by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
In October 25th, 1983, the Caribbean island of Grenada would be subject to an aerial and amphibious invasion by the U.S. military as a result of a highly unusual set of circumstances. In this first of a two-part series, we will examine the troubled military planning and political justifications behind the U.S. invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury). The second part will look at the execution of this complex air, naval and ground operation, the many shortcomings of which still offer relevant lessons for today.
Grenada is a small Caribbean island nation and former British colony one hundred miles off the coast of Venezuela, which in 1983 had a population of 91,000 of primarily African descent. St. George’s University, located on the main island, was popular with foreign students and contributed 10-15% of the island’s GDP. In 1978, a Communist government under Maurice Bishop came to power in a coup which overthrew its increasingly violent predecessor, Sir Eric Gairy. Under Bishop, the island allied itself with Cuba and began a number of ambitious social and economic projects, including the construction of a major new international airport with the assistance of hundreds of Cuban engineers.However, on October 13th, 1983, Bernard Coard, a hardline rival in Bishop’s New Jewel Movement, launched a coup and imprisoned Bishop. On the 19th, protesters broke Bishop out of prison, who led them on a march to the main barracks of Fort Rupert (today known as Fort George), where dozens were cut down in a hail of gunfire from three Soviet-made APCs. Bishop was then recaptured and summarily executed, and an island-wide curfew was instituted by the military, which seized power under General Hudson Austin.
Probable causes of U.S. invasion on October 25th, 1983
Depending on who you ask, the cause of the U.S. invasion of Grenada was either because the island had chosen the wrong side in the Cold War, that its Communist government had been violently deposed by hardliners and order needed to be restored, or that the foreign students attending medical school there were in need of evacuation. Some would even argue that the true cause was a mixture of domestic politics and an incident thousands of miles away in the Middle East.
- The Air Strip: Enter the Reagan administration, which had long nursed a grudge against the Communist government. In particular, they complained that the long runaway of Point Salines airfield was being built to accommodate Soviet and Cuban cargo planes. Of course, there is another reason a developing island country might want an international airport: to receive tourists in their large airliners. And the airport had first been planned back in 1954 while the island was still under British rule…
- The Cuban Engineers: Reagan had another axe to grind: the 600 Cuban engineers, whom Washington insisted were actually soldiers training local forces. The Army history of the conflict plays up the threat the “military trained” engineers posed (military training is probably a common thing in a country with mandatory conscription) and “loosely organized into military units” (or in other words: not actually part of regular military units). Though armed, Bob Woodward wrote in his book “Veil” that a post-invasion CIA report concluded that “the Cubans construction engineers were not combat troops in disguise”. In fact, Castro was angered by Bishop’s killing, and ordered the Cubans in Grenada only to fire in self-defense; but he also sent Colonel Pedro Tortoló Comas on October 24th to organize their defenses in the event of an invasion.
- The Medical Students: Initially, the U.S. military first became involved while contemplating the evacuation of the six to eight hundred U.S. medical students at St. George’s University. On October 19th, the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed contingencies for their non-combat evacuation — but just in case, it was proposed that a Marine battalion should deploy there to make a show of force. Or, it was suggested, the airport at Point Salines could be seized to facilitate the evacuation — after all, the 82nd Airborne Division was a rapid-reaction unit trained in airport seizures. Early in the discussion, then, military capabilities began to drive the thinking of planners.
The students in question were confined to their dorms (sensible given the prevailing instability) with guards outside, a move perceived as evidence of Grenadian perfidy — even though the entire island was under curfew. But the students were never taken hostage. Some even departed by plane in the days before the invasion, though passage out became difficult as a result of the coup. Nor did the United States seriously attempt to negotiate their peaceful evacuation.
- Restoring order and regime change: Reagan did receive a request from the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS) to intervene, as well as the governments of Barbados and Jamaica. Grenada’s military build-up and current instability had alarmed other Caribbean nations. After the invasion, Reagan also produced a letter requesting intervention from Governor General Paul Scoon, the British representative — though rather curiously, Scoon later claimed he was given the letter by the Americans on October 27th (though Scoon remained a supporter of the invasion). And it turned out that the U.S. State Department literally wrote the letter requesting the intervention that was given by the OECS states… When Reagan met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on October 21st, he declared he was leaning towards an invasion, and told them to begin planning for one, though the final go-ahead was still his to make. The planners settled on October 25th — Operation Urgent Fury would have to be planned very urgently.
- The Beirut Bombing: On October 23rd, truck bombs in Beirut killed 241 U.S. Marines stationed there, probably the highest loss of life in one day suffered by the U.S. military since the Vietnam War, resulting in the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Lebanon. On October 24th, the go-ahead for the invasion of Grenada was given. The United Kingdom, the United States closest ally, was not informed until 10 PM that day — and a call from the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher urging Reagan to seek a diplomatic solution was ignored. Reagan was later recorded making a groveling apology to Thatcher after the invasion was underway. Was the Reagan administration eager to notch an “easy” victory under its belt to maintain domestic political support? It is argued in defense of Reagan that that the invasion was already being planned, and that one shouldn’t connect the dots. But some don’t see it that way …
Operation Urgent Fury arose amidst all those circumstances. The invasion of the tiny Caribbean island by a vastly superior U.S. force was trumpeted as a success, but revealed such glaring deficiencies in inter-service cooperation, operational planning and intelligence gathering that it led to a major congressional reform of the military. The slippery political rationalization for the operation remains contentious to this day. The best that can be said is that if you were not one of the 113 people who lost their lives in this “lovely little war“, the long-term consequences were not materially dire.
