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Scenes from an invasion - how the U.S. military stumbled to victory in Grenada.

In the young histories of how America came to stand tall again, the October 24, 1983 invasion of Grenada has been cited as the major expression of the nation's renewed ability to assert itself abroad. With American citizens on the island in trouble, the government executed a lightning-fast strike to rescue them, vanquished the enemy, and in one swoop restored confidence in the military's capacity to protect our national interests. That at least was the perception. The reality was altogether different. In his book, Military Incompetence, Richard Gabriel shows that rather than demonstrating strength, the invasion gave stunning proof of weakness and ineptitude.

Counting both the special operations and regular forces, the U.S.deployed about 7,000 soldiers for the operation. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had estimated the opposition would be 700 to 1,000 Cuban soldiers, 1,500 Grenadian army soldiers, and another 2,000 to 5,000 Grenadian trained militia. Actually, they found only 50 Cuban soldiers and some Cuban construction workers with limited military training. The territorial militia was essentially unarmed and a significant part of the Grenadian army would not fight for their new government. In the final count, the U.S. outnumbered the opposition in combat forces ten to one. Gabriel, co-author of Crisis In Command, one of the most influential books about the military in the last decade, reveals that despite the overwhelming superiority in numbers and technology, our armed forces repeatedly botched their tasks.

What follows is an adaptation of Gabriel's discussion of the invasion of Grenada. Full supporting documentation can be found in the Notes section of Military Incompetence.

Shortly before midnight on Monday, October 24, a team of 35 or 40men (the numbers remain classified) chuted up in their quarters in a building near the airport on the island of Barbados. Just before midnight, they boarded a C-130 transport, with its insignia painted out, for the 45-minute flight to Grenada. The men of Delta Force [the Army's special anti-terrorist unit] would parachute onto the island in the early morning darkness of Tuesday, October 25.

Their mission was to take up positions in a grassy ravine near some abandoned construction buildings at the far west end of the Point Salines airstrip. Although the specific details of the mission remain secret, it seems certain that it was a twofold mission. The first objective was to determine the airstrip's usability for the Ranger force that was to land on it at dawn.

Sometime after 2 a.m. the Delta team was spotted by a member of the Cuban garrison. The alarm sounded and the Cuban garrison came to life and began to deploy around the ravine, only a half-mile from their barracks. Delta was quickly surrounded on three sides as the Cubans began to pour heavy small-arms fire into the ravine from the surrounding slopes. Some of the Delta Force found their way into a wooden building on the edge of the ravine, but Cuban fire poured through the walls. When Delta was finally rescued at dawn by the Ranger landing, 22 of its men had been killed or wounded, though the military has refused to acknowledge that there were any dead or wounded or even that Delta Force was on the island. Delta's failure to execute its mission alerted the defenders to the larger invasion. The alarm was sounded throughout the island almost four hours before the main forces arrived. When the Rangers parachuted onto the airstrip later that morning, the enemy was waiting for them with their AK-47s and ZSU-23 machine guns.

A second Delta mission launched in the early daylight hours of the first day was to assault Richmond Hill Prison and rescue the "political prisoners" being held there. Built on the remains of an old eighteenth-century fort, the prison cannot be approached by foot from three sides except through dense jungle growing on the steep mountainside; the fourth side is approachable by a narrow neck of road with high trees running along it. The prison offers no place for a helicopter assault force to land. Richmond Hill forms one side of a steep valley. Across and above the valley, on a higher peak, is another old fort, Fort Frederic, which housed a Grenadian garrison. From Fort Frederic, the garrison easily commanded the slopes and floor of the ravine below with small-arms and machine-gun fire It was into this valley and under the guns of the Grenadian garrison that the helicopters of Delta Force flew at 6:30 that morning.

The helicopters of Task Force 160 flew into the valley and turnedtheir noses toward the prison. Unable to land, the Delta raiders began to rappel down ropes dragging from the doors of the helicopters. Suddenly, as men swung wildly from the rappelling ropes, the helicopters were caught in a murderous cross-fire from the front as forces from the prison opened fire, and more devastatingly, from behind, as enemy forces in Fort Frederic rained heavy small-arms and machine-gun fire down from above. According to eyewitness accounts by Grenadian civilians who were in houses and in the mental hospital situated above the ravine, a number of helicopters that could, new out of the valley. In at least one instance, a helicopter pilot turned back without orders and refused to fly into the assault. Charges of cowardice were filed against him by some members of the Delta Force but were later dropped.

