Looking back: Different missions set standard for MAGTF use

19 Jan 2012 | Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki

Interventions in Panama and Grenada during the 1980s highlighted the conditions when Marine Air-Ground Task Forces should be used and when other methods are preferred. Though they had nearly identical objectives, one solution was not fit for both.

Urgent Fury took place in Grenada in 1983, and Just Cause occurred in Panama in 1989. Both were launched to topple unelected governments, neutralize opposing forces, restore the government to the people of their respective countries and protect Americans and American-interests in the region. The prelude to Urgent Fury played out over the course of one week, curtailing the planning phase. According to official Marine Corps histories on Urgent Fury, on Oct. 19, 1983, a Communist group with backing from the Cubans deposed the government of the Caribbean island. There were more than 600 Americans on the island possibly in mortal danger according to Fred Allison, a historian at Headquarters Marine Corps.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz told the press the President believed it necessary to act before American citizens might be hurt or taken captive, according to official histories. Requiring a force to deal with the situation immediately, the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit was diverted to invade Grenada Oct. 25, 1983. MAUs were precursors to today’s Marine expeditionary units.

Just Cause, however, was different. According to “Operation Just Cause: The Incursion Into Panama,” an official history on the conflict, relations with Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the president of Panama, were progressively heading downhill with beatings, interrogations and shootings of service members and Department of Defense civilian employees during the 1980’s. Over several years during which Southern Command made contingency plans, it became increasingly clear that removing Noriega from power would require American forces.

Retired Maj. Gen. Thomas A. Braaten, who was on the Southern Command staff at the time of Just Cause, said the big difference between the two operations was American forces already had bases and troops in the Panama Canal Zone. However, this meant that Panamanian Defense Forces were already in close proximity to American forces.

“If you don’t already have a foothold on the land, being able to operate quickly from the water directly to the spot where the action is going to take place is a huge advantage that Marines bring,” Braaten said. “We bring our own aviation assets, our own close air support, our own everything.”

Having a hold in Panama already, American forces were able to train in preparation for the specific operations. Units involved in the invasion were brought in, trained, and rotated out to gain familiarity with the layout of Panama. Because there were already Army helicopters inside the Panama Canal Zone, bringing a full MAGTF wasn’t necessary, according to Braaten.

The 22nd MAU had already trained for a myriad of possible contingencies prior to the Grenada operation. This training and previous experience of the personnel would prove useful, according to official histories. Able to forgo the additional training phase required for Operation Just Cause, the battalion landing team and air combat element of the 22nd MAU launched the invasion after only 30 hours notice to plan and prepare.

Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced), provided air support and transport, successfully launched three airborne assaults to capture vital points of the island, a medical evacuation, and evacuation of civilians, according to Allison. Marine AH-1 Cobras also pulled extra duties providing air support for Army units on the south side of the island, which resulted in two Cobras being shot down and three Marines killed and one wounded. The amphibious and airborne assaults quickly put the island in American control.

A similar story unfolded in Panama six years later. After years of planning and training, Army and Marine forces rapidly deployed to their objectives, captured the PDF headquarters and Noriega, rescued detained Americans and dismantled hostile forces.

“Urgent Fury exhibited the capability of the MAGTF in conducting contingency operations …, ” said Allison in an article he published previously on Grenada. “It turned on a dime, diverted to execute a complex amphibious assault on a hostile shore in a matter of days … Marine aviation proved a significant enabler to the Marines’ overall success.”

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point