Joint Special Operations Command

Most Americans, including many in the Carter administration, had despaired of rescuing the hostages in the wake of the Desert One fiasco. But the men at the heart of Eagle Claw had not given up; nor had their president. Within seventy-two hours of the catastrophe, Carter told Army Major General Jim Vaught, the task force commander, to be prepared to launch again within ten days, in the in extremis case that the hostages’ lives appeared in immediate danger. Such a swift turnaround had not been necessary, and the men spent the summer preparing for a second attempt, armed with the knowledge of what had gone wrong previously. In the process, they were hoping to help the United States regain not only its self-respect, but also its faith in the U.S. military and, in particular, its long-neglected special operations forces.

The new effort was code-named Snowbird. Separated from their families, who knew next to nothing about where their husbands and fathers were, the men gave serious thought to what had to be different this time around. Some of these things were tactical details, but others were larger concepts. Eagle Claw had been a pickup game, with each armed service claiming a role: the Army provided Delta Force and the Rangers as the ground rescue force; the Air Force contributed MC-130 Combat Talon transports, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and a small ground element called BRAND X; the Navy proffered an aircraft carrier from which the eight Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters launched; the Marine Corps, keen not to be excluded, provided the helicopter pilots. These forces were not used to working together. The headquarters that ran the operation was a similarly ad hoc organization commanded by Vaught.

The Eagle Claw veterans knew all that had to change, none more so than Colonel “Chargin’” Charlie Beckwith, the hard-bitten Delta commander. In the run-up to Eagle Claw, Beckwith had opposed the creation of any headquarters that might interfere with the direct line to the White House he desired for Delta. But after the trauma of Desert One, his resistance softened. Like others in Delta, he realized that having no specialized headquarters above the unit left it at the mercy of ad hoc arrangements in which it would have no say, for instance, in who provided its air support. Within a few weeks of returning, a group of senior Delta figures had sketched a design for what Beckwith called “a tier-type organization”—a command that encompassed all the units required for special operations missions of strategic importance, in which failure was not an option. In mid-May, Beckwith’s main bureaucratic supporter, Army Chief of Staff General Edward “Shy” Meyer, ordered him to bring his proposed design for such a headquarters to Washington.

A more formal and high-powered review of the Eagle Claw fiasco would soon reach much the same conclusion. On August 23 the Special Operations Review Group—six active and retired senior officers commissioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to examine Eagle Claw—released an unclassified version of its findings and recommendations. Led by retired Admiral James L. Holloway III, the group recommended “that a Counterterrorist Joint Task Force (CTJTF) be established as a field agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with permanently assigned staff personnel and certain assigned forces.”

The military brass put up fierce resistance. With the exception of Meyer, the service chiefs were very concerned that the creation of such a force would give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff his own private intervention force. The commanders of the military’s regional commands around the world, called commanders-in-chief, or “CinCs” (pronounced “sinks”), feared that such a permanent task force would deploy to and conduct missions in their own areas of operations without them even knowing about, let alone approving, such actions. It was that venomous atmosphere in the Tank into which Nightingale, who served on Vaught’s staff, walked a matter of days after the Holloway report’s release.

But Nightingale was armed with knowledge that his high-ranking audience lacked. That morning, he, Vaught, and Colonel Rod Paschall, Vaught’s chief of staff, had briefed Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General David Jones in Brown’s office. Sitting side by side on a sofa, Vaught and his two staffers gave the two senior officials a preview of the briefing Nightingale was scheduled to deliver to the Joint Chiefs that afternoon. The briefing for the chiefs was a so-called decision brief, meaning it was intended as a starting point for discussion, with the individual service chiefs allowed to have input—which amounted to veto authority—over the details of the proposal.