Near Pearls airport, Seal teams [the Navy's commando units] also failed to accomplish their missions. Two four-man teams were dropped in the sea near the end of the Pearls runway. The Marines intended to conduct a heliborne assault against the airport and had to know the nature and strength of its defenses. Although the method of bringing them in remains classified, it seems likely that the Seal teams were LAPSEDed into the water LAPSEing (lowaltitude parachute extraction system) is a technique whereby men and equipment are pulled from the back of a low-flying C-130 aircraft by drogue parachute as the aircraft skims the water It seems that one four-man Seal team deploying from the aircraft in its rubber whaleboat was knocked unconscious by the impact on the water Thrown from the boat as it hit the water and weighed down with weapons and equipment, the men were dragged under and drowned.

The second team managed to hit the water safely, start the boat'sengine, and proceed toward the beach. As they approached their landing point, a boat rounded a jut of land near them, in all probability, a civilian fishing boat. The Seals spotted the boat and shut down their engine, apparently flooding it. The engine was probably also swamped by a wave. When the Seals attempted to restart their engine they couldn't. The current began to drag them out to sea. Eleven hours later, they were picked up by a Navy ship.

The failure of the Seals to reconnoiter the proposed Marine landing zone almost caused a disaster. As the Marine helicopters approached the original landing zone-shown as an open field on their old maps-it turned out to be a grove of banana trees. The Marine pilots had to land on the exposed runway of Pearls airport. They were, however, unopposed, and within two hours of landing, the Marines deployed south and cut the main road at Grenville. Pearls airport had been secured.

Meanwhile, another Seal team of 22 men had landed on the grounds of Governor General Scoon's residence with the mission of evacuating him by helicopter to the USS Guam. Unfortunately, the Seals were spotted inside the compound and quickly surrounded by a mixed force of Cubans and Grenadians. Most observers put the size of the enemy force at no larger than 50 men. A Cuban-manned BTR-60 armored personnel carrier was brought up near the gate, while other forces deployed to cut the one escape route from the estate, trapping the Seals and Governor Scoons. It was not until the following day that the Marine landing at Grand Mal Bay relieved the "siege" of the governor's house. Reporters, press accounts, and eyewitnesses suggest that as many as ten of the 22-man force were wounded. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) continue to maintain that no Seals were wounded in the operation.

The first of the regular forces to arrive on Grenada were the Rangers. After the men were parachuted onto the island, the aircraft were to stop in Barbados, refuel, and return to Fort Stewart, where they would pick up the remaining Rangers. Because airlift was at a premium, a decision had to be made as to which of two Ranger battalions to deploy. In typical joint-operation planning, the decision was made to deploy neither at full strength. Rather, purely for political and bureaucratic reasons, elements of both battalions, together with their separate staffs, were assigned to the initial assault. Such a plan violated both simplicity and unity of command and created problems once the Rangers landed.

After the first Rangers parachuted onto the island, they came under unexpectedly heavy fire. There was considerable confusion since command of the Ranger force was split; there was no single commander for the force Ranger radio transmissions began to "spike," that is, to greatly exaggerate, the firepower and strength of the enemy. These estimates from the ground forces were transmitted over the command net and reached the 18th Airborne Corps commander Fearing that the 82nd would have to go into Grenada with more troops than expected to relieve the pressure on the Rangers and fearing that the available airlift would be insufficient, someone in higher headquarters decided to overrule the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commander and ordered the C-130s en route to Fort Stewart to divert to Fort Bragg. The aircraft diverted as instructed, leaving two-thirds of the Ranger force sitting on the tarmac at Fort Stewart listening to the war on their radios.

Because of Delta's failure to clear the runway, and because Delta's presence had alerted the island's defenders to a possible follow-on assault, the Rangers could not land at Point Salines. But the aircraft were rigged for landing, not for a parachute assault. (A C-130 rigged for parachute assault holds about 64 men and their equipment; when equipped for landing, it accommodates about 80. The C-130s were all the more crowded as they also carried a number of OH-6 helicopters.) While en route to Grenada, the Rangers had to rig their aircraft for a parachute assault.

