Small Wars Journal

How Grenada Changed How America Goes to War

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 6:40pm

How Grenada Changed How America Goes to War 

Keith Nightingale       

The unmatched military capabilities we enjoy today, not to be confused with strategic shortfalls, were shaped by the failure of the Iran Rescue and the confusion surrounding the invasion of Grenada.  Our baseline for success was built on the enforced transition of historically separate Services into a system and doctrine of Joint competency.  Through a combination of missteps and lack of internal will in creating an effective Joint capability, the Department of Defense established a stone-less David where a Goliath should have been.

The failure of the hostage rescue attempt in Iran in the spring of 1980, forced several internal Department of Defense reviews as to how the Military “did business.”  The results were decidedly mixed.  It wasn’t until Congress became fully engaged after several public missteps in Grenada that meaningful fixes were finally applied.  A strong case could be made that the success of the Bin Laden raid and the seeming infallibility of America’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) is the Phoenix risen from the ashes of Desert One.    

The Services, at the moment of the embassy seizure in Iran, were a reflection of successful histories each enjoyed to that point in time.  But it was a point where history did not serve its immediate needs.  Each Service, the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force were organizational stovepipes.  Its respective members were recruited, trained, equipped, and promoted according to a specific unique mission, culture, and tradition.   History had indicated this was a successful formula.  As such, each Service had its internal parochialism in outlook and a very healthy dosage of  interservice rivalry.  Unfortunately, the nature of contemporary warfare, asymmetric and counter-terrorist, called for doctrines and methods that were Joint in nature and application.

When the Iranians seized our embassy in October of 1979, America had only the most nascent of  SOF capabilities.  The Army had just begun creating the Delta Force.  The Rangers consisted of  two light infantry battalions.  The USAF had a special operations detachment of fixed and rotary wing elements at the bottom of its internal readiness priorities.  None had ever worked together nor was there any doctrine for their Joint employment. 

The Chairman, David Jones, cobbled together a Joint rescue force from the bits and pieces available.  For a variety of reasons, efforts of the participants notwithstanding, the attempt failed and a combination of recriminations and reviews immediately followed.  What the various reviews concluded was not surprising;

No real Joint hostage rescue force was available.  It had to be made from the detritus of Desert One.  The Joint Special Operations Command was created to manage and plan the growing US SOF capability.

All the Services agreed to support the new forces but with mixed enthusiasm.  Army offered up Delta Force and created two aviation elements-Task Force 160 (created from elements of the 101st Airborne Air Assault Division) and SeaSpray, a Joint Army-CIA organization. It also began an operational intelligence element, then called the Field Operations Group (FOG).   The Rangers were identified as a second tier member. The USAF upgraded its fleet at Hurlburt Field but delayed procurement of badly needed new AC and MC 130 aircraft.  The Navy established Seal Team 6 as the maritime equivalent of Delta. The Marines did not initially participate.

The emerging forces began to develop their internal systems while the mother Services worked on the Joint aspects of employment.  All the Service Chiefs, less Army, strongly resisted any effort to create a Commander In Chief (Cinc)-level four star headquarters.  Accordingly, it was agreed that when employed, JSOC would report to the appropriate Cinc though a caveat was introduced to permit it to work directly for the Chairman, JCS if the Chiefs agreed. 

These forces and discussions evolved after Desert One and were constantly under test by the many terrorist actions in the Mediterranean area-key issues being the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, the TWA hijacking, Dozier kidnapping and innumerable hostage actions in Beirut.  None of these resulted in significant public disclosures of  operational weaknesses or Joint management issues.  In October 23,  1983, as a result of the Grenada experience, all this changed and began the long road to a truly Joint force application of power.

The Grenada invasion was also a psychological watershed for the United States by putting the Vietnam experience behind it as well as restoring the International respect it had lost over time. For those who had experience in Vietnam and its aftermath, Grenada represented a long climb back from the abyss of guilt, regret and remorse.

President Reagan, as an actor,  had a deep appreciation for the backdrop that caused him to decide to militarily intervene.  There were active insurgencies in Nicaragua and El Salvador.  Cuba was fomenting other undermining actions in large parts of South and Central America.  The Middle East was very unsettled and US influence was on a steady decline.  Grenada had become a Cuban communist lackey and was investing heavily in Point Salines airfield and had shipped a large engineer element as well as security forces.  In March of 1983, President Reagan had warned of this initiative and noted that Grenada could become a very convenient mid-point between Cuba and its Latin American activities and could foment unrest throughout the region.

