By: James Holloway
Date: August 23, 1980
Source: Holloway, James. The Holloway Report. Joint Chiefs of Staff, August 23, 1980. Available online at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB63/doc8.pdf; website home page: http://www.gwu.edu (accessed June 9, 2003).
About the Author: Admiral James L. Holloway (1922–) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of a naval admiral. Holloway graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942, and during World War II (1939–1945), he earned a Bronze Star as a gunnery officer in the Pacific theater. After the war, Holloway became a jet fighter, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross in two tours of combat in the Korean War (1950–1953). In 1974, he became the Chief of Naval Operations until his retirement four years later. Holloway led an investigation into the failed rescue attempt to free hostages held in Iran, issuing "The Holloway Report" to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on August 23, 1980.
In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched Operation Ajax to prevent the nationalization of Iranian petroleum reserves and the elimination of that country's existing monarchy. In doing so, the covert operation assisted in the overthrow of Iranian premier Mohammed Mossadeq, a strong proponent of Iranian nationalism, and the installation of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to the royal seat. Pahlavi, commonly known as "the shah of Iran," had previously opposed Mossadeq before fleeing the country. He acquired U.S. support and returned to Iran as a key player in the CIA's overthrow plans. As a bulwark against communism, the shah served as an important ally to the United States in the Cold War. He also served as a major purchaser of U.S. military goods and provider of oil. Both the United States and the shah benefitted significantly from their relationship.
Within Iran, however, the shah and the United States were unpopular. To consolidate his power, the shah repressed opposition political parties and restricted the press. The CIA-trained secret police, the SAVAK, was particularly unpopular as it brutally suppressed the shah's opponents. Additionally, widespread government corruption and rapid inflation sparked economic discontent. Reform efforts proved ineffective until the land reform, electoral law changes, and other initiatives implemented in the shah's White Revolution. These measures pleased a large sector of the public, but failed to improve conditions for the poorer classes. Muslim clerics in particular objected to women being granted the right to vote. The shah's pro-Western orientation angered many Muslim religious leaders in Iran, who believed that Islamic and Iranian cultural values and identity were being undermined by Western influences. In 1963, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, a religious leader, gave a speech in which he fervently and directly attacked the shah's leadership. He was arrested and three days of rioting ensued before being fiercely suppressed.
After being released from jail, Khomeini continued to speak out against the shah. He was exiled from Iran, but persisted in voicing his opposition to the government. While Khomeini was in exile, underground groups formed in Iran. Young people, discontent with what they perceived to be the ineffectiveness of the legal opposition to the U.S.-backed shah and inspired by guerrilla efforts elsewhere in the world, formed two main groups—the Marxist Fedayan and the religious-based Mojahedin. Public unrest and violence increased along with the shah's unpopularity, and large-scale demonstrations resulted from the mistrust and alienation felt across the stratas of Iranian society. When Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, he was welcomed by millions of enthusiastic Iranians who felt that he could effect change. Members of the military approached him with their loyalty and urged him to affect a coup against the shah.
Revolutionaries in the underground, emboldened by Khomeini's return, took to the streets. The army withdrew from fighting the insurrection, effectively signalling its lack of support for the government. This resulted in a general uprising from which the shah fled and Khomeini became the ultimate ruler. President Jimmy Carter (served 1977–1981) admitted the deposed shah, who was suffering from cancer, into the United States for medical treatment. Fearing that previous U.S. support for the shah—and the coup that led him to power—might replay itself, Khomeini, on November 4, 1979, denounced the United States as the "Great Satan" and ordered 400-armed radicals to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage. For the next fourteen months, the Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed the Carter administration. Each night, pictures of blindfolded hostages were beamed to television sets throughout the world.
In April 1980, eight Sea Stallion helicopters took off from the USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman to carry out Operation Eagle Claw. Ninety members of Delta Force were flown six hundred miles at night and at low altitude to a refueling site in the Iranian desert. From there, the men were to be airlifted by helicopter to Tehran and rescue the hostages. During the operation mechanical problems grounded three helicopters. With only five operational helicopters, the mission was cancelled. As the forces withdrew, a C-130 transport aircraft collided with a helicopter, killing eight servicemen. After that, ammunition aboard the aircraft exploded, damaging several helicopters. The Sea Stallions were abandoned, and their crews transported back to the Nimitz aboard the remaining C-130s. The next day, Americans watched triumphant Iranian broadcasts showing captured American military equipment and charred aircraft shells.
