In mid-October 1983, a “sordid little Leninist dictatorship” on the Caribbean Island of Grenada crumbled, resulting in the British Commonwealth country’s takeover by a more-leftist military junta. The situation immediately raised concerns in Washington regarding the potential for a large-scale hostage crisis in addition to the threat of regional instability within the Cold War’s context.
From 1979 to 1983, the revolutionary Grenadian government, led by Maurice Bishop, established close ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Probably its most important project was the construction of an international airport with a 9,000-foot runway. The government stated the airport was for tourism, but, inexplicably, the hotels to support the anticipated increase in visitors were lacking. Tellingly, the Point Salines airport on Grenada’s southern coast was to be capable of handling Soviet military aircraft. President Ronald Reagan called Grenada “a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.”
On October 19, 1983, Bishop – considered not leftist enough by some of his fellow Marxists – was murdered. Within days, Reagan approved the chairman of the joint chiefs’ recommendation to develop plans for possible hostilities on the island, should the Grenadians and/or the Cubans – 450 of the latter were building the airport – oppose a U.S. evacuation of its citizens. Of greatest concern to the Reagan administration was the presence of several hundred medical students on the island. It feared “another Tehran” – referring to the hostage crisis in 1979-80 that contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s failed reelection bid.
On October 25, 1983, an eight thousand-member U.S.-led coalition force invaded Grenada. Its objective was to “conduct military operations to protect and evacuate US and designated foreign nationals from Grenada, neutralize Grenadian forces, stabilize the internal situation, and maintain the peace.” To no one’s surprise, the operation was one-sided and short – most hostilities ended within 72 hours – but it was somewhat akin to an NFL team defeating a scrub club, 7-3. Regardless of media coverage that gave the impression of a flawless battlefield victory, “it was an ugly win, with many problems” surrounding the employment of special operations forces.
Instances of poor operational planning and deficiencies in areas such as the knowledge of conditions on the ground at Grenada, interservice cooperation, and communications abounded. Although Washington had closely followed developments in Grenada since 1979, military planners lacked current maps of the island. In numerous cases during the operation, various military elements did not share common radio frequencies or system compatibility, contributing to the widely publicized anecdote of one military member on the ground at Grenada resorting to a payphone to call back to the United States for artillery support. While the story became an urban legend (at least one similar incident featuring a regular phone did occur, however), the actual deficiencies in communications provided the ideal platform for the “payphone” anecdote to spread far and wide – including senior U.S. officials and Hollywood.
The unfinished but usable airfield at Port Salines was a major objective. Early on October 25th, as the lead C-130 aircraft carrying the airfield seizure package approached, it lost navigational and infrared systems. Coupled with unexpected rain showers and low ceilings, the aircraft commander passed the formation’s lead to another Hercules. Following the reshuffling of aircraft, and learning the Grenadians were awaiting the assault, the Army Ranger 1st Battalion commander, Wes Taylor, directed his men to jump from only 500 feet above the ground. Lieutenant Colonel Taylor’s impromptu decision probably saved numerous lives, as the Grenadians could not achieve a trajectory low enough for their antiaircraft guns to target the aircraft. In any case, the Americans’ reception was not the “pina coladas” that one senior Air Force briefer had led the aircrews to expect.
Air Force combat controllers were among the several types of special operations forces in Grenada, some of whom jumped in with the Rangers. While the Rangers established a perimeter around the Salines airfield, the combat controllers ensured the safe, timely, and coordinated flow and movement of aircraft during landings, takeoffs, and ground operations, and following the set-up of radios, navigational aids, and lighting, they handled those duties plus airspace coordination.
