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Panama, 1989; Operation "Just Cause"
By Tom Cooper
Sep 1, 2003, 13:13

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The relationship between Panama and the USA developed already in the mid-19th Century, while Panama was still part of Columbia. In 1903 the first contract for building of a canal connecting Pacific and Atlantic was signed and late in the same year the USA also supported Panama’s independence from Columbia. When the Panama Canal was finished, the surrounding area came under US control, and was ruled by a US governor. In total, Panama immediately became an US protectorate, and the Canal developed into the most important factor in country’s economy.

Nevertheless, the political situation in Panama was never stabile, and several times Washington felt forced to deploy troops. Finally, in 1978, the then Panaman dictator, Torrijos, signed an agreement with US President Carter, with which a complete pull-out of US troops from the Canal Zone by 31 December 1999 was agreed, in exchange for free elections being organized in the country. This controversial agreement was never to become fully realized, even if the US troops indeed pulled out of the Canal Zone in 1999: in 1981 Torrijos was killed in a helicopter accident, and no elections were held. Instead, between 1982 and 1985 no less but five different governments ruled in Panama City, before the deputy commander of the National Guards, Col. Manual Noriega, established himself in power.

Noriega had already since the mid-1960s some CIA connections, but was always following only his own interests: already at that time he was involved in doubious and illegal activities, like drugs smuggling, money laundering, and selling US military secrets to Cuba. There were also reports about his connections to the M-19 guerilla organization in Columbia. With the time, Noriega started openly and directly antagonizing even the USA, and by 1989 the US troops deployed along the Panama Canal were under increasing pressure as Noriega forced Panamese authorities to declare emergency.

Meanwhile, the former Panamese National Guards was developed into Panamese Defense Forces (PDF), and increased to several battalions with a total of 6.000 troops with different training. The two best units were the Battalion 2000, and a small company of paras. The Panamese Air Force (PANAF) was a miniature air arm with 500 officers and enlisted ranks, 21 Bell 205A-1 helicopters, and few light transports mainly tasked with flying supply missions for different bases in the jungle. The PANAF had three small units, the „Escuadron de Transporte“, Escuadron de Rescate“, and „Transporte Aero Militár“, deployed at Torrijos/Tocumén and Rio Hato airfields, but also on eight small strips around the country.

US Preparations

In the late 1989 US troops were based in following bases in Panama: Fort (Ft.) Knobbe, Howard AFB, and Rodman NAS, north of the Canal; Albrook AFB and Fort Clayton north of Panama City; and Quarry Heights in the city. There were additional bases, like Ft. Sherman, west of Panama City, and Ft. Randolph, Ft. Gulck, Ft. William F. Davis, and Colon, west of Panama City.

Already during the first round of increased tensions because of Noriega, in 1988, Pentagon prepared plans for an intervention in Panama, the Operation „Blue Spear“. However, this saw only the US troops being re-deployed to the most important points around the country. The Blue Spear was never realized; nevertheless, it already caused several additional US units to be deployed to Panama.

In spring of 1989 it was decided that the XVIII Airborne Corps would be the basis for the future intervention in Panama, and then the preparations for creating the „Joint Task Force Panama“ (JTFP) were initiated. During the summer of 1989 the 193rd Brigade based in the Canal Zone was reinforced to 10.300 troops; the 7th Infantry Division with 13.000 troops (of which the first 1.500 arrived already in May) the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 75th Regiment were to follow. In order to canceal the size of the deployment all units and their equipment were flown to Panama with C-5B and C-141B transports of the MAC, in the operation „Nimrod Dancer“, during which also AH-6 Little Bird and AH-64A Apache helicopters of the 1st Cpy/1st Bn Aviation Rgt./7th ID, as well as AH-1S and UH-60As of the 123rd Aviation Rgt. were flown in. Immediately after arrival, all the helicopters were hidden in different hangars around Howard AFB. Subsequently also the first combat and transport aircraft arrived, including the 61st MAW, equipped with C-22s, C-130s, and CASA.212s, as well as additional helicopters of the 1st SOW and the 24th Composite Wing. For some time the USA considered to deploy also eight F-16Cs of the 388th TFW to Panama, but there was a considerable danger of these being hit in the case of fighting around Howard AFB, and the idea was dropped. Nevertheless, six A-7Ds of the 180th TFG (Ohio ANG) were already at the airfield, and they were to prove their value.