The disastrous hostage rescue attempt was symbolic of the United States' perceived military impotence, particularly in Special Forces operations, in decline throughout the 1970s. In domestic politics, the catastrophe further eroded the public's confidence in the U.S. government, especially in the Carter administration. Although the failing national economy was the primary issue in the 1980 presidential election, President Carter's handling of the Iranian crisis played a vital role in his loss to Ronald Reagan (served 1981–1989). While Eagle Claw contributed to Carter's image as a weak, ineffectual leader, it was probably fortunate that the mission was aborted. The military projected that if the operation had proceeded, numerous hostages and rescuers would have been killed and that the more than 200 Americans remaining in Tehran would have been taken hostage. Eagle Claw was not a complete disaster, as it forced the Department of Defense to reform Special Operations forces. The lessons learned from Eagle Claw were instrumental to the future successes of Operation Just Cause in Panama, Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait, Joint Endeavor in Bosnia, Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Iraqi Freedom.
Primary Source: The Holloway Report
SYNOPSIS: After the Eagle Claw catastrophe, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned a Special Operations Review group, headed by Admiral James L. Holloway III, to examine the hostage rescue mission as a basis for recommending future improvement. The report, which was released on August 23, 1980, revealed significant failings in planning, training, and equipment.
The conclusions drawn in this chapter derive from the determination of fact presented in Chapter II and the analysis of issues discussed in Chapter III.
The concept of a small clandestine operation was valid and consistent with national policy objectives.
The review group concludes that the concept of a small, clandestine operation was sound. A larger, overt attempt would probably have resulted in the death of the hostages before they could be reached. It offered the best chance of getting the hostages out alive and the least danger of starting a war with Iran. Further, the large-scale military thrust required by an overt operation would have triggered early hostile reaction, possibly resulting in widespread Iranian casualties and giving strong credence to probably Iranian allegations that the rescue attempt was an act of war. Conversely, a small operation with Iranian casualties essentially limited to the act of freeing the hostages would have better supported the contention that it was a rescue, not a punitive raid.
The operation was feasible and probably represented the plan with the best chance of success at the time the mission was launched.
Despite all the complexities, the inherent difficulties, and the human and equipment performance required, the review group unanimously concludes that the risks were manageable, the overall probability of success good, and the operation feasible. Under these conditions, decision to execute was justified.
The plan for the unexecuted portion of the mission was soundly conceived and capable of successful execution. It appeared to be better than other alternatives—a realistic option with the best chance for success at the time of mission execution. Based upon the review group's visit with the ground rescue force and a comparison with the capabilities of CT forces of other nations, it appears that selection, training, and equipment of the ground forces were excellent.
The group believes it virtually impossible to precisely appraise the remaining part of the operation and to measure probability of success. During that portion of the mission, the inevitability of hostile reaction would have become a major factor. The dynamics inherent in a recovery of the type envisioned would have produced a level of complexity that makes the study of probabilities essentially a matter of conjecture.
The rescue mission was a high-risk operation.
The mission had to be considered high risk because people and equipment were called upon to perform at the upper limits of human capacity and equipment capability. There was little margin to compensate for mistakes or plain bad luck.
Furthermore, possible measures to reduce the high risk factor could conceivably introduce new elements of risk. For example, the JTF considered that adding more helicopters and crews to improve the chances of having more helicopters en route would result in an unnecessary increase in the OPSEC risk. A delay in execution for additional training could increase the risk.
The first realistic capability to successfully accomplish the rescue of the hostages was reached at the end of March.
Confidence in the probability of mission success grew after the final training exercise in the western United States. With the possible exception of several items of communications equipment, essentially all mechanical means used in the rescue operation—helicopters, aircraft, and special equipment—were available on 4 November 1979.
OPSEC was an overriding requirement for a successful operation.
