The Lessons of Operation Eagle Claw Part 1

Lessons of Operation Eagle Claw Part 1


Land and sea forces have operated together since the beginning of time. During the Civil War ‘combined operations’ as  to great with effectiveness at Vicksburg and other battles to secure the upper Mississippi River Valley (Reed 1978).

During both world wars combined operations were expanding upon. It was in Vietnam and the small wars of the 80’s and Desert Storm that joint operations of Special Operations Forces came into being.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) by their very mode of operation is joint operations. Army Rangers and Special Forces need transportation from the Navy and the Air Force to get where they are going to conduct their missions.  Analysis of the interplay between conventional and unconventional forces shows us how joint operations connect them both.

By looking at an historical example of how American joint special operations operate, like the Iranian Hostage Crisis, we can how these principles are used.


American Special Forces Team

American Army Special Forces A-Team

The American Embassy Seized

America had supported the Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, for almost thirty years (Beckwith 1981).  The United States had helped the royalty’s return to power in the 1950’s.  America was labeled the “Great Satan.”  The Shah had provided some stability to the turbulent Middle East and America tended to look away from his despotic ways.  The Shah ruled Iran with an iron fist.

In February of 1979, a revolt had driven the Shah from power. An uneasy coalition of secular politicians and fundamentalist Shia Muslims led by the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.  They had a single purpose of destroying any trace of the Shah’s oppressive reign.

On the morning of November 4, 1979, the American men and women working at the U.S. Embassy went about their regular working day. A few months earlier, over a thousand Americans had worked there but were evacuated after the Shah had been overthrown.  Only 66 members of the staff stayed. That morning a militant crowd had gathered outside the embassy.

By eleven o’clock the crowd worked itself into a frenzy. Soon the crowd led by angry students overran the outlining buildings and compound wall. The students took the embassy and captured the American embassy staff inside.

Demonstrators on the embassy

Demonstrators on the wall of the American Embassy in Iran

The Shah terminally ill with cancer, had fled to New York City where he now lay dying.  The hostages were taken so the new government could gain leverage from the U.S. to the ousted Shah to be returned to Iran for execution.

Once the call was received of the situation at the National Command Center it would set in motion one of the audacious military operations in the history of the United States. A mission where lessons would be both painful and profound for the United States.

After months of negotiations did not release the hostages President Carter decided to act. The covert mission would use the joint effort resources of all four of the services to be executed. The plan called for Delta Force, a unit of American Commandos- modeled after the Son Tay raiding party- to deploy to a secret location to prepare and deploy.

Delta Force

Delta Force was a unit conceived two years early with the mission of rescuing hostages.  The unit was commanded by a colorful Special Forces Colonel named “Chargin’” Charlie Beckwith, an aggressive and charismatic leader who had a storied career.


Colonel Beckwith

Beckwith had commanded a Special Forces unit in Vietnam that specialized in long-range reconnaissance deep into Vietcong territory (Cawthrone 2011). After being grievously wounded he would return for a second tour in Vietnam. He commanded a battalion in the 101st Airborne Division in some of the toughest battles of the war.

Beckwith in Vietnam

Beckwith his team in Vietnam

Years earlier Beckwith had served an exchange program with a British Special Forces unit called the Special Air Service (SAS). The SAS were widely regarded as the best unit in the world at unconventional warfare.

During the Malaya Emergency in the 1950’s, the SAS helped to stop a growing Communist insurgency. The SAS inserted patrols of 14 men into the jungle far from its operational headquarters. The patrols worked with local police and Chinese personnel to get a lay of the land.

Raids were launched and four man sections would fan out to explore the jungle to interdict known Communist approach routes. Standard doctrine said that an army patrol could not be out for more than a week. One patrol would stay in the jungle for 103 days (Cawthrone 2011).

Malayan Scouts SAS

SAS Patrol in Malaya in the 1950’s

The patrol were resupplied by helicopter and continued to operate against the insurgents.  These patrols, in time, would begin the painstaking process of winning over the aboriginal tribes (Beckwith 1981). For Beckwith this approach was revolutionary.

Upon his return to the U.S. Beckwith lobbied for the creation of a unit patterned after the SAS.  It would take a storm of terrorism sponsored events to change the mind of the U.S. government.  In 1976 an Israeli strike force led an attack on a captured Air France jet that was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda.

Almost overnight Beckwith was tasked to create a unit with the same capability. For this basis of this unit he would call on veterans from a previous American raid.


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