After the arrival of 7th ID and 123rd Aviation Regiment‘s helicopters – during November 1989 – also 12 AH-6s, ten MH-6s, seven MH-47Es, and 17 MH-60K Night Hawks of the 617th Aviation Det. (Special Operations and the 160th Aviation Group) were brought to Howard AFB without anybody in Panama noticing. In total, by 18 December – as the 7th ID finally established its forward HQs at Howard – the US Army had no less but 167 different helicopters in the country.

For the operation against Noriega’s regime – which was to become known as "Just Cause" – the US Army and the Special Operations Command of the USAF have created several task forces (TF). The TF "Hawk", based in Howard AFB, for example, consisted of the 1st Bn 288th and 1st Bn 123rd Aviation Rgts. At Rio Hato the "Team Wolf" was organized around AH-6s and AH-65As of the 82nd AD), tasked with support for the rangers that were to jump over two Panamese airfields. The USAF Special Operations Command (USAFSOC) mobilized the whole 23rd Air Force – including units equipped with EC-130s, AC-130s, MH-53Js, and MH-60Cs for the support of the Just Cause.

The plan for the operation against Panama was very complicated and saw extensive deployment of no less but 4.400 troops from different special units of the Army, Air Force, and the Navy, including the Rangers, Delta Force operators, and SEALs, which were to swiftly capture eleven neuralgic points around the country, capture the top leadership, and dis-arm the local military and security authorities.

AH-64A Apache and AGM-115 Hellfire ATGMs were used in combat operations for the first time during the Op "Just Cause". Here a US Army Apache is seen during testing of the Hellfire HMMS (Hellfire Missile Modular System). (US Army)

Raiders of the Storm

The final reason for the US invasion of Panama delivered a failed coup against Noriega, organized on 3 October 1989: two days later Panama declared a war to the USA. On 16 December several US troops came under fire while underway in civilian clothes in Panama City, and a young officer was killed. US President George W. Bush then ordered the execution of "Just Cause": troops already stationed in different bases around the country went into their starting positions on the evening of 19 December. Simultaneously, in the USA, 1.700 rangers of the 75th Rgt. and 3.300 paratroopers of the 82nd AD went aboard 13 C-130 Hercules transports, escorted by several AC-130A Gunships of the 711th SOS and AC-130H Spectre gunships of the 16th SOS, and several F-15C Eagle interceptors.

Underway to Panama the Hercules of the first wave were refueled in the air by two HC-130N tankers of the 9th SOS; the HC-130Ns also supplied several other – „specialized“ – Hercules, such like EC-130Es, and the other nine C-130s that followed. In their wake an armada of 77 C-141Bs and 12 C-5Bs was to follow with additional troops and heavy equipment - supported by numerous KC-135 tankers and at least one E-3A Sentry AWACS. The rear end consisted of more McDonnell F-15Cs with their own tankers, and two Lockheed F-117A „stealth“ aircraft.

The attack was initiated by two F-117As, which around 23:00hrs local time dropped two GBU-24s in front of Noriegas HQ at Rio Hato. This operation later caused much discussions, as it was declared for a failure by the public, while the bombs fell right where they were expected to do - as the intention was for them to create confusion.

However, instead of creating confusion, the bombs alerted the Panamese, so that when the 13 C-130s loaded with troops of the TF „Red“ arrived over Rio Hato they were confronted by the fire from several ZPU-4 heavy machine guns, calibre 14.7mm. Before the two escorting AC-130s could intervene, the 8th SOS MC-130E that lead the formation of Hercules‘ was obviously hit by ground fire and forced to make an emergency landing with only three engines in working order. The Gunships – soon after jointed by two AC-130As each from the 711th and 919th SOS AFRes that came from Howard AFB – then started suppressing the air defenses and this enabled the Hercules transports to disgorge rangers from a level of only 600ft/200m. Due to a number of heavily-loaded troopers landing on the concrete runway, 35 of them were injured, but in general they managed to swiftly recover and attack the main terminal of Rio Hato, which was secured by 01:53hrs of 20 December.

