, and hardware developed by innovative aircrew members thinking outside of the box, unhampered by conventional wisdom or bureaucratic meddling, are still used today. Similar stories can be told about the gunship squadron, combat controllers (now special tactics), helicopter squadrons, communicators, and other special operations units. I will leave those stories to be told by them in later issues of the Air Commando Journal.

Eagle-Claw-flight-crew

Eagle Claw Lead MC-130 Aircrew; Lt Col Bob Brenci, Aircraft Commander and pilot, is fourth from right standing on aircrew entrance door; Lt Col Roland Guidry, author and 8th SOS commander, is second from right.

Air Force special operations was blessed with dedicated and innovative aircrew members at the time of Eagle Claw, men who had the “Guts to Try” new tactics and untested hardware, and to develop new procedures to address a most audacious, complex, and difficult rescue mission. I and my fellow Combat Talon and gunship squadron commanders realized we had “eagles” under our command…we stayed out of their way and let them fly!

About the Author: Col Guidry had a wide and varied 26 year career.  On Eagle Claw, he served as commander of the 8th Special Ops Squadron and was one of the pilots on the lead MC-130. He was a founding member of JSOC at Ft Bragg as the first Chief of Air Operations and later as JSOC’s second Air Force Component Commander.

This article was first published in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 1, Issue 3 on page 18.

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