Army Aviation

The Invasion of Grenada — A Modern Version of Siege Warfare

Army Aviation History /  By Mark Albertson: The invasion of Grenada was a modern version of siege warfare. Cuban defenders were isolated, with no hope of relief. Reminiscent, in part, of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific Theater, 1942-1945.

The Pacific Theater of operations was emblematic of a naval version of siege warfare; a version of naval warfare certainly possible as the Pacific Fleet rebounded from the drubbing incurred at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And by 1943, the U.S. Navy was able to neutralize the Imperial Japanese Navy. Garrisons on Japanese island outposts that were bypassed were left to wither on the vine; while besieged garrisons facing certain assault were left to their own devices.

Grenada and its strategic position in the Caribbean.

First and foremost, the Grenada operation was an example of control of the sea, a number one prerequisite for victory. The Royal Navy proved this the year before, 1982, at the Falklands; as did the U.S. Navy with Operation: WATCHTOWER, Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942 to February 3, 1943. Yet . . .

. . . it has been stated by some, that the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer Army saw its validation and endorsement with Operation: DESERT STORM, January 1991. Yet seven years prior to the preparatory phase of serving Saddam Hussein his eviction notice from Kuwait, known as Operation: DESERT SHIELD, Army Aviation had already achieved that stature of an official branch in the United States Army. This was followed, six months later, by the first official combat action by Army Aviators under the auspices of branchhood . . . Grenada. URGENT FURY, then, was that coming out event in the post-Vietnam era for Army Aviation, as well as the all-volunteer Army.

Point Salinas airfield, cause of concern in Washington as a strategic asset for Havana and Moscow for control of the Caribbean Sea.

the Caribbean, the repeat of history was evident. Accent on the post-Vietnam period was to prepare Army Aviation for a conventional/nuclear warfare approach to countering the threat posed by Soviet tank armies in Europe. This was rerun of the Post-Korean War era, in which a dwindled Army Ground Force was being trained to fight on a nuclear battlefield in Europe, employing the helicopter to disperse and then gather the troops for battle. But Grenada, like Vietnam—and let us not forget Korea—in which Army Aviation was thrust into an environment in which the Airmobility concept was proven on the field of action, but again on a battlefield hardly conducive to the conventional variety that was supposedly to be found in Europe.

Indeed, the ability to successfully perform in environments other than what it was organized for, underscores the ambidextrous nature that seems to be inherent in Army Aviation; in other words, the ability to adapt. The talent to accommodate the fluctuating aspects of war renders Army Aviation a valuable tool in the American toolbox for preserving or asserting the Nation’s interests. For the year is 1983. The Soviets are learning, too; well on their way towards acclimating airpower, and in particular, the helicopter to combat the Mujahideen; a preview of what Army Aviation would later be doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet a salient point from an historical perspective in the West here is, the Industrial Revolution is over, having given way to the Technology Revolution. Industrialized, corporatized, commercialized conflicts that characterized war in the first half of the 20th century, are no longer the order of the day. Levee en Masse, the conscription of entire economies and populations for war seems, at this juncture, to be a thing of the past; that the conscript, who dominated warfare, from the end of the 18th century to 1945, has given way to the volunteer and/or professional soldier, such was what followed the Thirty Years War in Europe, from 1648 to 1793.

This four-part series on Operation: URGENT FURY, will take a look at a little regarded military operation and Army Aviation’s part in same. At the same time, it will provide a peak into a major power’s attempt to rebound following its embarrassing political defeat in Southeast Asia.

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The wreckage of an American helicopter, with an abandoned RH-53D, from the failed rescue attempt at DESERT ONE in Iran, was recalled when planning the rescue and evacuation of American students in Grenada.

1979 was a year of significance. Just six years after the United States’ defeat in the Second Indochina War, Washington’s satrap in Tehran, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, had been dethroned, with the resulting void being filled by a Shia Fundamentalist regime, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. December that same year, Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan to bolster the Moscow-backed government of Socialist Orientation in Kabul.

In Iran, though, a political situation arose, and one of an extremely sensitive nature, that being the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran by anti-American malcontents. This would foster the failed rescue attempt of the beleaguered American diplomatic personnel. Yet the tragedy at DESERT ONE hardly boosted confidence in the prowess of the American military, in the wake of the defeat in Southeast Asia.[1] And this, in addition to the fact, that in Beirut, 1983, more than 200 Marines were lost to a terrorist attack on their barracks. President Ronald Reagan would eventually remove the American contingent.