Grenada’s People’s Revolutionary Army mustered between 300-600 regular soldiers and less than 1,000 poorly-trained militia in October. They had received over 8,000 largely outdated rifles and carbines from Cuba and the Warsaw Pact, and between 8-10 each 82mm mortars, PKM machine guns and 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifles. More importantly, they had twelve ZU-23 twin-barreled 23mm anti-aircraft guns and a number of quad-barreled 12.7mm DsHK machine guns — both low-tech anti-aircraft weapons dangerous to low-flying aircraft. They also were the only Caribbean country with armoured vehicles: eight Soviet-made BTR-60PB wheeled APCs, and two BRDM-2 armoured cars. These had light armour for protection against rifle bullets, and were armed with heavy machine guns. Note, however, the absence of truly modern weapons, or the naval equipment necessary to threaten neighbouring islands.
US Forces and Operational Plans
The United States forces arrayed against the Communist government of Grenada were overwhelming in numbers (the initial landing counted just 1,000 troops, but eventually 7,600 would arrive in all) and in training — but they still needed to find a way to get on the island, and also achieve the operational objectives.
The limited available time, and the secrecy surrounding Urgent Fury complicated U.S. military planning — for example, the 82nd Airborne Division was not allowed to include its parent formation, the XVIII Airborne Corps, in the planning of the mission. Its soldiers were readied on October 22nd, but would only learn they were going into combat on the airport tarmac the night before the invasion. The Army and Navy bickered whether General Trobaugh or Schwarzkopf should be in charge, and the Marine Corps was informed at the last minute that its role had been downsized. And it turned out no one had accurate topographical maps of Grenada or current intelligence as to the status of its defenses nor the accessibility of its beaches or airports. Operational planners and pilots alike made do with tourist maps.
A team of twelve Navy Seals was dispatched on the night of October 23rd to reconnoitre the beaches and observe the airport to determine their suitability. But four of the air-dropped Seals tragically drowned in the rough seas, and the other eight were forced to abort mission after encountering a combination of patrol boats and stormy weather. So the United States remained blind as to the actual conditions on the island.The lynchpin of the invasion was to be the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, which were to take Point Salines by landing at the airport at dawn. Once the airfield was secured, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division would land at the airfield, including an artillery battalion, as well as a 350-man Caribbean Peace Force detachment. The 82nd Airborne Division and 75th Ranger Regiment were both light infantry units whose only combat vehicles were jeeps, some of which mounted anti-tank recoilless-rifles. Together, the Rangers and the 82nd Airborne Division were to rescue the students at the nearby True Blue campus of St. George’s University, only one mile away, and overcome the Cuban elements near the airfield. Support would be provided U.S. Navy A-7 Corsairs strike planes from the USS Independence, naval gunfire, and Air Force AC-130 gunships.
Simultaneously, the Marines of the seaborne 22nd Marine Assault Unit (MAU) would either land by sea, or if the beaches were unsuitable, by helicopter, to capture the island’s other airport, Pearls Airport. The 22nd MAU included helicopters — four AH-1T Sea Cobra attack helicopters, and CH-46 and CH-53 transport helicopters, as well as 900 marines of the 1st Battalion/8th Infantry Regiment. The 22nd MAU also had at its disposal amphibious AAV-P7 amphibious vehicles and four M60 Patton tanks.
Finally, on the day of the invasion, Navy Seals and elite Delta Force commandos, supported by the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment flying MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for the first time in action, were to launch four additional special operations in the vicinity of the capital St. George’s, all of which relied upon helicopter insertion and extraction. These included…
- a SEAL mission to extract Governor General Scoon, under house arrest in Saint George;
- a Delta Force mission to rescue political prisoners held in Richmond Hill;
- a Delta Force raid to arrest leaders of the People’s Revolutionary Army in Fort Rupert;
- a SEAL mission to capture Radio Free Grenada in order to broadcast anti-Communist propaganda.
By midnight on October 24th, the Rangers were flying towards Point Salines airport, the Marines were waiting in their ships to seize Pearls Airport, and Delta Force and Navy SEAL operators were scrambling aboard helicopters in Barbados to embark on their raids.
The U.S. forces flying over the Caribbean were about to be confronted with a number of hair-raising epiphanies. For starters, there were numerous anti-aircraft guns positioned around Saint George and Point Salines, and the runway at Point Salines airport, which the main force intended to land upon, was littered with defensive obstacles preventing aircraft from touching down. Furthermore, the majority of American students they were going to evacuate were not located at the True Blue campus, but at a second campus a few miles away Grand Anse. Lastly, the special forces team inserting into the capital of St. George’s would soon realize that they had not taken any anti-tank weapons to counter the numerous Grenadian APCs stationed around the capital.
In part 2 we will look at how the U.S. plan faired, given these unpromising foundations.