The images were stark and startling after the debacle at Desert One in Iran on April 24, 1980, 37 years ago today. An incinerated C-130 aircraft and six RH-53 helicopters left with bodies burned and strewn about spoke of the failure of the United States to rescue the 52 diplomats and Embassy personnel held in Tehran, Iran.
The story began more than 170 days prior when on November 4, 1979, when Iranian militant students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats hostage. Then President Jimmy Carter put into motion the plan that would use the US’ new hostage rescue force “Delta Force” into action.
The ultimate mission failure would generate much-needed lessons learned to pave the way for dedicated special operations air assets and a new Special Operations command structure that we know today.
So how exactly did this dark day in US Special Operations history change things for the better for the troops that followed?
Since no joint Special Operations Command existed at the time, the National Security Adviser, the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense put together an ad-hoc task force to plan, and conduct the mission.
The staff planning began in November of 1979 and by early March they had what they considered a workable plan. It brought together members of four of the branches of service with personnel and units spread across the globe which would prove to be ominous.
Army Major General James B. Vaught was appointed Joint Task Force commander. The remainder of the officers assigned to lead the various components, including Colonel Charles A. Beckwith (Delta Force commander) to be the ground assault commander; Colonel James H. Kyle (USAF MC-130 special operator) to command the fixed wing contingent; and Marine Lieutenant Colonel Edward Seiffert to lead the helicopter force.
It was a very intricate and detailed operation and consisted of the following details:
On the night of D-1, six Air Force C-130s carrying 132 Delta Force operators, Army Rangers, and support personnel and additional helicopter fuel would fly from the island of Masirah, off the coast of Oman, more than 1,000 miles to Desert One.
The Hercules transports were to be refueled in flight from Air Force KC-135 tankers. Eight Navy RH-53Ds (Code named Bluebeards) would lift off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, about 50 miles south of the Iranian coast, and fly more than 600 miles to Desert One.
After refueling on the ground from the C-130s, the helicopters would carry the rescue force to a hideout in the hills about 50 miles southeast of Tehran., then fly to a separate hiding spot nearby and wait.
The C- 130s (code named Republics) would return to Masirah, being refueled in flight again. The next night, Delta Force would be driven to the United States Embassy in vehicles obtained by agents that were previously placed in-country led by CIA operatives including former Son Tay raider Dick Meadows.
A Ranger element would go to rescue the three American hostages held in the foreign ministry building. As the ground units were freeing the hostages, the helicopters would fly from their hiding spot to the embassy and the foreign ministry building.
Three Air Force AC-130 gunships were tasked to protect the rescue force from any Iranian counterattack and to destroy the three Iranian Air Force fighters located at the Tehran airport. The helicopters with the Rangers, Delta operators, and the hostages would fly the rescue force and the freed hostages to an abandoned air base at Manzariyeh, about 50 miles southwest of Tehran, which was to be seized and protected by a Ranger company flown in on C-130s.
The helicopters would then be destroyed and C-141s, flown in from Saudi Arabia, would then fly the entire group to a base in Egypt.
It was an extremely detailed plan and everything was based on timing and coordination between different units that had never worked together before.
OPSEC for this endeavor was so strict that the individual units assigned to the mission never worked together until the implementation order was given and the mission began. The training for the operation was highly decentralized and although each part of the rescue operation had rehearsed their portion of the mission, the fact that the different elements never worked together was a major factor in mission failure.
There was never a “dress rehearsal” of the mission and many of the issues found by individual components in training resurfaced on the actual mission.
One particular area of concern was the close proximity of the C-130s and the RH-53 choppers in the refueling portion of the operation. And in many instances, the two didn’t work hand-in-hand during training. This would later prove disastrous.
The number of helicopters needed as an absolute minimum was four but it was decided that the raid would not continue without six. Eight aircraft were tasked to the mission.
The Mission, ‘Murphy’s Law Sets In:
The mission began on the night of 24 April after President Carter gave the go-ahead on April 16.
The C-130s took off as planned from Masirah and headed into Iranian airspace for their refueling rendezvous with the helicopter force at Desert One.
At the same time, the helicopter force of eight RH-53Ds lifted off from the deck of the U.S.S. Nimitz heading for the Iranian coast about 50 miles away. This was when a series of events began to go wrong that ultimately doom the mission.
Two hours into the mission, helicopter (Bluebeard) 6 received a warning on its Blade Inspection Method, or BIM system, which indicated a possible impending rotor blade failure. The pilots landed immediately and were picked up by another helicopter. But they abandoned the chopper without the means of destroying it.
The C-130s flew into a sandstorm (haboob) a phenomenon common to the desert in the region. They were able to push on thru with little difficulty. They later hit another denser sandstorm but were unable to contact the helicopter pilots to give them a fair warning because communications were never established between the C-130s and the helicopters.