Shortly afterwards the first heavy transports arrived, bringing reinforcements and evacuating casualties. During this attack the rangers lost two killed and 27 injured (in addition to 35 troops injured during the landing), while the PDF lost 34 killed and 260 captured. The TF „Red“ – now supported by several AH-64As and AH-6s flown in from Howard AFB, and the two 711th SOS AC-130As – then started preparing for its next task.

Special Units

Simultaneously with the landing of the rangers at Rio Hato, the US troops elsewhere in Panama became active as well. A commando troop captured the TV-station at Cerro Azul, and put it off air (the station was later re-activated, albeit under US control).

Around 00:45hrs of 20 December a US Army TF was to be flown by three UH-60As from Albrook AFB to the Pacora-Bridge, some 15km north from Tocumén/Torrijos airfield, in order to block the eventual counterattack by the PDF Battalion 2000. During the start the helicopters came under fire from Panamese troops deployed around the airfield: there was no damage and they continued safely. Already during the landing near Pacora Bridge the Americans saw a column of the Battalion 2000 approaching: the troops deployed swiftly and then attacked. The first Panamese vechiles were destroyed by M-136 launchers, and then two AC-130s joined with their guns calibre 20, 40, and 105mm. Within only few minutes, almost all the armored vehicles of the Battalion 2000 were destroyed and the troops scattered. That was the end of the only Panamese operation that could develop into a significant threat for the US troops.

Meanwhile, the USN’s SEAL-Team 4 deployed from Howard AFB aboard MH-53J Pave Low III and MH-60G helicopters of the 20th SOS to attack the small airfield Punta Paitilla, where they were to prevent Noriega from leaving Panama aboard his private aircraft. The SEALs jumped into the water some four kilometers off the coast, and used Zodiac-boats to reach the beach. Subsequently, additional operators were deployed by helicopters directly on the airfield.

Initially, the SEAL raid was highly successful and several light aircraft were used to block the runway, while Noriega's biz-jet was disabled. However, poor reconnaissance and numerous re-deployments of PDF units in the last days before the start of "Just Cause" then almost resulted in a catastrophe. In the moment the SEALs were about to disable Noriegas LearJet, they came under a heavy counterattack from PDF security forces and lost four operators killed in a short and brisk fire-fight. Only a swift reaction from the US Army, which urgently deployed reinforcements from nearby bases aboard several helicopters – including a Pave Hawk of the 55th SOS – saved the small team from annihilation. In the end, Punta Paitilla was secured, even if the Pave Hawk was damaged by ground fire.

Night-camera photograph of SEALs landing at Patilla airfield. (US DoD)

USN SEALs at Patilla airfield swiftly put Noriega’s LearJet out of action. (US DoD)

Around 01:10hrs the TF „Red Tango“, consisting of rangers based at Hunter Army Airfield, jumped over Tocumén/Torrijos. This operation was highly successful and the airfield was secured within only 15 minutes, so that the following transports were able to start landing there already around 0130hrs. Nevertheless, the local security personnel took 347 civilians from a Brazilian airliner as hostages and the Americans needed several hours of negotiations for them to surrender. Meanwhile, around 02:10hrs the next wave of 20 C-141 Starlifter transports disgorged the paras of the 1st Brigade 82nd AD over Torrijos. One of the transports was damaged by ground-fire, but the jump was successful, even if some troops landed in the marshes nearby. Shortly after, also eight Sheridan light tanks were dropped, and soon enough the TF Red Tango was able to start advance, despite some smaller PDF detachments near the airfield: these were mainly dealth by one AC-130 and several AH-6 and AH-64s.

Around 05:00hrs two additional battalions of the 82nd AD were dropped and now the USA had a total of 7.000 troops on the ground in Panama - in addition to those already stationed there: this made it possible for the US Army to start a series of offensive operations. As first the UH-60As were used to deploy a battalion to capture La Viejo; the rangers – together with Sheridans – then moved in the same direction.

At 08:30hrs another battalion was deployed aboard helicopters to Tinajitas, where two PDF units were swiftly destroyed. Two hours later a third battalion captured Ft. Cimmaron, neutralizing the remnants of the Battalion 2000 (at a cost of one killed and several injured): this unlucky PDF unit was under constant attacks by AC-130s during the night and meanwhile lost almost all of its vechiles as well as most of the troops.

