Operation Just Cause

A brief history of Colonel Chris Miller's experiences in Panama

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Adapted from ACIG.org

Central and Latin America Database
Panama, 1989; Operation "Just Cause"
By Tom Cooper
Sep 1, 2003

The political situation in Panama was never stable, and several times Washington felt forced to deploy troops. Finally, in 1978, then Panamanian dictator Torrijos signed an agreement with US President Carter, which directed a complete pull-out of US troops from the Canal Zone by 31 December 1999. In exchange, Torrijos would permit free elections. 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, five different governments ruled in Panama City before the deputy commander of the National Guards, Col Manual Noriega, established himself in power.

Noriega already had CIA connections, but was always following his own interests. At that time, he was involved in dubious and illegal activities like drug 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. Noriega started openly and directly antagonizing the USA, and by 1989 US troops deployed along the Panama Canal were under increasing pressure as Noriega forced Panamanian authorities to declare an emergency.

Meanwhile, the former Panamanian National Guard developed into the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), and increased to several battalions with a total of 6,000 troops. The two best units were Battalion 2000 and a small company of paras. The Panamanian Air Force (PANAF) was a miniature air arm with 500 officers overseeing the 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 late 1989, US troops were based in following bases in Panama: Fort 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.

During the first round of increased tensions in 1988, the Pentagon prepared plans for an intervention in Panama - Operation „Blue Spear“, which was never realized. Nevertheless, it caused several additional US units to be deployed to Panama.

In spring of 1989, it was decided that the XVIII Airborne Corps would form the basis for future intervention in Panama. Preparations for creating „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 and the 7th Infantry Division with 13,000 troops (of which the first 1,500 arrived in May). The 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 75th Regiment were to follow. In order to conceal the size of the deployment, all units and their equipment were flown to Panama with C-5B and C-141B transports in Operation „Nimrod Dancer“. During this operation, AH-6 Little Bird and AH-64A Apache helicopters of the 1st Co/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 helicopters were hidden in different hangars around Howard AFB. Subsequently the first combat and transport aircraft arrived, including the 61st MAW, equipped with C-23s, 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 deploying 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 – 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 also brought to Howard AFB. By 18 December – as the 7th ID finally established its forward HQs at Howard – the US Army had no less than 167 different helicopters in the country.

For the operation against Noriega’s regime, which was to become known as "Just Cause", Special Operations forces created several task forces (TF). These TF "Hawk", based at Howard AFB, consisted of the 1st Bn 288th and 1st Bn 123rd Aviation Rgts. At Rio Hato, "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 Panamanian airfields. USAF mobilized 23rd Air Force, including units equipped with EC-130s, AC-130s, MH-53Js, and MH-60Cs for the support of Just Cause.

The plan for the operation against Panama was very complicated and saw extensive deployment of no less than 4,400 troops from different special units of the Army, Air Force, and Navy, including Rangers, Delta Force operators, and SEALs, which were to swiftly capture eleven key points around the country, capture top leaders, and disarm local military and security authorities.

Raiders of the Storm

The final reason for the US invasion of Panama was a failed coup against Noriega, organized on 3 October 1989. Two days later, Panama declared war on 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 Bush then ordered the execution of "Just Cause". Troops already stationed 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 got on board C-130 Hercules and C-141 Starlifter transports, escorted by AC-130A gunships of the 711th SOS, AC-130H gunships of the 16th SOS, and several F-15C Eagle interceptors.

The attack was initiated by two F-117As, which dropped two GBU-24s near Noriega’s HQ at Rio Hato. This operation later caused much discussion, as it was declared 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 [Miller’s note: information released to the public indicated that the bombs landed right where they were supposed to. However, first-person accounts published at the Nighthawk Association website indicate that the lead aircraft dropped on a set of bad coordinates, and the wingman followed suit. Estimates place the detonations at 1/4 to 1/2 mile from the desired impact point.]

