JSOC Missions

USASOC’s shoulder sleeve insignia worn by Delta operators, depicting the historical Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife inside the outline of an arrowhead.

No proof ever emerged that American POWs were being held in Laos or anywhere else in Indochina, but one American soldier who did become a prisoner during this period was Brigadier General James Dozier. The Italian Red Brigades terrorist group kidnapped the general from his apartment in Verona, Italy, on December 17, 1981, setting in motion a crisis that exposed the bureaucratic limits of JSOC’s power.

Ordered by Defense Secretary Weinberger to send a team to Italy to help with the search for Dozier, Scholtes dispatched a Delta element led by deputy Delta commander Colonel Jesse Johnson. But an extraordinary dispute between U.S. European Command, the State Department, and JSOC over whom Johnson was to report to slowed the team’s work. The chain of command for JSOC—at the time considered a purely counterterrorist organization—ran straight from Scholtes to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from there to the defense secretary and the president. The exception was when a JSOC element had been deployed to a foreign country, but not yet committed to action. Then, the U.S. ambassador to the country was considered in charge. But when Johnson’s team arrived in Italy, European Command, which otherwise ran all U.S. military operations in Europe, tried to assert its authority. The result was a messy and time-consuming dispute that the Joint Chiefs failed to settle. Further complicating matters, the Pentagon also deployed an ISA signals intelligence team to Italy. The team took to the skies in helicopters equipped with electronic directional finding systems that located numerous Red Brigades safe houses by locking on to the terrorists’ radio transmissions.

The full-court press from Delta, the ISA, the National Security Agency, and the Italian authorities eventually located Dozier and his kidnappers in a Padua apartment, where Italian agents rescued him on January 28. The episode showcased the burgeoning skills of the United States’ secret operators, but also highlighted the challenges of inserting them into a national security bureaucracy not designed to accommodate them.

Scholtes fought frequent battles with that bureaucracy to keep his forces away from missions for which they were not designed. At the time, that included invasions of sovereign countries. “Boss, we’ve got some hellacious capabilities, but I’d hate to wipe them out—some of these really good, talented Delta or SEAL Team 6 operatives—for something that’s not critical to their mission,” he told Vessey.

This was a constant struggle for Scholtes and his successors. A case in point was the 1981 order the Pentagon gave JSOC to prepare to invade Suriname. The huge bauxite reserves in the former Dutch colony on South America’s northeastern Atlantic coast meant that Alcoa, the massive U.S. aluminum firm, had major holdings in the country. A 1980 military coup that deposed the elected government and installed the brutal Dési Bouterse as a leftist dictator placed those properties—and, more importantly, the Western expatriates who worked on them—at risk. JSOC began planning an operation to oust Bouterse and free any Western hostages in late 1981, infiltrating operators undercover to reconnoiter possible targets and to photograph the route from the airfield to the capital, Paramaribo. “[Det 1 MACOS] people … went down to Suriname and surveyed all the airfields under the guise that they were bird-watchers,” said a JSOC staffer. “We had lots of guys go down there. It was easy to get people in and out.” JSOC was confident it could pull the operation off. “It really would have been a piece of cake,” the staffer said. “Think of a little town with the worst police force you can think of and that’s what they had.”

But the mission began to expand, particularly when it became clear that Bouterse might take and hold Western hostages in several different locations. “The Rangers and Delta were part of the recovery for these people,” said a Pentagon special operations official. “We’d have to go to several different locations and bring the expats to the airfield. At the same time we’ve got to take over the radio and TV stations in Suriname and grab the president. It was getting kind of complex.” As a result, by 1982 the operation had evolved from one that involved only JSOC to one in which XVIII Airborne Corps would have a major role.

The JSOC tactical command post and representatives from the units in the invasion plan moved to Hurlburt Field, Florida, for six weeks. The Pentagon wanted the Rangers to conduct an airfield seizure, which was becoming their specialty, with XVIII Airborne Corps’ 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Divisions flowing in behind them. The two divisions were “preparing to move out,” said a senior JSOC official. “I thought we were going to war.” But in a dynamic to which JSOC would grow accustomed during the next two decades, the Reagan administration called off the 1982 operation late in the planning process. The administration remained interested in overthrowing Bouterse: in late 1983, after the CIA had considered and then dropped a plan to engineer a countercoup to topple Bouterse earlier that year, JSOC was still planning and rehearsing a carrier-launched full-scale invasion. Delta operators visited Suriname undercover on reconnaissance missions before the administration again decided against the operation. However, the prospect of a JSOC-led invasion of Suriname continued to surface for the remainder of the 1980s. “That was always on the books,” a Delta operator said.