Gaining actual control of the field was extremely difficult, however. One combat control officer recalled, “Our real issue . . . was that the Army and the Navy and Marine Corps were all attempting to use the airfield as well [as the Air Force], and no one had deconflicted the control. . .. Everybody had their own plan. . .. [and] was trying to execute it on the same piece of real estate.” Each Service thought it was the primary airfield user and in charge. In one case, an Air Force combat control officer and an Army superior officer nearly came to blows when an Army artillery battery which had set up on one side of the airfield began firing across the runway! In the chaotic environment at Port Salines, near-misses occurred “all the time.”
Upgrading Special Operations
From the close of America’s Southeast Asia military operations, U.S. special operations forces experienced significant trials in the decade that followed, marked particularly by the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1980 and the Grenada operation’s mixed record three years later. In the aftermath of Iran-Grenada, several congressional leaders took the initiative to reorganize the Pentagon’s special operations forces, culminating in the creation of U.S. Special Operations Command in 1987.
Looking back from 1991, U.S. Army Col. William G. Boykin – later a 3-star general – wrote in his war college research paper of a key Senate hearing five years earlier in which retired Maj. Gen. Richard Scholtes provided “compelling testimony” concerning Grenada. Scholtes, the Joint Special Operations Command commander for the operation, explained to the senators how his forces were “misused” and “robbed of their unique capabilities by the conventional planners and chain of command,” leading to “relatively significant casualties in Grenada as a result of numerous fundamental misunderstandings of their tactics and capabilities.”
The effect was powerful. The next day, Senator William Cohen (R-Maine) introduced a revised version of his original special operations bill as an amendment to the 1987 defense authorization bill. Cohen told his fellow lawmakers:
I do not believe that this record is attributable to persistent bad luck or an inadequate caliber of men in the armed services. In my view, we have not been effectively organized to fight the most likely battles of the present or the future.
Both houses of Congress passed the special operations measures. Two months later, in October 1986, President Reagan signed the 1987 defense bill into law, which included the framework for U.S. Special Operations Command. In the coming years, Cohen’s bleak assessment was destined to change – a fact he undoubtedly appreciated while serving as the nation’s defense secretary a decade later.
From a broader perspective, the brief Grenada operation in 1983 began the post-Vietnam rebuilding of the positive image of America’s military in the eyes of many citizens. That rebuilding continued with another short, successful operation in the 1989 removal of Manuel Noriega from Panama. In 1991, during the vastly larger, successful operation against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime – U.S. objectives remained limited – the American public’s favorable view of its armed forces reached a high not seen in decades. At the same time, the long overdue recognition of U.S. veterans of the Southeast Asia conflict was a welcome corollary.
But the 1990s also began a trend in the U.S. military that threatened cohesion and combat readiness. Like the well-known tragedy at Parris Island in 1956 in which six Marine recruits perished in a swamp, beginning with the Clinton administration in 1993 the Pentagon wandered into the swamp of social engineering for political ends. Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy permitting homosexuals in the armed forces began the process that, three decades later, helped bring us to where we are now: neo-Maoist (self-loathing) diversity trainings; Orwellian “memory hole” treatment of military heroes; and drag-queen-, abortion-, and transgender-related perversions – all of which are front-and-center in the U.S. armed forces.
None of this contributes to the current recruiting crisis, we are told, however. Put another way, if one wished to destroy the U.S. military from within, what might one do differently?
For the first time, the American military is rated “weak” by the respected Heritage Foundation. Meanwhile, China continues its engagement in low-level hostilities against the United States that it could ramp up at any moment; ideally, not until victory seems assured. As I remember from a 1980s’ radio sermon on the Book of Jeremiah: “Payday comes someday. . .. Payday comes some day.” Although the national context differs today, Jeremiah wrote of Judah: “Yet I shall not make a full end of you; But I shall correct you properly And by no means leave you unpunished.” . . . Perhaps it will be so with us.
Forrest L. Marion, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and military historian. He is the author of Flight Risk: The Coalition's Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005-2015 (Naval Institute Press, 2018), and (forthcoming), Standing Up Space Force: The Road to the Nation's Sixth Armed Service (Naval Institute Press).