However, instead of creating confusion, the bombs alerted the Panamanians, so that when 13 x C-130s loaded with troops of TF „Red“ arrived over Rio Hato, they were confronted by fire from one ZPU-4 heavy machine gun (50-caliber/14.5mm) and dozens of small arms. Before the two escorting AC-130s could intervene, the 8th SOS MC-130E that led the formation of Hercules was hit by ground fire and forced to make an emergency landing with only three engines in working order. [Miller’s note: The lead ship was an AWADS C-130E from 317th at Pope AFB. The aircraft that was hit was a C-130E “slick” from the 50th TAS at Little Rock AFB, flying as number 9 in the serial. That aircraft was forced to shut down one engine, and to hold over the Pacific until all assault aircraft had landed, refueled, and launched again before they were permitted to recover at Howard]. The gunships [Miller’s note: the gunships were not initially assigned to the DZ prep mission, but responded to a call following the failure of the F-117s to hit their assigned targets], soon after joined by two AC-130As each from the 711th and 919th SOS (AFRES) that came from Howard AFB, then started suppressing the air defenses, enabling the Hercules transports to disgorge rangers from a level of only 600ft. Due to a number of heavily loaded troopers landing on the concrete runway, 35 were injured, but in general they managed to swiftly recover and attack the main terminal of Rio Hato, which was secured by 0153 on 20 December.

Shortly afterwards the first heavy transports [Miller’s note: the “heavy” transports were MC-130s and “slick” C-130s operated by SOLL crews] 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. 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 the next task.

Special Units

Simultaneously with the landing of the Rangers at Rio Hato, 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 reactivated, albeit under US control).

Around 0045 on 20 December, a US Army TF was to be move via three UH-60As from Albrook AFB to the Pacora Bridge, some 15km north of Tocumén/Torrijos airfield, in order to block the eventual counterattack by PDF Battalion 2000. During startup, the helicopters came under fire from Panamanian troops deployed around the airfield. There was no damage and they continued safely. During the landing near Pacora Bridge, the Americans saw a column of Battalion 2000 approaching. Troops deployed swiftly and then attacked. M-136 launchers destroyed the first Panamanian vehicles, and two AC-130s joined in. Within a few minutes, almost all the armored vehicles of Battalion 2000 were destroyed and the troops scattered. That was the end of the only Panamanian 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 at 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, helicopters deployed additional operators directly on the airfield.

Initially, the SEAL raid was highly successful and several light aircraft were used to block the runway, while Noriega's jet was disabled. However, poor reconnaissance and numerous redeployments of PDF units in the last days before the start of "Just Cause" nearly resulted in catastrophe. In the moment the SEALs were about to disable Noriega's LearJet, they came under heavy counterattack from PDF security forces and lost four operators 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 from the 55th SOS, saved the small team from annihilation. In the end, Punta Paitilla was secured even though the Pave Hawk was damaged by ground fire.

Around 0110, TF „Red Tango“, consisting of Rangers based at Hunter Army Airfield, jumped onto Tocumén/Torrijos. Following transports were able to start landing there around 0130. Local security personnel took 347 civilians from a Brazilian airliner as hostages and the Americans needed several hours of negotiations to get them to surrender. Around 0210, the next wave of 20 C-141 Starlifter transports began arriving and disgorged paras of the 1st Brigade 82nd AD over Torrijos. One of the transports was damaged by ground-fire, but the jump was successful, even though some troops landed in the marshes nearby. Shortly afterward, eight Sheridan light tanks were dropped, and soon TF Red Tango was able to start an advance despite some smaller PDF detachments near the airfield. These were mainly dealt with by one AC-130 and several AH-6 and AH-64s.

Around 0500, two additional battalions of the 82nd AD were dropped at T-T, bringing the USA total to 7,000 troops on the ground, over and above those already stationed there. This made it possible for the US Army to start a series of offensive operations. First, UH-60As were used to deploy a battalion to capture La Viejo. The Rangers, with Sheridans, then moved in the same direction.

At 0830, 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 Battalion 2000 (at a cost of one killed and several injured). This unlucky PDF unit was under constant attack by AC-130s during the night and meanwhile lost almost all of its vehicles as well as most of the troops.

