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Authors: Ed Darack

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⅔’s first combat deployment since Vietnam would be far more complex and gut-wrenchingly difficult than any in the battalion could imagine. But the dividends yielded from their work would be far greater than any of them could have dreamed.
s ⅔ battled notional enemies on training grounds in Hawaii, Nevada, and California, 3/3 fought a multifaceted counterinsurgency campaign deep in the Hindu Kush that yielded strengthened regional stability and a beaten-down enemy, forging a broad operational pathway for ⅔’s upcoming deployment. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Norman Cooling—who would subsequently lead his battalion in yet another successful COIN fight in Iraq’s Al Anbar province just nine months after returning from Afghanistan—3/3 stormed after Islamic extremists throughout the hinterlands of eastern Afghanistan and built networks of long-term security and trust between the isolated region’s people and the nascent Afghan government, one of the cardinal objectives of Operation Enduring Freedom.
3/3’s victories didn’t come easy, though. The battalion had been assigned an area of operation roughly the size of South Carolina that consisted of six contiguous provinces: Laghman, Nangarhar, Khowst, Paktia, Logar, and Kunar. And they’d arrived just in time to face the brunt of one of the harshest winters in those provinces’ recent history, with temperatures crashing below minus-twenty degrees Fahrenheit at high-altitude locations like Gardez and crushing snowfall that icy gales caused to drift to more than ten feet in depth in some places. Yet the battalion, fully prepared for the conditions as a result of their focused and rigorous predeployment training at Twentynine Palms and the Mountain Warfare Training Center, kept a hard-charging operational pace, always maintaining at least one platoon of Marines outside the wire at each of 3/3’s forward operating bases at all times, as well as kicking off one battalion-scale operation per month. And while the Marines of 3/3 consistently attained their mission goals throughout their deployment, they achieved them not by working within their MAGTF structure, but as a component of a larger “joint task force,” an environment built of multiple command layers where other U.S. military units could operate simultaneously in 3/3’s area—some of them with entirely different command rules than those to which 3/3 adhered.
While the concept of unifying all components of a military campaign under one distinct commander has been one the USMC has embraced and forged doctrine around since the birth of the Marine Corps, a codified framework for all U.S. services working with one another—
—emerged only recently with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Act, military command flowed from the upper echelon of each service branch—the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps—down to the individual unit level of a respective branch for operations. But interservice rivalries, often ego-driven and funding-oriented, sometimes led to virtual paralysis at the operational level, ultimately yielding tactical inefficacy and sometimes injury and even death. The act, which keeps the responsibility for training and equipping personnel of each branch in the hands of the service chiefs, established geographically defined “unified combatant commands” (Central Command, European Command, Southern Command, etc.), each composed of personnel from all of the armed services. In this construct, a Marine unit may work for an Army commander or an Air Force unit may work for a Marine Corps commander within a combatant command. The act also removed direct war-fighting authority from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to mitigate the chances of feuding among the individual services over command authority of a campaign or region. The Joint Chiefs of Staff serve as strategic advisers to the president, while the unified combatant commanders execute command and control for specific operations. In the case of Operation Enduring Freedom, when 3/3 arrived, command flowed directly from the president, through the secretary of defense, to Central Command (CENTCOM), to the Afghan theater-wide umbrella command: Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A), which was chiefed by U.S. Army Lieutenant General David Barno. Authority flowed to 3/3 from CFC-A through Combined Joint Task Force 76, a U.S. Army-led coalition responsible for not all—but virtually all—military operations in Afghanistan. The Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Eric Olson, formed the core of CJTF-76. The command path to 3/3 then channeled through Combined Task Force Thunder, commanded by U.S. Army Colonel Gary Cheek of the 25th Infantry Division—Cooling’s direct boss while in-country. Task Force Thunder controlled military operations in Afghanistan’s eastern reaches: fourteen contiguous provinces known as Regional Command East (RC-East), including, of course, the six provinces assigned to 3/3, which were designated as “Tactical Area of Responsibility Trinity,” but also referenced simply as Area of Operation Trinity, or AO Trinity.