Brown was well aware that the service chiefs, with the exception of the Army’s Meyer, were unlikely to approve the creation of a counterterrorist joint task force. (Although the briefing focused on proposed bureaucratic arrangements for Snowbird, everyone concerned knew that the Holloway Commission’s recommendation of a standing joint task force meant any structure created for Snowbird was almost certain to survive beyond another mission into Iran.) Brown interrupted the briefing. This could be difficult to get past the chiefs, he said. Would it be easier if it were made a directive from my office to the chiefs, rather than simply a presentation? Certainly, said those on the couch. Brown had a knowing smirk on his face. “I had anticipated that, so maybe I’ve solved some problems for you,” he said, reaching for a typed document that codified the contents of the brief as a direct order to the services to take the actions laid out in the briefing. “Well, this is certainly going to make things a lot easier,” said Vaught. Paschall just chuckled.

In the couple of hours between briefings, Nightingale converted his decision brief into a mere “information brief,” then strode into the Tank to await his audience. The officers who entered and took their seats at the long table were Jones, the four service chiefs, and their operations deputies (the three-star officers in charge of operations and plans for each service). Using a flip chart stand to his right and a viewgraph screen to his left, Nightingale launched into his briefing without mentioning the morning’s discussion with Brown. It slowly dawned on the chiefs and their operations deputies that Nightingale was speaking as if the new command was a fait accompli. The tension in the room rose sharply. “Wait a minute,” said Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau. “This is an information brief, not a decision brief.” Dead silence followed. Nightingale glanced at Vaught, who turned to Jones. “Yes, the secretary has made a decision,” Jones confirmed.

“The Navy and the Air Force were just apoplectic,” Nightingale recalled. Moreau and his boss, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward, “just went basically purple. They were really pissed. You could just see their blood pressure go up about 100 points.” But Brown’s preemptive action meant they had little recourse. “They just had to eat it,” Nightingale said. For the fledgling command, it was an inauspicious beginning.

Early one September morning Brigadier General Dick Scholtes, the 82nd Airborne Division’s assistant division commander for operations, was already in his office at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he received a surprise visit from his boss, division commander Major General Guy Meloy. “You’re going to be getting a call from the chief of staff in a couple of minutes,” Meloy told him. Usually when the two generals discussed the “chief of staff,” they were referring to the colonel who held that position in the division. But when the phone rang Scholtes found himself talking to Meyer, the Army chief of staff. “Dick, I want you to know you’re leaving the division,” Meyer said. “You’re going to be leaving it very shortly. I need you to come to Washington Thursday. I can’t talk to you anymore about what’s going to happen but I’ll tell you all about it when you get up here Thursday.”

Scholtes flew to Washington as directed. Already scheduled to meet Brown and Jones the next morning, Scholtes was told to head straight to the Pentagon for a meeting set for the oddly late hour of 9 P.M. After he had trouble getting past Pentagon security, someone finally came to collect the bemused general and lead him to a conference room beside Jones’s office.

About thirty people were in the room. Most were strangers to Scholtes, though he would come to know some quite well. Beckwith, the Delta commander, was there, as was Commander Richard Marcinko, who was in the process of creating a Navy SEAL equivalent to Delta Force.

The officers told Scholtes they had a briefing prepared for him. Curious, he sat down. The briefing covered several options for a second attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Perplexed as to why he was being told all this, Scholtes sat through the first four or five, which all struck him as “absolutely asinine and outlandish,” according to an officer who was there. (One involved rescuing the hostages and flying them on helicopters to a ship in the Black Sea, then tipping the empty helicopters into the water. Scholtes knew the Black Sea was dominated by the Soviets and therefore not a particularly welcoming environment for the U.S. Navy.)

No longer able to contain his curiosity, Scholtes asked why on earth they were briefing these schemes to him. Now it was his briefers’ turn to be confused. “Didn’t the secretary tell you about all this?” one asked. Scholtes replied that he wasn’t due to see Brown until the following morning, but told them to continue the briefing and he’d wait for Brown and Jones to explain what this was all about.

On Friday the two senior officials made it all clear. His new job was to form the command that would include the nation’s most elite special operations units, and to be ready to conduct another hostage rescue mission by October 31. As for other counterterrorist missions his new command should be ready to perform, Brown and Jones told him to be ready to discuss those once the Iranian mission had been completed. Scholtes’s chain of command ran straight to Jones, the Joint Chiefs’ four-star chairman—unique access for a one-star operational commander.