In this immediate period, the JCS passed out two parallel planning requests to two separate organizations with only inferred or non-existant guidance to jointly coordinate-Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Atlantic Command (LantCom).  JSOC because an actual invasion might include the new SOF elements and LantCom because Grenada fell into its geographical area of responsibility.  Each began planning in isolation of the other and each planned for forces without regard for the other.  In neither organization, until almost the point of execution, was the 82d Airborne or XVIII Airborne Corps engaged or mentioned.

The task each headquarters assumed was the capture of the Point Saline Airfield as well as likely nodes of government.  The existence and safety of the students, primarily American citizens, at St Georges Medical University was initially not an issue.

Earlier, in 1979, the democratic government of Grenada was overthrown in a coup and replaced by a socialist dictatorship.  On 14 October 1983, an internal power struggle resulted in the death of the  original coup leader, Maurice Bishop and his replacement by his chief lieutenant Bernard Coard and his enforcer Gen Hudson Austin, both professed communists. Sir Paul Scoon, the UK Governor General, was placed under house arrest. 

Despite this evolution, a US-based expatriate medical school, St Georges Medical University, continued to operate from several campus’s on the main island of Grenada.  However, by the October coup, students and faculty became increasingly alarmed about the thuggish nature of local security elements.  On 20 October, Hudson Austin announced a curfew for the students and the entire population, brought in additional guards and accused the school of spy activities.  Numerous students called their friends and families and indicated their lives were in danger.

At this point, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States as well as the governments of Barbados and Jamaica asked the US to intervene.  Three days later, 23 October, the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed with a large loss of life.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff began intensive planning resulting in an execute order for the invasion of Grenada on 25 October 1983.  This would be the first significant military action for the US since its departure from Vietnam in 1973.  This order involved a Joint effort by both elements of Lantcom and JSOC together-a requirement not previously expressed.  Lantcom would be in overall command-sort of-and include the Marines afloat who were headed to Beirut to relieve the just-bombed barracks elements.  Lantcom would also have augmentations from the 82d Airborne Division and follow-on forces from XVIII Airborne Corps.  This inclusion was unknown until approximately two weeks prior to execution. 

In sum, though two headquarters were charged with essentially the same task, each worked with forces not known to the other and planned in isolation.  Further, key elements of the final plan (82d Airborne) were not informed of their engagement until two weeks prior to execution.  The chain of command was imprecise and no Joint communications system other than ad hoc was established.  The mission to rescue and recover the medical school students was a last minute addition to the 82d task list.

JSOC would seize Pearles, Richmond Hill and rescue Sir Paul Scoon, the representative of the British Government incarcerated in his house in Grand Anse.  JSOC would report to both Lantcom and the Chairman.  The 82d would immediately follow JSOC at Point Saline Airfield and reinforce as required as well as begin a full island sweep to secure it for follow-on police elements from the Eastern Caribbean Federation-also a new entry in the planning cycle.

The JSOC plan was quite simple.  SEALs would infiltrate early with a USAF Spec Ops team to land at Point Saline airfield-the key initial objective.  They would covertly mark the runway as the drop zone for the 1st and 2d Ranger Battalions which would conduct an airborne assault to secure the airfield.  Concurrently, Delta and SEAL forces would depart Barbados with TF 160 aircraft to seize Richmond Hill prison, secure Sir Paul Scoon at his residence and relieve the students at St Georges University.  At this point, the plan became a casualty of events with JSOC elements already deployed.

At approximately D Day minus two weeks, the 82d/JSOC established a Satellite communications ops center at Ft Bragg and dispatched planners to Lantcom headquarters.  All the players were finally talking to some degree.  Planning was not yet Joint in terms of details nor were specifics regarding communications addressed.  Due to the very hasty nature of the force amalgamation, all the players decided to operate in a semi-autonomous mode and keep each other informed as best circumstances permitted.

One week prior to the invasion, the 82d sent several members of its G3 to LantCom to review plans and separate objectives-which were still in flux.  Concurrently, JSOC sent planners to the 82d to work liaison on behalf of the JSOC elements that could/would encounter elements of the initial 82d assault battalion, the 2-325-specifically the Rangers at Pt Saline.  Still, there was only a perfunctory discussion of on the ground command relationships though it was clear XVIII Abn Corps/82d would be reporting to LantCom but "coordinating" with JSOC on the ground.  Accordingly, JSOC sent an LNO team to 82d HQ. There were now direct communications between the 82d/Corps and Lantcom but very little specifics either way.  The lead 82d unit was basically told to arrive at Saline by either jump or airland and sort out the rest with the Ranger force commander.  Div HQ would follow.