Rescue depended upon surprising the captors in the Embassy compound before the hostages could be harmed. If this surprise could not be achieved, the mission would fail—either canceled or aborted, with high probability of the hostages being removed or executed. Further, recognizing the importance of the element of surprise, the group is reluctant to criticize, even constructively, the OPSEC standards for being too strict, as secrecy was successfully preserved until after withdrawal of the aircraft from Iran.
Nevertheless, throughout the planning and execution phases, decisions were made and actions taken or not taken because of OPSEC that the group believed could have been done differently. Furthermore, most, if not all, of the suggested alternatives could have been implemented without an adverse OPSEC impact had there been a more precise OPSEC plan developed early after the formation of the JTF organization and with specific responsibilities assigned.
Command and control was excellent at the upper echelons, but became more tenuous and fragile at the intermediate level.
The command and control arrangements at the higher echelons from the NCA through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to COMJTF were ideal. Further down the operational chain, command relationships were less well defined and not as well understood.
External resources adequately supported the JTF and were not a limiting factor.
The effectiveness of the special supply system for the helicopters was commendable, especially considering the problems imposed by OPSEC.
Planning was adequate except for the number of backup helicopters and the provisions for weather contingencies.
More helicopters aboard NIMITZ would have increased the chances of the required number of "Up" helicopters being available at each stage of the operation. Additional RH-53Ds with crews could have been deployed to NIMITZ without crowding or impacting other mission requirements if the carrier and without a reduction in OPSEC. The use of C-130 aircraft to lead the Rh-53 flight to Desert One would have decreased the probability of a mission abort due to weather. C-130 pathfinders and spare RH-53Ds could have been added to the mission without requiring additional fuel at Desert One.
Preparation for the mission was adequate except for the lack of comprehensive, full-scale training.
OPSEC considerations mitigated against such a rehearsal and, while the review group recognized the inherent risk in bringing all of the forces together in the western US training site, the possible security disadvantages of such a rehearsal seem to be outweighed by the advantages to be gained.
Increasing familiarity of element leaders with one another, both during the operation and in the ensuing debriefing critique.
Exposing the command and control relationships to the pressures of a full-scale combination of airplanes, helicopters, troops, and vehicles, maneuvering in the crowded parking area under the confusing conditions of noise, dust, and darkness.
Two factors combined to directly cause the mission abort: Unexpected helicopter failure rate, and low visibility flight conditions en route to Desert One.
If the dust phenomenon had not occurred, Helicopter #5 would have arrived at Desert One, or if one more helicopter had remained up, six would have arrived at Desert One despite the dust.
There were alternatives available that would have reduced the probability of an abort due to these factors, and they have been discussed in detail in terms of planning and preparation.
The siting of Desert One near a road probably represented a higher risk than indicated by the JTF assessment.
The intrusion of the Iranian vehicles at Desert One significantly increased the chances of Iranians' identifying the intent and timing of the operation. Although there was a workable plan to handle the bus passengers, the burned-out truck, empty bus, and abandoned heavy-lift helicopter near a well-traveled road could have resulted in early discovery by Iranian authorities. The group, however, realizes that the location may have been the best available.
Although the specific conclusions cover a broad range of issues relating to the Terms of Reference, two fundamental concerns emerge in the review group's consensus which are related to most of the major issues:
The ad hoc nature of the organization and planning is related to most of the major issues and underlies the group's conclusions.
By not utilizing an existing JTF organization, even with a small staff and only cadre units assigned, would have provided an organizational framework of professional expertise around which a larger tailored force organization could quickly coalesce.
The important point is that the infrastructure would have existed—the trusted agents, the built-in OPSEC, the secure communications. At a minimum, COMJTF would have had a running start and could have devoted more hours to plans, operations, and tactics rather than to administration and logistics.
Many things, which in the opinion of the review group could have been done to enhance mission success, were not done because of strict OPSEC considerations. The review group considers that most of these alternatives could have been incorporated without an adverse OPSEC impact had there been a more precise OPSEC plan. A carefully structured JTF organization would have inherently provided an OPSEC environment within which a selective process could have allowed a wider initial disclosure policy—still a very stringent need-to-know policy—but based upon selective disclosure rather than minimum disclosure.
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