The parachute assault did not go well. Once over the drop zone, the pilots of the two lead aircraft refused to follow the orders of the jump master and veered off at the last minute to "avoid extremely heavy antiaircraft fire." However, the ground fire was only small-arms rifle and machine-gun fire. One explanation offered by the Pentagon spokesman was that the first aircraft had trouble with its navigating equipment. The enemy units that had Delta Force pinned down at the end of the runway began to fire at the incoming aircraft. Since the first two planes tracked away from the drop zone, the first Rangers to jump were from the third aircraft, which carried the command elements for the 2nd and 1st battalions. There were anxious minutes on the ground as the commanders discovered that they were alone, that the two planeloads of Rangers had not preceded them. The next load of Rangers did not arrive for seven minutes.

The Pentagon spokesman, Michael Burch, noted on "ABC Nightline" that it took two hours for all the Rangers to land on the island. This piecemeal deployment of the airborne force probably resulted from the different time it took each aircraft to rerig en route; it undoubtedly contributed to Ranger casualties and allowed the enemy to mount a more effective resistance. The Air Force pilots' refusal to make runs over the drop zone prompted some officers to consider pressing charges of cowardice against them. The Army "counseled" the officers out of pressing charges. A year later, the Army stated that such charges had been investigated and found groundless.

The Rangers floating to the ground had dropped onto the alerted Cuban defenders, who shot some in their parachutes both in the air and on the ground. Others landed in the water, which surrounds the airstrip on two sides. Cuban defensive positions were, in one case, as close as 400 yards to the drop zone. After about 20 minutes, as more troops hit the airstrip, the Rangers began their assault, thus relieving the pressure on the exhausted Delta Force. The Cubans gave ground easily; more than 150 Cuban engineers, workers, and soldiers surrendered. By 10 a.m. the Rangers declared the area safe and secure.

According to the Pentagon, a full brigade of the 82nd arrived at 2 p.m., almost five hours after the Rangers had declared the landing zone secure Upon arriving, however, they came under what the Pentagon called "heavy fire." The Cuban barracks on the airfield had not been taken at all, and the Rangers controlled only one end of the airstrip and did not press the attack. Significantly, the True Blue medical school campus lies at the other end of the runway and apparently was still in Cuban hands by late afternoon of the first day. Just why the Rangers did not press the attack is unclear But when they jumped, they had to leave much of their ammunition and heavy weapons behind. Although they cleared the west end of the runway (partly because the enemy withdrew), they were unable to attack and subdue the Cuban barracks less than a half mile away. They threw up a perimeter defense on their end of the runway and held on until reinforced by the 82nd.

The Rangers had reached the students at the True Blue campus by late afternoon on the first day of the invasion. But U.S. forces had not been briefed that there were two other groups of students on the island. One group of 224 students was at the Grand Anse campus about four miles north of the airstrip, and a second group of 202 was in a housing complex at Lance aux Epines; they were not rescued until two days later. Enemy forces were in control of both locations and could easily have killed the students. That U.S. forces did not know the location of all the students before launching a "rescue" was one of the main intelligence failures of the Grenada operation.

On Wednesday, October 26, a combined assault by Rangers, paratroopers, and Marine helicopters was launched against the Grand Anse campus to rescue the 224 students there. The Cubans and Grenadians had thrown up a thin and hasty line of defense facing the St. George's road and between the U.S. forces and the campus. According to the students themselves, they never felt in any danger until the Americans arrived and it looked as if there might be a battle. No threats were ever made against either the students or the medical school staff. Indeed, if the enemy had wanted to kill the students or hold them hostage, they had two full days to do so after the first American forces landed.

The paratroops assaulted from the ground, keeping the enemy occupied, while six Marine helicopters approached the campus from the undefended seaward side and landed behind the defenders. Once the assault began, the enemy broke and ran, without putting up a great deal of resistance, though a few stayed behind to snipe at the Americans. There were no Grenadian or Cuban prisoners or casualties.