Bluebeard 5 began experiencing issues with their electrical systems while flying into the dust storm. Many of their navigational and flight instruments began to fail. With no way to ascertain their exact location, Helicopter 5 decided to abort the mission and return to the Nimitz. Later it was deemed that in 20-25 minutes it would have cleared the sandstorm and been able to proceed with the mission. The raiding task force was now down to the bare minimum six helicopters needed to conduct the mission.
The C-130s arrived at Desert One and began to ready refueling operations for the helicopters which were to arrive 20 minutes later. But due to the storm, they were late. Immediately problems arose because Desert One was on either side of a road.
A Ranger team and Delta operators set up security around the site and were immediately compromised. A bus full of Iranian civilians had to be stopped and detained as it was passing through, and a fuel truck was shot and destroyed with a LAW rocket when it refused to stop.
Arriving in ones and twos, all six helicopters were not on the ground at Desert One for an hour and a half. Right after shutting down its engines, Bluebeard 2 suffered a catastrophic failure of its hydraulic system, rendering it useless.
With no means of fixing it at Desert One, this left the team with just five operation helicopters. Could they have gone on with the barebones five? After consulting with Kyle and Seifert, Beckwith correctly decided that the mission would have to be scrubbed.
One thing the task force hadn’t rehearsed was an evacuation at Desert One. This is when the entire operation collapsed.
Disaster at Desert One:
When the decision was made to abandon the mission, one helicopter (Bluebeard 3) had to be moved to allow the C-130s to take off. Once aloft and hovering, the sand from the storm was blinding the Airman directing him and he began stepping backward. The pilot whose only frame of reference was the direction from the man on the ground thought he was drifting backward.
As he inched forward the rotor blades cut into Republic 4 on the ground. The blades ignited fuel and ammunition and created a fireball that incinerated the two aircraft and killed eight of crewmen on both aircraft.
CPT Harold L. Lewis Jr. USAF EC-130E A/C Commander
CPT Lyn D. McIntosh USAF EC-130E Pilot
CPT Richard L. Bakke USAF EC-130E Navigator
CPT Charles McMillian USAF EC-130E Navigator
TSGT Joel C. Mayo USAF EC-130E Flight Engineer
SSG Dewey Johnson USMC RH-53D Crewmember
SGT John D. Harvey USMC RH-53D Crewmember
CPL George N. Holmes USMC RH-53D Crewmember
Now the remaining operators, Rangers and aircraft crewmen packed into the remaining C-130s for the flight home. They released the Iranian civilians unharmed but in their haste, the helicopters weren’t scrubbed for sensitive data.
The next day on April 25, 1980, President Carter went on television to announce the failure of the raid and to take responsibility for it and not to place blame on anyone.
Aftermath, Lessons Learned:
The Pentagon and the government immediately after the botched attempt began to formulate plans, and procedures to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. The debacle at Desert One helped usher in a far stronger, better trained, and infinitely better coordinated Special Operations Force that we see today.
During hearings with the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Sam Nunn who was the chairman asked Colonel Beckwith first what he learned from the mission failure and what his recommendations were to prevent this from happening again.
Beckwith shot straight from the hip, “If coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama put his quarterback in Virginia, his backfield in North Carolina, his offensive line in Georgia and his defense in Texas and then got Delta Airlines to pick them up and fly them to Birmingham on game day, he wouldn’t have his winning teams.”
To prevent future mishaps, he stated, “My recommendation is to put together an organization that would include Delta, the Rangers, the Navy SEALs, Air Force pilots, its own staff, its own support people, its own aircraft and helicopters. Make this organization a permanent military unit. Allocate sufficient funds. And give it sufficient time to recruit, assess, and train its people,”
The issue of Joint Warfighting Doctrine and cooperation was fixed with Goldwater Nichols Act and also the Cohen – Dunn amendment that ushered in the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987. The first unified command for Special Operations. And the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, ensuring that Special Operations units have the bureaucracy behind them. And SOF units finally got Title 10 authority which gave them the ability to procure weapons and equipment independent of the services budgets.
The Army took the lead in the new doctrine and created the United States Army Special Operations Command which placed an umbrella of troops including Delta, Special Forces, Rangers, Psyops and Civil Affairs units under one organization.
Perhaps the most significant change was the creation of their own aviation element Special Operations Aviation, including the 160th Aviation Regiment (Nightstalkers).
Some of the tactics that were used in 1980 that were new such as flying blacked-out, landings using night-vision goggles, remotely illuminated landing strips and methods for seizing airfields, as well as satellite communications are all second nature now to special operators.
The Air Force created their own Air Force Special Operations Command, (AFSOC) and created search and rescue units CSAR, combat controllers, Special Operations Air Wings which included AC-130 gunships.
The Navy’s US Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) consists of Special Boat Units and SEAL Teams including SEAL Team 6 (DEVGRU) who conducted the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
The Marine Corps finally joined SOCOM in October 2005 and created the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). The Marine special ops troops have renamed themselves the Raiders after their units of WWII.
While the Iran hostage rescue mission may have ended in failure, it opened the door a much better era for Special Operations Forces today. If the same mission was tasked to them today, there is no doubt, that the chances of success would be much higher.
Cover photo courtesy DOD