Unnoticed to the public was an equally unsatisfactory command relationship established to satisfy all the Service players needs.  LantCom, through Vice Admiral Macdonald afloat,  would command the invasion but now the Army/82d Airborne was a key player.  Accordingly, Major General Norm Schwartzkopf, at Fort Stewart, Ga was hastily assigned, ad hoc, as VAdm Metcalf’s Deputy.  He was placed aboard ship with Admiral Macdonald but had no capability to communicate with either the 82d Airborne or JSOC.

Several last minute issues gained notoriety that had a marked effect on the issue of “Jointness” and necessary resolutions. Key amongst them was the Marine/Navy request to postpone the JSOC jump until daylight to insure reef clearance.  This was a surprise to JSOC who had planned on the advantages of darkness for SEAL insertion, beacon placement, Richmond Hill insertion and the Ranger airfield assault.  LantCom directed the time change at around D-1. This caused considerable airlift planning issues for USAF White and Black elements regarding refueling, tankering, basing and recovery.  The 82d added additional confusion when the Commanding General made a last minute decision to change from a jump to an airland which meant reconfiguring the follow-on aircraft loads from cross-attachment to straight unit loads.

As a result of the timing decision, the Rangers jumped in broad daylight with both personnel and aircraft being engaged by a very active anti-aircraft capability.  Concurrently, the Delta elements arrived in broad daylight to Richmond Hill and were literally shot out of the sky.  Sustaining significant losses to both men and helicopters and being forced to abort the mission.           

Lack of quality and timely intelligence was a uniform shortfall for all participants. Specifically, the data identifying student locations and the physical plants of the St Georges Medical  University was missing-crucial for what became the key mission-rescuing the students.  However, all this was readily available either by direct telephone with the students or the University President who was in New England and available to anyone.  It was reported that while he was routinely talking to members of the State Department, none of the data or contact information was passed by State to Defense and the deploying forces.

A significant immediate shortfall was quality uniform standard maps of the islands.  JSOC was forced to deploy with overhead photographs with hand drawn key features.  There was no uniform map set for any Service which would have made inter-service air, navy and artillery coordination problematical as well.  Artillery, naval gun fire and air strikes were severely limited as a result.  Fortunately, the lack of a quality opposition other than the Cuban combat engineer unit made this issue less significant than it might have been.

From the operational force perspective, the key issue was the lack of Joint
Communication Electronic Operating Instructions (CEOI)-the basic document that permits all the players to talk to each other-crucial in combat with mixed forces and elements from a myriad of locations and with different assets.

Initially, JSOC elements could not talk with either the 82d, Marines or ships until some extraordinary measures were taken at the unit level as well as Satcom "work arounds."  A significant issue quickly became the lack of communications between the Army Blackhawks/medevacs with Naval ships.  Navy ships refused to allow Army helicopters to land to either transfer POW's, casualties or refuel/rearm.  Part of this was that Army helos did not have blade folding kits or rotor brakes making their landing very dangerous to the ship crews.  At one point, an Army pilot simply landed on a ship after being waved off in order to deliver serious casualties.

In time, all this was sorted out and the island returned to a functioning democracy.  The last US military elements from the 82d departed on 12 December.  While the direct participants moved on with their lives, the entire experience, much in the media, precipitated a great deal of Congressional interest on the true state of Jointness and inter-Service cooperation.  Chief amongst the concerned were Senators Nunn, Cohen and Goldwater supported by a key Nunn staffer, Mr Jim Locher.  Mr Locher engaged several sources within the Department of Defense who provided significant detail to flesh out the larger picture of a Joint system not yet mature and significantly lacking in internal support.

Well prior to Grenada, Congress had an extended backstory of Services continual refusal to fund key SOF/JSOC procurements and a number of closed door hearings on JSOC/Joint shortfalls and operational limitations.  Significant issues had already emerged which the Grenada experience only highlighted;

Overlapping Cincdoms as well as a lack of a clearly defined Cinc for emerging threat areas.

The role of the Chairman was a clear internal issue among the Service Chiefs.  There was concern among some that the Chairman was using the SOF forces as a privileged force undercutting the authority of the respective Cincs.

The several SOF commands and forces were not being adequately resourced by their mother Services.  Specifically, the Air Force was not procuring badly needed AC and MC 130 aircraft as a priority and had kept its SOF aircraft at a low priority for spare parts and manning.  The Navy was not supporting the need for underwater swimmer delivery vehicles or brown water patrol craft.  Its support of the physical facility requirements for SEAL  Team 6 was hesitant.