82nd Airborne in Action

Some elements of the 82nd Airborne Division were deployed to Panama already since 17 October, where they were put under command of the 3rd Brigade/7th Infantry Division, and stationed at Forts Sherman and Clayton, as well as at Howard AFB. From 00:38 these troops attacked PDF bases at Coca Solo and Fort Espinar, as well as on the Colón Peninsula, resulting in limited fire-fights. Around 01:00hrs the paras of the 82nd Airborne attacked the Renacer prison. They were deployed with the help of two UH-1Hs of the 1st Battalion/228th Aviation Regiment; the third UH-1 landed some troops outside the prison, which blocked the road leading there. The whole operation was supported by two OH-58C and a single AH-1S, which attacked the guards at the nearby PDF barracks. A similar attack was executed against the Gamboa prison, where also a CIA-agent was held by the Panamese. The third prison - at Modelo, near the la Comandancia - was attacked by the DELTA FORCE operators, which lost one of their AH-6s to small arms fire.

The Battle for La Comandancia

The 192nd Infantry Brigade became active around 01:00hrs, when an attack against La Comandacia was to be started. The operation had to be postponned for 15 minutes, as the PDF troops near the Howard AFB opened fire in reaction to US landings. As the US troops drove towards La Comandancia, they came under heavy fire and lost two M-113s APCs disabled: the soldiers on the ground had to use all fire-power at hand plus support from AC-130Hs of the 16th SOS in order to be able to continue their advance. During this attack, the Spectres showed a new tactics, called „Top Hat“, in which two gunships flew concentric circles around the target, flying in a formation hardly 15 meter from each other, and then concentrated the fire of all their weapons against the same target. Several times opening fire against PDF positions only meters away from US troops, the gunship-crews of the 711st, 919th, and 16th SOS proved their capabilities beyond any doubts, and several were later decorated.

The heavy fire poured into La Comandancia from the air and the ground destroyed the building completely: the place was not only hit by gunships and the troops of the 192nd Infantry Brigade, but also Rangers, and AH-6s and AH64s, the last of which used a number of Hellfire ATGMs and Hydra rockets. Especially the small and maneuverable AH-6s proved their worth beyond any doubt, as they could fly deep into the streets, frequently putting different parts of the building under fire from less than 20 meters. The Panamese troops blocked inside La Comadancia and nearby houses were not to give up, but had to be neutralized in a brutal battle, which was not over before 17:30hrs. During the fighting neither side could take much care about the civilians living in the neighborhoods, and there are reports that up to 220 innocents were killed by both sides during the intense fighting in this area.

The 192nd Infantry Brigade was also involved in the attack against the Fort Armador. This operation was initially planned to be executed with the help of helicopters, but in the end most of the troops drove into the battle in several busses. The rest of this Task Force was deployed by helicopters around 01:00hrs, but came under heavy fire and had to fight a fierce battle - during which also two American civilians were killed – in order to secure the small city where the US military families wee living: the Fort Armador was secured only around 16:5hrs.

As soon as the fighting started, three EC-130E(RR) Rivet Riders of the 193rd SOG (stationed at Harrisburg) were used to emit a TV-show in which the Panamese civilians were informed about the reasons for the operation, and called to remain in their houses.

Swift Success

In total, during the first 24 hours of "Just Cause" the US troops secured all their initial targets, and in the following days they were foremost busy establishing law and order. During the fighting, two AH-6s were lost (one shot down and the other after flying into high-tension wires), as well as a single MH-6, and the 123rd Aviation Regiment lost a single OH-58C. A single US Army and two DELTA FORCE pilots were killed. No less but 41 other US helicopters – out of a total of 167 used – were damaged by ground fire to one degree or the other, but all except one UH-60A – that also made a hard landing – were repaired within 24 hours. Most of the helicopters hit took part in the more risky parts of the operation, and in general their crews re-learned the lessons of Grenada, which showed that un-armored helicopters are very vulnerable to any kind of fire. Except for helicopters, also eleven C-130s were damaged by anti-aircraft fire.

After the main elements of the PDF were neutralized within the first 24 hours, in the following days only some minor fire-fights occurred, during which the US troops could always count with extensive help from the local population: the Panamese civilians were glad to aid in the hunt for supporters and members of Noriega’s regime, and many volunteered to help showing the right direction, or point at those hiding within the civilian population.