In 1979, too, Maurice Bishop came to power in Grenada. Concern quickly arose in Washington that Grenada was sidling up to Havana and Moscow.

USS Independence (CVA 62), named flagship of the naval battle group for Operation: URGENT FURY.

The Bishop Government was the Revolutionary New JEWEL or New Joint Effort for Welfare, Education and Liberation, considered a Communist-style of government which sought the support of Cuba and the Soviet Union. In so doing, Bishop erected his regime at the expense of the elected government of Sir Eric Gairy.

Affiliation with Soviet Russia and Cuba, aid—both military and trade—in addition to advisors to Grenada, was an effort to produce a satrap of strategic significance.

First, the Grenadian military consisted of a core known as the People’s Revolutionary Army, some 300 men. These were bolstered by half-trained types, the People’s Revolutionary Militia, perhaps numbering a thousand men. Followed by a Coast Guard comprising several fishing boats converted for the task.

Military punch was provided by eight Soviet BTR-60 amphibious personnel carriers, together with a pair of BRDM2 amphibious scout cars, all mounting 14.5 mm machine guns.[2]

The diminutive Grenadian armed forces were bolstered by, and what must be construed as being the center piece of the island’s defenses: The seven hundred Cuban laborers working on an airfield for Havana and Moscow. These “laborers” were Cuban Army reservists; therefore, having a double function, construction and defense.

The construction of a 9,000 foot runway at Point Salinas on the southwestern tip of Grenada, was viewed in Washington as a strategic airfield for Russia and Cuba. Mig-23s could operate from the airfield, enabling competition with Washington for control of the Caribbean; therefore, interdicting tanker traffic north from Venezuela as well as that coming up from the South Atlantic from the Middle East. And with Grenada, since it was more than 500 miles further east across the Atlantic, could prove an important logistics base for Cuban operations in Africa; as well as facilitating flights to and from Libya.[3]

The political situation on Grenada became uncertain on October 12, 1983. Maurice Bishop, having visited Washington, D.C. to meet with U.S. officials, was seen as a liability to the more radical faction within JEWEL. Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, together with General Hudson Auston, backed by the Central Committee of the government, decided to unseat Bishop and his supporters.

Bishop and other members of his government were held in detention for a week, before crowds of Grenadians gathered. They marched on Mount Wheldale, where Bishop and his entourage were in custody at the Prime Minister’s residency. Once freed, Bishop led the aroused citizenry to army headquarters at Fort Rupert. Here the guards were overpowered. But before Bishop and his supporters could assert their control, Hudson Auston met the threat with troops supported by armored vehicles. An indeterminate amount of Grenadians were killed.[4]

Bishop and his supporters were rounded up. Maurice Bishop was among those executed, as well as Jacqueline Creft, the Minister of education. General Auston proclaimed the Revolutionary Military Council, to which he would head a new interim government.

On October 20, Fidel Castro condemned the actions of the plotters, calling into question their motives. Concerned, too, with the threat such actions could pose on Cuba’s influence on the island. Meanwhile, a 96-hour curfew had been imposed on Grenada; with those violating same liable to being shot.

The curfew imposed a hardship on American citizens and students, including getting needed supplies of food and water, in addition to not being able to leave the island.

Concerns grew in Washington that Auston’s government could pose a dire threat to Americans on the island; in addition to the aforementioned strategic concerns which remained firm. And so on October 19, 1983, the Joint Chiefs of Staff forwarded a warning order to Admiral Wesley L. McDonald, commander U.S. Atlantic Command, for possible evacuations of Americans from Grenada.
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Washington Begins to Move.

The presence of armed Cubans on Grenada presented a wrinkle with regards to any evacuation plan. The same day Castro condemned the actions of General Auston, deputy national security advisor, Rear Admiral John M. Poindexter, assembled a pre-planning committee to look into the unfolding crisis. A suggestion brought forth was that of Vice President George H.W. Bush should be given authority to manage the crisis; a recommendation seconded by President Ronald Reagan.

First order of business saw the Joint Chiefs of Staff draft a plan for the evacuation operations, one that would be opposed by Grenadian and Cuban hostiles ashore. Second, it was urged that the aircraft carrier battle group centered round USS Independence (CVA-62) be sent to Grenada, together with a Marine amphibious group. Meanwhile, the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, was to ready the 82nd Airborne Division for potential operations on Grenada.