Senator Nunn and the Senate Armed Services Committee had both open and closed session hearings regarding the Grenada invasion as well as ancillary issues regarding the SOF forces.  It was clear that the Senators harbored serious concerns regarding the true nature of Joint forces and operations as well as the sincerity of the respective Services in resourcing the same.

To a man, the Service Chiefs indicated that nothing was truly broken and that only fine tuning was required to resolve the exposed issues.  The Commanding General of JSOC was very tempered in his responses in public but more specific in closed session.  Clearly, he was in a difficult situation which the Committee appreciated.  Behind the scenes, Jim Locher provided a wealth of detail to the Committee indicating that serious issues existed that DOD was not prepared to resolve.

Internal to the Department of Defense, it was clear that the exclusion of the media was a major shortfall.  Keeping them from the invasion force only exacerbated the belief that US forces were conducting atrocities and that there was much less purpose to the invasion than manifested.  The entrance of the media on D+3 resulted in generally overwhelming public support for the troops and for the first time in recent memory, the US military received positive reviews.  As a result, the Chairman, General Vessey, in coordination with the media and through the results of the Sidell Commission, established a press pool for all future operations.

From all of this, a number of watershed laws were passed that bore the fruit of future battlefield successes in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the very public Bin Laden raid.  The failures of Desert One and Grenada forced a true Joint combat competency that America enjoys today.  In fact, the history of why we are now so much more competent is largely lost in time and history but bears reflection.  Key laws, The Nunn-Cohen Amendment and the Goldwater-Nichols Acts of 1986, emerged with results that we all now take for granted.  At the time of their passage, they were considered dramatically significant and were viewed as both onerous and ominous by much of the uniformed senior leadership.

The role of the Chairman and the regional Cinc’s was redefined to establish clear authority lines and responsibilities.  The Chairman was first among equals and could dictate a position rather than have to seek concurrence and support.  General Powell would use this authority with great effect in the Iraq invasion.  Of a more subtle but longer lasting effect was the requirement in law that all future Flag officers have Joint experience.  Over time, this provided a pool of leadership exposed to all the potentials held by all the Services. 

A new four star headquarters was created as United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).  This was a separate non-geographical 4 star Cincdom specifically created to coordinate future SOF ops throughout the world and to act as a sponsor/voice for assigned Service components on an equal basis with other Cincs.

MFP-11 was established to provide essential funding for USSOCOM and Service
components that had previously been denied essential items by the mother Services.  This particular item raised the greatest ire among the Service Chiefs as it directly affected budget management, a previously sacrosanct authority.

The end of Vietnam and the rise of worldwide terrorism brought a new world and a new requirement for warfighting to the United States.  Its initial adjustment attempts as seen in the Mayaguez Incident, the Iran Hostage situation and Grenada served more to embarrass than reinforce the nascent attempts at Joint warfare.  It took a series of public failures to force Congress to pass laws the Defense Department did not want.  In the end, the Services embraced the requirements for a truly Joint combat competence that only battlefield success can achieve.  What was then despised is now embraced.  David is approaching Goliath in both stature and competency.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.


James Harris

Sat, 10/26/2013 - 12:52am

A good article!!

However, in one respect, I'm not convinced of the "folly" of excluding the media.

After this event, the media expected general public outrage or at least support for their notion that media exclusion was a bad thing. They were so surprised at the public support of the military decision that they did a lot of study in search of answers (I participated in a small piece of this.) The result was (among other things) the suggestions of the "Slidel Commission" as well as others.

Given the media proclivity both during Vietnam and from the Gulf War on to focus on the negative, I think media exclusion may be a good idea from time-to-time. Yes, they can be useful for "telling a story;" but they are also infamous for creating and making up stories to their liking. Specific events come to mind: Cameramen placing cameras just above water 2 inches deep to make it appear a great flood. Focus on the shooting of an insurgent, making it look like an execution, but excluding images outside the narrow view of a video camera that provide a justifiable context (and subsequent life disruption due court proceedings).

My own experience with media convince me that, like many of the rest of us mere humans, they will do anything to advance themselves without consideration of larger moral or other consequence. Further, they often have a specific agenda to advance. And if they are along for the ride, you have to protect them, feed them, let them use your comms, etc.

Operationally, it's an extra hassle that just isn't needed, and the costs of their presence far out weigh any benefits.