When Operation Eagle Claw, the raid to free the hostages, was launched on April 24-25, 1980, almost everything went wrong that possibly could. Sandstorms caused severe navigational difficulties, and of the eight Navy RH-53D transport helicopters flying the mission, six arrived at the rendezvous point, known as “Desert One,” and one of them broke down there. With six helicopters considered the minimum force, it caused a mission abort. Finally, on departure, one of the helicopters collided and exploded on the ground with one of the Air Force C-130 tanker/transport aircraft, killing eight U.S. personnel. The rest of the rescue force got onto the surviving tanker/transport aircraft, leaving behind the helicopters and a treasure trove of classified mission data for the Iranians to find.
Eagle Claw was perceived as the worst U.S. failure since Pearl Harbor, and an outraged U.S. public and Congress wanted to know why. A six-man commission, led by Adm. James L. Holloway, III, USN (Ret.), a former Chief of Naval Operations, conducted an extensive investigation of Eagle Claw and published a scathing report that was made public. The so-called “Holloway Report” laid bare for all to see both the shortcomings in U.S. multi-service (“joint”) operations doctrine and the absence of real SOF capabilities in the services. While few today truly understand the long-term significance of the Holloway Report, within it are the recommendations that created the modern U.S. military we know today, including U.S. Special Operations Command and many of its component units.
For Cohen and his fellow members of Congress, one of the key topics of interest rapidly became U.S. special operations forces and their roles and missions within the American defense establishment. Like many others on Capitol Hill, what brought SOF to his attention were the tragic events at Desert One during Operation Eagle Claw.
“The thing that initiated it for me was how Desert One unfolded – the lack of unified command, integrated training, and the tragedy that took place and what it did to the country in paralyzing us for some time in terms of the hostages being held and the loss of our service personnel,” Cohen said. “That was followed by the invasion of Grenada, which, while successful, revealed a number of difficulties, once again in coordination. So I decided that I was going to focus on the ways in which we might create a command that would combine the SOFs like the Army Special Forces, that would put them at the tip of the spear for a variety of missions, one of which would actually be to prevent war from taking place. To have men and women who would be skilled in language, who could have studied the culture and history of a country, to be inserted in a very pre-emptive way, blend into the community, then gather and send back intelligence that might be used to make conflict unnecessary. But also to have a dual role to prepare the battlefield as such in case you did have to go in. To do that you had to have a very specialized type of command to coordinate the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines so they could carry out that mission. So it was born out of tragedy.”
Operation Eagle Claw was not an isolated incident, nor the only stumble by the U.S. military. Desert One was followed by the invasion of Grenada, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, and the hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. In each case, flawed command structures, a lack of joint training, and other factors made the results less than successful, or an outright disaster. And in three of the four, SOF units were unable to fulfill their missions due to their lack of needed command, control, communications, and intelligence resources.
Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983, was a particular example of just how difficult resolving the shortcomings of the U.S. SOF community was going to be. Despite the addition of new SOF units like the 160th Aviation Battalion, which became the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR – the “Night Stalkers”), and a brand-new U.S. Navy SEAL SMU, along with improved command and control from the new Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg, N.C., Urgent Fury was another series of SOF disasters. In fact, SOF units suffered more casualties in Grenada than during the Desert One fiasco. Perhaps the worst failure during Urgent Fury for SOF units was the almost immediate breakdown of the joint communications structure, sometimes with deadly and absurd results. In one particular case, one of the U.S. personnel on the ground in Grenada under heavy fire had to use a commercial telephone and a personal phone credit card to call Fort Bragg to call in an AC-130 fire mission. Clearly, the U.S. military in general, and U.S. SOF specifically, needed a new way to do business, despite the funding increases being authorized during the Reagan years.
Battle Lines Drawn: The Drive to Goldwater-Nichols
The breakthrough for defense reform came in 1985 when a panel of experts at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) issued a landmark study called, appropriatly enough, “Defense Reform.” In it was the roadmap for what would become the defense reform process in the late 1980s, and it was a milestone for reformers like Cohen:
“The study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS] at Georgetown University provided us some real muscle in the reform debate with the Department of Defense [DoD],” Cohen said. “And we used that! We also had a real lineup of people who were knowledgeable, substantive, and lent weight to the effort. Otherwise, if you just take senators and congressmen to challenge the Pentagon on their own, you have a heavy road ahead. Remember, we spent a year studying defense reform before we ever sponsored a bill. Having CSIS and people of that caliber, and knowledgeable in military affairs, who were asking ‘how do we change DoD to make it a more efficient operations’ lent a lot of credibility to the effort.”
Just one year later, Congress proposed and passed a sweeping overhaul of the entire DoD command structure and how it would fight future wars. Opposed by the DoD leadership, both civilian and military, the legislation might have gone by the wayside but for its formidable chief sponsor, the legendary Sen. Goldwater.