Scholtes was doubly shocked. First because, other than attending and graduating from the Special Forces Qualification Course as a young captain, he had no special operations experience, having opted to stay in the infantry mainstream rather than continue as a Special Forces officer. He never found out why Meyer selected him for the command. When he asked the four-star, Meyer simply answered: “Because I wanted you.”

The imminence of the Halloween deadline also shocked Scholtes. It gave him “less than sixty days in which to pull this thing off,” recalled a senior member of the command. “And we [had] no forces, no staff, and truly no capability.”

Scholtes’s new headquarters was located first at Bragg, the massive Army post in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Also home to XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division, and Delta, which was housed in a nine-acre fenced-off facility that had been the post’s stockade, the installation’s huge size was an advantage in trying to hide a couple of small, secret organizations.

The new command started small: just Scholtes and an aide, working out of an office in Delta’s compound furnished with a phone and very little else. Soon staff began to arrive, but only at a rate of one or two people a day. Scholtes was concerned.

The new headquarters was acquiring a staff, and it already had a mission. But it lacked a name. In classified circles, the new command was referred to as the Counterterrorist Joint Task Force. But it needed a proper, official moniker. To that end, Scholtes and a couple of assistants detailed to him from Delta, Major Logan Fitch and Sergeant Major Walt Shumate, were tossing ideas around one day. “Why don’t we call it ‘Joint Special Operations Command,’ because it’s joint and it’s special operations?” said Fitch. The others were fine with the suggestion, but when they ran it up the flagpole there was a problem. The Army bureaucracy opposed the name because the service’s main field manual grouped a wide range of generic military tasks, including urban warfare, desert operations, and river crossings, under the heading of “special operations.” The debate went back and forth between Bragg and the Pentagon, but eventually Fitch’s proposal won the day. On the rare occasions it was discussed in public, Scholtes’s new headquarters would be known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.

The units that fell under the command were largely those deemed best suited to JSOC’s counterterrorism mission, which officials at the time envisioned as small, high-intensity operations of short duration. As such, they did not include units like the Army’s Special Forces groups that specialized in unconventional warfare (the use of proxy forces to foment rebellion in an enemy country), or other special operations forces designed primarily to operate against other militaries, rather than against terrorists.

At the core of the new command was Delta (full name: 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta), which the Army had formed under Beckwith’s leadership in 1977 in response to the rising number of international terrorist incidents. Unlike Israel, West Germany, and the United Kingdom, the United States had no specialized force to handle such episodes until Delta’s creation.

Beckwith modeled Delta on the British Army’s Special Air Service, with whom he’d spent a year as an exchange officer in the early 1960s. Thus, instead of being divided into companies and battalions, like most U.S. Army units, Delta was broken into troops and squadrons. The troops were divided into teams of anywhere from three to six soldiers. Four teams made a troop, and three troops made a “sabre” squadron (the same term the SAS used). Only soldiers already in the Army were allowed to apply to Delta, guaranteeing the unit a more seasoned outlook than combat outfits filled with soldiers in their late teens and early twenties. But the key to Delta was its rigorous selection process. The unit looked for men who possessed not only extraordinary physical endurance, but also mental agility and the psychological ability to cope with ambiguity and the unknown. So its selection course combined increasingly difficult physical tests, culminating in “the Long Walk”—a grueling forty-mile hike across the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia—with a battery of psychological examinations. If a prospective unit member made it over those hurdles, he still had to pass the “commander’s board,” in which the Delta commander and other senior unit figures peppered the candidate with off-the-wall questions in an attempt to unhinge him.

The small percentage of applicants who made it all the way through selection into Delta then went through a six-month operator training course in which they learned skills ranging from expert marksmanship and room clearing to how to take down a hijacked airliner, breach walls, and pick locks. They also learned espionage tradecraft, including elicitation, clandestine communications, surveillance, and how to live under a cover identity. Only after completing the course (which not all did) were the greenhorns considered full members of the unit who could call themselves “operators.” They called Delta “the Unit.”