On 25 December, the Task Force Condor was organized to support of the newly-arrived 2nd Brigade/7th Infantry Division, but these units were not to see any intensive fighting any more. As a matter of fact, the rest of the "Just Cause" mainly saw different deployments of the DELTA FORCE, elements of which were busy with the hunt for Noriega. The dictator managed to escape several times - even if the US Army was searching for him simultaneously on several places – before finally taking refuge in the Embassy of Vatikan. The compound was immediately surrounded by US troops, and longer negotiations followed, resulting in Noriega‘s surrender to US General Thurman, on 3 January 1990: the dictator was immediately brought aboard a waiting MH-60G Night Hawk helicopter that flew him to Howard AFB. Once on what was then still officially a US soil, Noriega was arrested by DEA agents and then flown out to Florida aboard an MC-130 of the 8th SOS. The whole operation lasted less than 30 minutes. In the following days, no less but 900 members of Noriega’s regime and his supporters were arrested as well.

The Operation "Just Cause" was terminated on 31 January 1990. By that time, most of the involved US troops were long since back at home, or at least underway there: they were replaced by several units of the military police, deployed in the operation "Promote Liberty", which saw a continuation of the hunt for Norriega’s supporters. The MPs made extensive use of helicopters for swift deployments around the country, and two of these crashed during a storm, on 21 February, killing eleven troops of the 7th Infantry Division and the 228th Aviation Regiment.

In total, the USA suffered a loss of 23 troops during the operation "Just Cause"; the PDF and other elements of the Panamese military and security apparatus lost 202 soldiers, the whole heavy equipment, and most of aircraft and elicopters.

Until today, the USA pumped several billion US dollar into Panamese economy, in order to support the recovery of the country. Several of former Noriega’s supporters managed to came away, and some of these were instrumental in causing some minor unrests. In December 1990, for example, the former „Commandante“ Eduardo Hassan lead a mutiny of some 100 troops of the newly-founded PDF: this was swiftly put down by US troops still stationed in Panama. On 31 December 1999, the Panama Canal was officially given to Panamese control and the last US troops pulled out of the country.

Order of Battle for US Flying Units of Operation "Just Cause"

SOCOM (“Joint Task Force South”)
23rd Air Force
- 16th SOW/8th SOS Black Birds, 3 MC-130E,
- 16th SOW/9th SOS Night Wings, 2 HC-130N
- 16th SOW/16th SOS Ghost Riders, 7 AC-130Hs
- 16th SOW/20th SOS Green Hornets, 5 MH-53J
- 16th SOW/55th SOS Night Hawks, 4 MH-60G
(all elements of the 16th SOW were stationed at Hurlburt AFB)

- 193rd SOG, 4 EC-130E(RR), from Hurlburt AFB
- 711th SOS (AFRes.), 3 AC-130A, from Duke Field and Howard AFB
- 919th SOG, 5 AC-130Hs, from Duke Field and Howard AFB
- 160th Avn. Grp/TF.160, 12 AH-6, 10 MH-6, 10 MH-47E, 17 MH-60K

- 37th TFW, F-117A, from Tonopah AFB
- 24th CW, OA-37B, from Howard AFB
- C-130s, C-141s, and C-5s from 21 different MAC squadrons
- 830th Air Division/61st MAW, C-22s, C-130s, CASA.212
- 388th TFW, F-16Cs, from Hill and Howard AFB
- 180th TFG (ANG), A-7D, from Toledo (Ohio)
- ? AWCW, 3 E-3A, based at ?
- 26 different Refueling Squadrons with KC-135s

US Army
- 123rd Aviation Regiment/Aviation Brigade 7th Infantry Division, flying AH-1S and UH-60As
- Aviation Brigade 82nd Airborne Division, flying AH64A and OH-58Cs
- 1st Battalion/288th Aviation Regiment, flying AH-1S and UH-60As.

Sources & Bibliography

- PANAMA 1989-90, by Gordon Rottman & Ron Volstad (from Osprey Elite Series, No.37), by Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1991 (ISBN: 1-85532-156-4)

- Contemporary reports in different dailies, including The International Herald Tribune and The European

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