The night of October 21-22, Eugenia Charles, Prime Minister of Dominica and, Chairman of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, formerly requested the intervention by the United States into Grenada. This was followed on the morning of the 22nd by National Security Advisor, Robert C. MacFarlane, who notified President Reagan of Prime Minister Charles’ request, to which the president concurred. At the same time, preparations were proceeding apace for a joint Army, Marine and Special Forces operation on Grenada.

October 23, 1983, Atlantic Command ordered Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, of the U.S. Second Fleet, to command Joint Task Force 120; and as such, would become overall commander of the forthcoming operation. Meanwhile a pair of plans were quickly formulated:

The first scheme saw 1,800 men—Army Rangers together with JSOC contingents or a battalion of Marines supported by SEALs. Here five C-130s would drop the JSOC contingents at night at Point Salinas on the Southwest tip and the Pearls, halfway up the East Coast. These troops, covered by four helicopter gunships, would seize the airfield. In addition, they were to seize the police headquarters and radio station in the capital, St. Georges, as well as grab the Grenadian military barracks at Calivigny. This would all be followed by 16 C-130s landing at Point Salinas and the Pearls with the 1st and 2nd Ranger Battalions. This would consolidate the objectives and mop up any enemy troops escaping into the hinterland.[5]

The second plan featured an amphibious-heliborne operation bolstered by Army Rangers. This effort would be preceded by the SEALs, who would be sent ashore after midnight on the 24th, at Point Salinas, as well as the medical school in St. George’s and the Grand Anse beach, some two miles away from St. George’s. And, the Marines were to grab control of the barracks at Calivigny. Once the Marines had captured their objectives, Army Rangers were to land at Point Salinas and dash for St. George’s to seize the police headquarters, army headquarters and all government buildings of consequence.[6]

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Fraught With Political Risks

URGENT FURY was fraught with political risks. The presence of American invasion forces could prompt General Auston and even the Cubans, to take American students hostage or even kill them.[7] Cuban labor units could join Grenadian defenders and cause “unacceptable” American casualties. Would this enable Moscow to engage in political machinations in the Middle East? Asia? Europe? Too, there were the potential backlashes from Congress; the media; foreign governments, whether friendly or otherwise. And notwithstanding, beyond the possibility of unacceptable casualties, there was the potential of a public fallout should American students by injured or worse . . .Yet . . .

. . . War can never be separated from political intercourse, and if, in consideration of the matter, this is done in any way, all the threads of the different relations are, to a certain extent, broken, and we have before us a senseless thing without an object.[8]


[1] Defeat in the Second Indochina War was political, not military. Not to discount the reality, here, of the staggering effects of a political defeat; followed by the concerted efforts, by a number of concerned officers, to revamp the American military for the post-Vietnam period. Included, here, too, is what will follow the debacle of DESERT ONE. This, in turn, will push the military to correct this set back with organizing America’s Special Forces for such operations in the future. Again, the military is acclimating itself to the post-Vietnam War era.

[2] See page 7, “Strategic Setting,” Operation: URGENT FURY, by Jeffrey J. Clarke.

[3] In addition to the aforementioned strategic concerns, there was Soviet support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; the insurgency in El Salvador supported by both the Soviets and Cubans; and the FARC insurgency in Columbia.

[4] Estimates vary, from 10 to as high as 100.

[5] See page 23, Chapter 2, “Planning and Preparation, 21-24 October, 1983,” Operation: URGENT FURY, Grenada, by Ronald H. Cole.

[6] See pages 23 and 24, Ronald H. Cole.

[7] The previous hostage crisis in Tehran involving American embassy personnel and the Carter Administration’s failed response to same was not far from the minds of planners in Washington, D.C.

[8] See page 402, PLAN OF WAR, Chapter VI, “(B) War as an Instrument of Policy,” On War, by Carl von Clausewitz.

Complete bibliography to be included at the conclusion of Part IV of this series.

Grenada and its strategic position in the Caribbean.

Point Salinas airfield, cause of concern in Washington as a strategic asset for Havana and Moscow for control of the Caribbean Sea

USS Independence (CVA 62), named flagship of the naval battle group for Operation: URGENT FURY.

The Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carrier, which formed the ‘offensive punch’ of the diminutive Grenadian Army.

The wreckage of an American helicopter, with an abandoned RH-53D, from the failed rescue attempt at DESERT ONE in Iran, was recalled when planning the rescue and evacuation of American students in Grenada.