However, the assault did not go quite as easily as the JCS reporthas it. As the Rangers were boarding the assault helicopters for the move to Grand Anse, the helicopters came under small-arms fire from the bush. From conversations with U.S. soldiers who witnessed the event it appears that the pilots may have panicked and lifted off with troops hanging from the doors. Moreover, the command element was left on the ground. After a short time, the helicopters returned to complete the loading, while the Army forces suppressed the fire from the jungle with return fire.

As they approached the landing zone, the pilots began to take small-arms fire and, apparently, refused to land, forcing the Rangers to jump from moving helicopters.

The landing was completedsuccessfully, but it was difficult getting the Marine helicopters back onto the landing zone because of the sporadic small-arms fire from the remaining defenders.

Again, some officers wantedto file charges against the Marine pilots but were "counseled" out of doing so by their superiors.

By 6 p.m. on Wednesday October 26, the situation on the island had moved in favor of the American forces. The students from both True Blue and Grand Anse campuses had been evacuated.

One remaining strongpoint to be dealt with was Fort Frederic, perched high on a mountaintop overlooking the capital. It was a French fort built in the eighteenth century and during the invasion was manned by a small garrison. However, this garrison was able to hold off a force of platoon strength for almost five hours. U.S. forces had to call for air strikes and helicopter gunship support; two gunships were hit as they made repeated passes over the position's defenses. Unfortunately, the attacking aircraft mistook a mental hospital about three hundred yards to the north for the fort and attacked it, killing and wounding more than a score of patients and staff. Grenadian eyewitnesses say the defenders of the fort had moved the garrison's flag from the fort to the flagpole in front of the hospital and had set up a machine-gun position at the hospital gate. But according to officers responsible for settling damage claims, the military knew full well that a machine gun was positioned on the mental hospital grounds, and decided to attack the facility because it had become a combat area. The mental hospital was leveled, but neither the garrison's barracks nor the headquarters building located very close to the fort was touched. Not a single prisoner was taken. One Grenadian soldier was killed. Other than that, enemy opposition had vanished by the time the Americans took the fort. By the end of the day, U.S. troops were in complete command of St. Georges and the surrounding hills.

By late Thursday night, October 27, Admiral Wesley MacDonald could report that "all major military objectives on the island were secured." By that time, some 5,000 paratroopers, 500 Rangers, and 500 Marines had been deployed on Grenada. All that was left was to mop up a few pockets of resistance, and this was taken care of by the 82nd. A few Grenadian soldiers took to the hills, but their resistance quickly petered out. By the end of the third day, Operation Urgent Fury had come to an end.

The best wars are those you cannot lose. Certainly, the invasionof Grenada falls into this category. From the beginning, there was never any doubt about the outcome. Given the great troop strength of the United States, its enormous technological superiority, its complete control of the skies, its ability to mass helicopters, air strikes, ground artillery, and, if necessary, fire from nearby ships (including two aircraft carriers), there was little likelihood that 500 Cubans and another thousand or so Grenadians could hold out very long. Even so, the Grenada operation was carried out with a large number of blunders. Had the operation met a slightly larger force that was more determined to fight and slightly better armed (say, with SA-7 shoulderfired missiles or even a few modern antiaircraft guns), the United States would have had much greater difficulty subduing the defenders. From the perspective of military technique, the operation was full of flaws, some symptomatic of deeper pathologies within the American military structure.

Among the most glaring shortcomings was the intelligence failure. Despite access to the most advanced technology and to the complete resources of the American intelligence community, intelligence failed to provide adequate information about the location and strength of enemy positions. According to the Rangers, not even the positions around the airport landing zone were adequately known in advance. Ground units found the enemy's positions the hard way, by stumbling on them. Moreover, adequate maps were not available to U.S. ground units, and they did not become available until they were captured from the enemy. The Marines went into battle carrying old British maps, and the Army had tourist maps with improvised grid coordination systems. No terrain contours were shown. These maps had been hand-made and reproduced the night before the invasion, and they used different grid systems for locating points on the ground. According to the JCS, one consequence was that the air attack on Fort Frederic also destroyed the mental hospital because the hospital was not shown on the commanders' maps. In another case, an air strike called in by a Marine captain hit an Army command post, because the grid coordinates on the maps did not match. In this attack, one soldier was killed and 17 others wounded.