While limited in terms of supporting assets, including aviation and logistics, and although his battalion was spread thinly across six provinces, Cooling and his staff succeeded in maximizing his Marines’ capabilities in the difficult COIN fight, in great measure due to the relationship Cooling forged with Colonel Cheek. Both are war fighters down to their bone marrow, and Cheek understood how Marines fight—in the COIN realm as well as in the hard kinetic fight. Cheek also understood the Marine Corps’ elegantly unfettered command structure and the powerful synergy of the MAGTF, not to mention the famous USMC ethos. Furthermore, while each hailed from different service branches, the two shared one very,
important thread: each understood the critical importance of gaining and maintaining the support of the indigenous population as a conduit to gaining the intelligence needed to root out insurgents. They recognized that, although kinetic operations were necessary to destroy terrorists and insurgent leaders, those operations would be self-defeating if they were conducted indiscriminately, without regard for their impact on the average Afghan citizen. However, while RC-East fell under the command of Cheek’s Task Force Thunder, special operations forces—
-conventional units—also undertook missions in the same geographic area. However, not only did they not fall under Cheek’s or Cooling’s commands, special operations forces—“SOF”—could conduct missions without apprising either commander of mission details. In fact, SOF units, whose priority mission was counterterrorism and not counterinsurgency and whose preferred method was the direct-action raid, could actually initiate operations anywhere in the AO without informing either Cooling or Cheek that they would be there at all. This difference in priorities and approach posed an immense challenge not only to unity of command, but to the greater, theater-wide unity of effort.
Military units trained for highly specialized, focused applications such as deep reconnaissance, targeted kill-capture missions, and sabotage (among many other nonconventional roles) trace their roots into the furthest recesses of warfare’s history. Throughout time, a combatant’s “main effort” has often required specialized augmentation forces to help pivot the odds of a campaign’s success toward that combatant’s favor. Modern U.S. military units trained for special purposes first saw action in World War II; the U.S. Army Rangers and the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams played vital roles in the greater war effort’s ultimate victory. Initially established in 1952 as part of the U.S. Army’s Psychological Warfare Division, the fabled Green Berets, aka Special Forces (the name Special Forces, which refers solely to the Army’s Green Berets, is often incorrectly used as a substitute for the broader general term
special operations forces
) worked closely with Vietnamese fighters aligned with U.S. interests to aid America in the Vietnam War effort, with the ultimate goal of those native forces becoming completely self-sustaining. Green Berets, working in small units, embodied the concept of “economy of force” as they stood up fully capable South Vietnamese military units, obviating the need for larger infusions of conventional U.S. military forces. But the nonconventional mission of greatest consequence for modern U.S. special operations units—with massive ramifications for conventional forces as well—didn’t culminate in victory, but fiery disaster.
Having transformed Iran into a “populist theocratic republic” after ousting the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a cadre of fundamentalist Shiite Muslim clerics headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini fomented a mob of restive youths into attacking American interests in their country in late 1979. Angry that U.S. President Carter allowed the exiled shah to be treated for his advanced lymphatic cancer at a clinic in New York City, the mob—who called themselves the Imam’s Disciples—stormed the U.S. embassy and the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran in early November of 1979, taking sixty-six American workers hostage—and refused their handover until the shah returned to Iran to face a trial. In early April of 1980, after months of feckless diplomatic negotiation attempts, the Pentagon put a small, newly formed counterterrorism unit on alert, the First Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, led by U.S. Army Colonel Charles Beckwith, who developed the unit from a concept to an operational force. The soldiers of what would come to be popularly known as “Delta Force” prepared to embark on a complex hostage-extraction mission they’d been rehearsing and rerehearsing for months, Operation
Eagle Claw
As the last wedge of twilight succumbed to pitch darkness above the Middle Eastern country of Oman on 24 April 1980, six U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft roared into the sky off the island of Masirah. The aircraft carried 132 personnel (Beckwith and his force, Army Rangers, and support crew), food, water, weapons, and huge rubber bladders filled with jet fuel. Shortly after the Hercules took to the sky, eight U.S. Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters lifted off the deck of the nuclear-powered carrier USS
in the Gulf of Oman. Both the Hercules and the Sea Stallion groups were destined for a secret rendezvous /refueling point in Iran’s Dasht-e-Kavir Desert code-named Desert One.