Events in fall 1983 ensured that JSOC’s planning effort for Suriname was not completely wasted, however. When a military coup October 14 in Grenada resulted in hard-line Marxists being replaced by even more zealous Marxists, President Reagan decided to invade the tiny Caribbean island nation. The initial plan had JSOC in the lead, with important roles for Delta, Team 6, both Ranger battalions, TF 160, and Det 1 MACOS. JSOC’s plan borrowed heavily from the command’s Suriname work. “For every target we had in Suriname, there was a like target in Grenada, so that speeded up our operations,” a JSOC staffer said. “Suriname was kind of a big joke to us, but it really turned out to be the Grenada model.” The Grenada operation, named Urgent Fury, would be JSOC’s first combat mission, but placed the command in a role for which it was not designed: spearheading an invasion, rather than reacting to a terrorist incident. Although ultimately successful, Urgent Fury was a fiasco that, like Eagle Claw, exposed the limitations of even the most elite units and had long-term ramifications for U.S. special operations forces.

On Friday, October 21, Scholtes briefed the services’ three-star operations deputies in the Pentagon on how JSOC envisioned conducting the assault. He was due back October 23 to brief the Joint Chiefs, but that morning the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad militant group killed 241 U.S. servicemen, including 220 Marines, in Beirut, Lebanon, by destroying their barracks with a truck bomb. The Marine losses prompted the Corps’ commandant, General Paul X. Kelley, to petition Vessey for a prominent Marine role in the Grenada invasion scheduled less than forty-eight hours from then. Vessey relented. Carefully drafted plans had to be hastily rewritten as Vessey gave the Marines all targets in the northern half of the island.

The late addition of the Marines resulted in U.S. Atlantic Command changing the operation’s H-hour (the mission start time) from 2 A.M., which had been JSOC’s preference, to first light, allowing Grenadian forces and their Cuban allies to take JSOC forces under heavy, effective fire when they conducted their air assault and airborne missions. TF 160’s Black Hawks were riddled with bullets as they tried to infiltrate Delta and Team 6 operators. U.S. forces, who outnumbered trained enemy forces on the island about ten to one, eventually triumphed, but with the loss of nineteen men killed in action, of whom thirteen were JSOC task force personnel. These included four Team 6 SEALs who drowned after a night parachute jump into the sea forty miles from shore and three Rangers killed when three Black Hawks collided as they landed during an air assault.

The operation was hobbled by a confused chain of command, a failure to properly prepare (U.S. forces conducted no rehearsals and invaded without any good maps of Grenada), poor to nonexistent communications between different elements of the invading force, and woefully inadequate intelligence. (Scholtes had refused ISA commander Jerry King’s offer to have his unit conduct advance reconnaissance for the task force, because he had no faith or trust in him, a personality conflict that limited cooperation between the two organizations throughout the 1980s.) As many as a third of U.S. killed and wounded in action may have resulted from friendly fire. The invasion was the United States’ first major combat operation since the fall of Saigon and it revealed that much had been forgotten about the importance of unity of command and thorough preparation. The Pentagon had established JSOC in part to avoid a repeat of the ad hoc nature of Eagle Claw. But Grenada showed that while JSOC and its component units worked reasonably well together, there was still much progress to be made when it came to coordination with conventional forces.

JSOC was also hamstrung in this regard by the obsessive secrecy that permeated and surrounded the command. It was a principal factor behind the shambolic performance in Grenada, because many senior conventional force commanders were not even aware of JSOC’s existence, let alone knew how best to employ its units. “It was so, so top secret that it was extremely difficult to do our job,” said a senior JSOC official. The extraordinary level of secrecy that shrouded JSOC’s missions, units, and personnel became a touchstone for the command and its subordinate elements, to the extent that an operator’s commitment to this code of silence was considered a demonstration of his special ops bona fides. But Scholtes, like other JSOC commanders after him, chafed against it because of the constraints it placed on his operations. Indeed, it had come as almost a relief when the Fayetteville Times first reported JSOC’s creation in October 1980.

Grenada left deep scars in JSOC’s collective psyche. Scholtes remained deeply embittered by the eleventh-hour interference in his plan. Nor was he the only senior JSOC officer angered by the events surrounding the commitment of the elite forces to the fight. The Det 1 MACOS commander, Colonel John Carney, retired in disgust shortly after the operation. Scholtes would eventually have an opportunity to air his frustrations in a way that counted. But not all the mistakes resulted from issues beyond JSOC’s control. There had been several major errors internal to Scholtes’s task force. Urgent Fury put JSOC on notice that the command and its subordinate elements still had a way to go to become truly effective combat units.