Although the major purpose of the operation was supposedly to rescue the medical students, the U.S. forces had almost no idea where the students were They knew that there were students at the True Blue campus just yards away from the east end of the Point Salines runway. But only after reaching them did they learn that there was a second, larger group of students at the Grand Anse campus, four miles from the airport. Apparently, U.S. forces did not know about a third group at Lance aux Epines until the fourth day, when units conducting routine clearing operations stumbled on them. Yet President Reagan had delivered a television address announcing his concern about events in Grenada in March 1983 -seven months before the invasion-and the island was open to anyone who wanted to visit it right up to the invasion. The telephone system worked, so that anyone could have called the medical school to obtain a list of dormitory locations.

Intelligence failures seem to be a continuing part of U.S. military operations. The one constant in the Mayaguez rescue, the Iran raid, and the Lebanon incursion is the intelligence failure. Each represents a failure to describe correctly the situation that friendly forces would face, or the failure to adequately locate the position, strength, and intentions of enemy forces.

One also sees in Grenada a large ground force moving ponderously and cautiously to encounter and reduce enemy positions one at a time. U.S. ground tactics were simple enough. When an advancing unit came under fire, it stopped. Fire was returned, but no effort was made by the unit to overcome the resistance by fire and by maneuvering its units. Fire was returned to fix the target while air strikes and artillery were called in to "neutralize" it. Commanders were quoted as saying that in order to minimize civilian casualties in Grenada they decided against full-scale ground assaults, choosing instead to deploy small units backed by heavy air and artillery power. Just how such tactics would reduce damage and civilian casualties is unclear. Indeed, one would suspect exactly the opposite. The fact is that troops not properly trained to execute small-unit fire and maneuver tend to smoke out enemy positions and then neutralize them with superior air or artillery fire. This tactical approach works well as long as the attacking force has air superiority and as long as the enemy does not mount any kind of air defense. But such tactics instill excessive caution in small-unit commanders, who may be unable to develop and implement the much-heralded "combat initiative" that would supposedly provide the winning edge in a conflict.

Command and control of forces on the ground seem a perennial problem of the U.S. military, at least since the early days of the Vietnam war Navy air strikes were delivered against Army positions on at least one occasion. U.S. forces have fired on one another elsewhere as well, it appears. Army ground units and Marine units are not able to talk directly to each other even though they may be deployed in the same area because their radio frequencies are different. Nor can Army units talk directly to Marine or Navy aircraft that may be called on to deliver air strikes in support of ground operations. Any request for air support must go through an air controller operating from a light aircraft over the battlefield. But the modern battlefield has become so lethal that the survivability of observation aircraft where the enemy has significant antiaircraft defense is very much in question. During the initial days of the Grenada operation, Army ground units had to send calls for air strikes back to their headquarters in Fort Bragg. The message was then relayed via satellite to the Navy commander, who passed the requests on to the air controller aboard the aircraft carriers.

It seems, unfortunately, characteristic of U.S. military operations to use forces from all four services. Whether any given operation should involve mixed forces seems to take second place to the desire of all four services to be involved. In the case of Grenada, at least one congressional military analyst, Bill Lind, has suggested that this was done in order to give each of the services an opportunity to get in on the show. The same consideration applies to the decision to combine men from both Ranger battalions, with two command elements, instead of using one unified battalion. The decision to employ the Rangers at all seems to have been pressed by the Army in order to increase support in Congress for a third Ranger battalion. In November 1984, a third battalion was authorized by Congress.

The decision to use the JSOC seems also to have been made for political reasons. None of the special operations missions executed by JSOC in Grenada, with the possible exception of the Delta Force drop on the airstrip hours before the official invasion, had any significant military value. As it was, all but one of them failed. Only the seizure of a diesel generating plant seems to have gone off successfully. Here a 16-man Seal team surprised and captured six civilian employees of the local power company on the morning of the first day of the invasion. But JSOC pressed for the opportunity to demonstrate that it could function well (Grenada was its first test), and Grenada provided a chance for the special operations community to rescue its prestige after the disaster in Iran. Four months after the invasion, the J-3 section of JSOC, the section responsible for plans and operations, was reorganized and a number of officers transferred.