But equipment malfunctions exacerbated by a type of atmospheric phenomenon known as a
where fine, talcumlike dust rises thousands of feet above the desert, led Beckwith to abort the mission, as these failures rendered three of the original eight helicopters mission-incapable. Upon maneuvering his Sea Stallion to return to the
after refueling at Desert One, one of the helicopter pilots became disoriented in a plume of rotor-wash-blasted sand and dust, and careened into an idling C-130, killing eight servicemen as the two aircraft erupted in flames. The unsuccessful mission, which Beckwith had hoped would be one of the most spectacular in the history of combat, instantly vaulted to the fore of the world’s greatest military disasters.
During the ensuing investigation—as America viewed images of the thinning, blindfolded hostages on their televisions—a number of factors emerged that, in aggregate, seem to have portended doom for the operation long before the aircraft launched into the Middle Eastern night. Chief among these factors was that while all four branches of the military were involved, there was virtually no integration either for training or for command chains—straining, if not breaking, the bond of unity of effort and unity of command that was absolutely vital for the mission’s success. Miscommunication throughout the entire mission also played a role in defeat: while meteorologists tasked with helping plan the mission were fully aware of the possibility of
—they are common in the region in the spring, forming as a result of updrafts from lines of thunderstorms—they were not allowed to warn either the C-130 pilots or the helicopter pilots, who were shocked and mystified to come across (and barrel through) two of the strange, dark, and disorienting “curtains” during the mission. And no central combat operations center—a node vital for maintaining command and control throughout a mission—was designated for the mission itself, leaving the helicopter pilots unaware of the operation’s status as they tried to locate Beckwith while on the ground at Desert One. Furthermore, the Navy RH-53Ds hadn’t been thoroughly checked for maintenance issues before being handed over to the U.S. Marine Corps pilots who would fly them. From a wide-field perspective, the investigators could see that each piece of the greater “operational machine,” while individually capable, wasn’t integrated so that the machine could function—at all.
While the Goldwater-Nichols Act radically changed the organization of the Defense Department’s conventional forces, Congress—reeling from the Operation
Eagle Claw
disaster and a SOF-conventional-forces communications-equipment integration debacle during Operation
Urgent Fury
in Grenada in 1983—added a provision to the Goldwater-Nichols Act that would, for the first time, codify a framework for all U.S. nonconventional units. And so, on 13 April 1987, President Reagan signed into law the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Three days later, the Department of Defense activated the United States Special Operations Command. USSOCOM, a body that many consider to be the fifth branch of the military, was born.
A wide variety of specialized units fall under the authority of Special Operations Command, from special operations weather teams—who help other SOCOM units plan, prepare, and augment missions—to Air Force Combat Controllers, to Green Berets, to Navy SEALs, and a multitude of others. Prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Act and the establishment of USSOCOM, nonconventional units often felt themselves cast as the “redheaded stepchildren” of a particular service, having to plead for training and operations funds while their conventional-service counterparts enjoyed a relative bounty of military procurement. With the Nunn-Cohen Amendment, SOF units receive their own, distinct funds for equipment and training as well as for actual operations. The amendment also calls for individual SOF units to train with one another—Army Green Berets with Navy SEAL teams with Air Force Combat Controllers, etc. While Beckwith’s soldiers had thoroughly rehearsed their portion of Operation
Eagle Claw,
had they been working under a command like SOCOM, in addition to the other benefits afforded by such an organization, all of the mission’s elements would have been able to train and rehearse together, likely preventing the disastrous outcome at Desert One.
BOOK: Victory Point
9.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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