Operation Just Cause in Panama was the first major joint special operation since the establishment of the United States Special Operation Command in 1987. At the time, 23rd Air Force was a subordinate operational command under Military Airlift Command (now Air Mobility Command) and was also designated the air component of USSOCOM—Air Force Special Operations Command. Preparations to help Panama rid itself of the dictator, Manuel Noriega, had been going on for over six months. That plan, Blue Spoon, envisioned a slow build up of forces in Panama with military action triggered by an event precipitated by Noriega.
When Gen Max Thurmond assumed command of USSOUTHCOM, this strategy changed to a very rapid intervention in Panama. The planners determined that USSOCOM and the Air Commandos of AFSOC offered the only reasonable means of achieving the surprise necessary to depose Noriega and ensure the safety of the thousands of American civilians living and working in the Canal Zone.
When a group of Noriega’s Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) troops harassed four American officers, fatally wounding one, and after another PDF unit abused a US Navy Lieutenant and his wife, President George H.W. Bush had sufficient justification to order the intervention. The President directed Just Cause commence at 0100 hrs on 20 Dec 1989. The plan called for taking down 27 key targets within 15 minutes of H-hour. Air Commandos, along with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Military Airlift Command Special Operations C-130s, C-5s, and C-141s inserted the Joint Special Operations Task Force.
As you will read in this edition of Air Commando Journal, there were some very key events that occurred during Just Cause. One was the infiltration into Panama of over 200 special operations and conventional forces aircraft into Panama without detection by Cuban radar. Another was the rescue of Mr Kurt Muse from the Carselo Modelo Prison, during which two AC-130 gunships successfully destroyed the PDF headquarter across the street from the prison. AC-130s also blocked the PDF’s “Battalion 2000” from entering the fight at the Pacora River Bridge. Operation Just Cause also saw the first limpet mine attack since World War II by the US Navy’s SEALs, against two of Noriega’s yachts. SOF and conventional forces combined to seize two airfields: Rio Hato and Torrijos-Tocumen. Jerry Thigpen provides a stirring account of how the 8th SOS established a forward area refueling and re-arming point at Rio Hato airport, in the middle of a tough fire fight. And finally, how the Special Forces employed the “Ma Bell” concept to exploit their overwhelming advantage in air power by telephoning PDF units who were resisting to look up at the AC-130 circling overhead. The SF advised the PDF commander to have his soldiers stack arms and form up for their surrender to Special Forces soldiers.
Operation Just Cause put USSOCOM and AFSOC on the map, eventually leading to AFSOC becoming an Air Force major command equal to ACC and AMC. Just Cause was also the harbinger of the continual string of successful operations through the 1990s—in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia…all the way to 9/11 and the last decade and a half of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world. The lieutenants, captains, and majors who earned their spurs during Just Cause are today’s Air Commando leaders.
-- Bruce L. Fister, Lt Gen, USAF (Ret)
Former Commander AFSOC