Eagle Claw was to have been Delta’s first taste of actual combat. Although the operators bore no blame for Eagle Claw’s failure, they were acutely aware that they were 0 for 1 on “real-world” missions. They were hungry to even the score.

Backing up Delta were the Army’s two (1st and 2nd) Ranger Battalions, based at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, and Fort Lewis, Washington, respectively. The battalions traced their lineage back to World War II, but had existed in their present incarnation only since 1974, when Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams reactivated them with the intention that they would be the world’s most elite airborne light infantry.

Beckwith envisioned the Rangers compensating for Delta’s lack of manpower on any mission requiring more than a handful of operators. He wanted the Rangers to help Delta get to and from an objective and to secure the perimeter while the operators took down the target. Beckwith called this his “donut theory,” with the Rangers forming the donut’s ring.

Almost simultaneous with JSOC’s creation, the Navy established a SEAL special mission unit that was the sea service’s answer to Delta, and which would also report to Scholtes. The SEALs were the Navy’s special operations forces, with roots in the service’s World War II underwater demolition teams. In 1980 there were only two SEAL (Sea-Air-Land) teams, Team 1 on the West Coast and Team 2 on the East. Neither team was a dedicated counterterrorism force. In fact, less than a third of their platoons had received counterterrorism training. But Richard Marcinko had a vision. A colorful SEAL officer who, from a desk in the Pentagon, had been one of two Navy representatives on the Eagle Claw task force and was now working on Snowbird, Marcinko saw an opening for a SEAL team that would fill roughly the same counterterrorism niche for the Navy that Delta filled for the Army. He masterfully worked the Navy bureaucracy to establish such a unit and to get himself assigned as its first commander. He even got to name the unit. Because there were only six SEAL platoons that had received counterterrorism training and because he wanted to fool the Soviets into thinking there were more SEAL teams than there really were, Marcinko named his new command SEAL Team 6.

Marcinko and the Navy intended Team 6 to be the maritime equivalent of Delta, but there was a big difference between how the two units assessed and selected their members. Team 6 members didn’t have to pass any formal tests or graduate from any courses to get into the unit. Marcinko chose SEALs for his new command based solely on his personal opinion of them, an opinion often formed during barroom interviews with prospective members. “The man liked to drink,” said an officer who worked under Marcinko in Team 6. “To be with him, you had to drink—to be in the ‘in’ crowd.” Marcinko acknowledged to an author his capacity to down large quantities of Bombay gin on the job, but added, “I use booze as a tool.” Fairly or not, such behavior colored the opinions of Team 6 held by many others in the special ops community for years after Marcinko left the unit in July 1983.

Although the SEALs were maritime special operations forces, and Team 6’s position as a coequal with Delta in JSOC was predicated on its “worldwide maritime responsibilities,” from its inception, Marcinko was determined that his new unit not be pigeonholed or limited in any way. “As long as we carried water in our canteens, we’d be in a maritime environment—or close enough for me,” he later wrote. This approach garnered the unit a role in Snowbird, in which they were earmarked for covert infiltration into Iran to destroy a series of military targets, but it also set the stage for three decades of friction with Delta over appropriate roles and missions for Team 6.

The Air Force’s initial contributions to JSOC were the 1st Special Operations Wing, based at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle, and a secret unit of combat controllers—men whose job it was to act as battlefield air traffic controllers. The unit would go through many name changes. Until Eagle Claw it had been named BRAND X, but as JSOC stood up the Air Force renamed it “Det 1 MACOS,” which stood for Detachment One, Military Airlift Command Operations Staff.

Where capability gaps existed, units were created to fill them. Such was the case with the command’s communications infrastructure, which the Pentagon told Scholtes the Joint Communications Support Element, a special ops communications outfit at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, would provide. Scholtes protested that JCSE was too “cumbersome” a unit for JSOC. After several months of arguing, he won permission to stand up the Joint Communications Unit at Bragg, with part of the unit assigned full time to JSOC.