In almost every military operation involving a combined force, beginning with Vietnam, the results have been either failure or poor performance, due to the complexitity of such operations and to the military-political problems entailed. These problems surfaced in Grenada, and they will show up again and again, as long as the JCS remains a jousting ground for parochial services and interests rather than an efficient planning mechanism.

The military admits to 19 soldiers killed in Grenada. Of these, however, fewer than one-third were killed by hostile fire. The rest were killed by friendly fire, mistaken bombing attacks, helicopter crashes, and other accidents. In addition, 20 percent were wounded in these incidents. Although the "friction of war" always takes a toll, no army can expect to sustain itself in battle when more than half of its dead and one- fifth of its wounded are victims of its own fire. Such a high proportion of non-hostile-fire deaths also reflects poor training and inadequate readiness in basic combat skills.

The casualty numbers also appear to have been deliberately falsified initially by excluding from public reports those men killed and wounded in the special operations missions. If special operations casualties are included, the death toll jumps from 19 to 29, including the six Delta Force soldiers and the four Seals killed before the invasion officially began. Originally, the JCS listed 87 men as wounded. In response to press reports that the number of wounded was at least 28 more than the number released, the military adjusted its list to 115 wounded. When it was later reported by the press that the number who received Purple Hearts was higher than the number listed as wounded, the JCS again adjusted the number of wounded upward to 152.

According to Pentagon records, 25 Cubans were killed and another 59 wounded. The Pentagon initially admitted to having killed 45 Grenadian civilians and wounding another 358. However, after the Providence Evening Bulletin reported a discrepancy in the number, the military admitted to 67 Grenadian civilians killed. Even if the Pentagon's figures are accepted as accurate, the number of civilians killed and wounded is far too high for an operation of the size and intensity of Urgent Fury. Conversations with U.S. claims-settlement personnel on the island as well as with Grenadian civilians suggest that there was a good deal of indiscriminate shooting, mostly from the air, at targets that were not clearly identified. A favorite sport of helicopter gunship pilots in Grenada on "roam and kill" missions seems to have been to machine-gun livestock from the air. In one instance, an old woman was killed from AC-130 gunship fire, and in another, an infant was machine-gunned in her crib by helicopter fire.

Whatever else the invasion of Grenada was, it was a political success. From the perspective of military bureaucracy it was also a success, insofar as almost every unit and officer that took part (and even many who did not) was able to enhance his career by being awarded a medal. It took the U.S. seven full battalions plus elements of two others to defeat fewer than 679 Cubans, no more than 50 of whom were trained combat soldiers. By contrast, the British Army defeated more than 11,000 Argentine soldiers with just eight infantry battalions in the Falklands wan And Great Britain awarded only 679 medals among the 28,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen who participated in the conflict. That conflict lasted 74 days and cost the British 255 lives, six warships, and almost a dozen aircraft. By comparison, 7,000 officers and men took part in the three days of Operation Urgent Fury, and in the weeks immediately following the end of hostilities, the Pentagon awarded 8,633 medals. Some who received medals undoubtedly deserved them. But simply showing up for the invasion and in some cases simply being in the Pentagon and tangentially related to the planning qualified one for a medal. As Grenada fades into memory, moreover, the military continues to issue medals. A report in the Boston Globe notes that the Army continued to award Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals to almost anyone involved in any way in the invasion. If the medals already awarded are added to those pending, the number approaches 19,600!

In the end, Grenada was a military success largely because it could be nothing else. The disparity of manpower and firepower guaranteed success. However, Grenada is more correctly viewed not as a legitimate success against a significant enemy but as a political operation orchestrated to convey the impression that the U.S. has military credibility. The fact that the operation was marred by a number of failures has generally gone unnoticed. What is intolerable-and dangerous-is that these failures have gone unnoticed by our military planners. That is a formula for future military disaster. We refused to learn from Vietnam; our refusal led to a decade in which the U.S. application of military force, five times in all, was marked by the same flaws. Our refusal to learn from Grenada does not bode well for our future.
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Author:Gabriel, Richard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1986
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