The lack of a special operations rotary wing aviation unit was an even more glaring weakness, given that the inability to keep enough helicopters mission-ready played a key role in the events that resulted in the fiery debacle at Desert One. But efforts were under way to fill that yawning void. A new organization, based around helicopters and aircrew from the 101st Airborne Division’s 158th and 159th Aviation Battalions and dubbed Task Force 158, was training in great secrecy at the 101st’s home post of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as well as at the military’s vast training areas in the Southwest.

Task Force 158 used the brand-new UH-60A Black Hawk utility helicopters that were replacing the UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the “Huey,” in the 101st. To fulfill heavier lift requirements, the task force availed itself of some of the 159th’s CH-47C Chinooks. Together these two airframes should have been able to perform any medium or long-haul lift or air assault requirements. But Vaught, who remained in command of the task force until Scholtes got JSOC off the ground, saw a need for a third type of airframe, one that could maneuver in Tehran’s tight urban terrain, carrying small groups of operators or even functioning as a light attack helicopter. The active Army’s inventory held no such aircraft. But Vietnam veterans were familiar with the OH-6 Cayuse, nicknamed the “Loach” (for light observation and command helicopter), a small, nimble airframe that still resided in a couple of National Guard units. Designed to carry just two pilots, the OH-6 was not armed. However, imaginative TF 158 aviators soon figured ways to fix small benchlike platforms called pods to allow assaulters to ride on either side of the helicopter and to equip the aircraft to fire miniguns and rockets. No longer “Loaches,” both versions of the reconfigured aircraft were called Little Birds. The assault version (the one with the pods) was designated the MH-6 and the attack variant the AH-6. There would be many twists and turns in the development of JSOC’s world-class special operations rotary wing capability, but the Chinook, the Black Hawk, and the Little Bird would remain the basic Army special ops airframes for more than thirty years.

In July 1980, in a move that would have significant consequences, the Army established another secrecy-cloaked special operations unit but did not initially assign it to JSOC. Led by Colonel Jerry King, Vaught’s chief of staff for Eagle Claw, the Field Operations Group (sometimes called the Foreign Operating Group) comprised about fifty Special Forces and military intelligence soldiers. The new unit’s mission was to operate undercover abroad to gain the sort of intelligence for the military that the CIA had been unable to deliver for Eagle Claw, and to sabotage key Iranian military infrastructure such as radar and communications facilities. In the summer and fall it successfully infiltrated several operatives into Iran to conduct surveillance and recruit agents.

Halloween came and went with no orders to launch. Uncomfortable with the CIA’s intelligence on the hostages’ locations, Scholtes had told his bosses he was unwilling to do the mission on the basis of the Agency’s “we can’t tell you exactly [but] we think they’re here, here, and here” intelligence. “We may end up killing a lot of people and getting a lot of our people killed and not getting anybody out,” he said. Meanwhile, the lines of command between Scholtes’s new organization and Vaught’s headquarters, which was still in existence, were blurred. Each general seemed to think he would run the second rescue mission. The Pentagon officially transferred authority to JSOC on December 18, but Vaught continued to play a vague oversight role. “It was very ambiguous because both elements felt that they were in fact in command,” Nightingale said. A personality conflict between the two generals didn’t help, but their staffs nevertheless expected to be integrated for the mission, which they anticipated tough-talking Republican president-elect Ronald Reagan would green-light as one of his first acts in office.

Although Scholtes had been assembling his staff since September, the Pentagon did not formally establish JSOC until December 15. No ceremony marked the creation of what would become one of the U.S. government’s most effective instruments of power. The command was completely focused on training for what everyone expected would be a second rescue attempt in Iran. On January 20, the day of Reagan’s inauguration, the task force was at Hurlburt Field running what a senior JSOC staffer called “the final dress rehearsal” for the mission. “We were hoping to launch the next week,” he said. But within minutes of Reagan taking the oath of office, the Iranian regime released the hostages, who were immediately flown to Algeria and on to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany. The Pentagon canceled the final rehearsal, frustrating JSOC officers, who saw it as a lost opportunity to put the task force through its paces. But in the long run, that mattered little. The new command was up and running.

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