82nd Airborne in Action

Some elements of the 82nd Airborne Division had been deployed to Panama since 17 October, when 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. At 0038, these troops attacked PDF bases at Coca Solo and Fort Espinar, as well as locations on the Colón Peninsula, resulting in limited firefights. Around 0100, the paras of the 82nd Airborne attacked Renacer prison. They were deployed with the help of two UH-1Hs of the 1st Bn/228th Aviation Rgt. The third UH-1 landed some troops outside the prison, which blocked the road leading there. The whole operation was supported by two OH-58Cs and a single AH-1S, which attacked the guards at the nearby PDF barracks. A similar attack was executed against Gamboa prison, where Panamanians held a CIA agent prisoner. The third prison at Modelo, near the la Comandancia, was attacked by Delta Force operators, who lost one of their AH-6s to small arms fire.

The Battle for La Comandancia

The 192nd Infantry Brigade became active around 0100, when an attack against La Comandacia was to start. The operation had to be postponed for 15 minutes as PDF troops near Howard AFB opened fire in reaction to US landings. As US troops drove towards La Comandancia, they came under heavy fire and lost two M-113s APCs disabled. Soldiers on the ground had to use all fire-power at hand plus support from AC-130Hs of the 16th SOS in order to continue their advance. During this attack, the Spectres showed a new tactic, called „Top Hat“, in which two gunships flew concentric circles around the target, flying in formation hardly 15 meters from each other, and concentrating fire from 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 711th, 919th, and 16th SOS proved their capabilities beyond any doubt. Several members were later decorated.

Heavy fire poured into La Comandancia from the air and the ground, destroying the building completely. The place was not only hit by gunships and 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. The small and maneuverable AH-6s proved their worth beyond any doubt, flying deep into the streets and putting different parts of the building under fire from less than 20 meters. The Panamanian troops trapped inside La Comadancia and nearby houses were not about to give up, and had to be neutralized in a brutal battle that lasted until 1730. 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 Fort Amador. This operation was initially planned using helicopters, but in the end most of the troops drove to the battle in busses. The rest of this Task Force was deployed by helicopters around 0100, but came under heavy fire and had to fight a fierce battle during which two American civilians were killed. Fort Amador was secured around 1650.

As soon as the fighting started, three EC-130Es of the 193rd SOG (PAANG) were used to transmit a TV show in which Panamanian civilians were informed of the reasons for the operation, and told to remain in their houses.

Swift Success

During the first 24 hours of "Just Cause" US troops secured all their initial targets. 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. The 123rd Aviation Regiment lost a single OH-58C. A single US Army and two Delta Force pilots were killed. No less than 41 other US helicopters – out of a total of 167 used – were damaged by ground fire to one degree or another, but all except one UH-60A (that 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 unarmored helicopters are very vulnerable to any kind of fire. Eleven C-130s were damaged by anti-aircraft fire.

After the main elements of the PDF were neutralized (within the first 24 hours), only minor fire-fights occurred, during which US troops could always count on extensive help from the local population. Panamanian civilians were glad to aid in the hunt, and many volunteered by showing the right direction, or pointing out those hiding within the civilian population.

On 25 December, 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. As a matter of fact, the rest of the "Just Cause" mainly saw different deployments of Delta Force, elements of which were busy with the hunt for Noriega. The dictator managed to escape several times - even as the US Army was searching for him simultaneously in several places – before finally taking refuge in the Vatican Embassy. The compound was immediately surrounded by US troops, and more negotiations followed, finally 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 US soil, Noriega was arrested by DEA agents and flown to Florida aboard an MC-130 of the 8th SOS. The whole operation lasted less than 30 minutes. In the following days, no less than 900 members of Noriega’s regime and his supporters were arrested as well.

Operation "Just Cause" was terminated on 31 January 1990. By that time, most of the US troops had deployed back home. They were replaced by several units of military police deployed in Operation "Promote Liberty", which saw a continuation of the hunt for Noriega’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 ID and 228th Aviation Rgt.

In total, the USA suffered a loss of 23 troops during Operation "Just Cause"; the PDF and other elements of the Panamanian military and security apparatus lost 202 soldiers, all their heavy equipment, and most of their aircraft and helicopters.

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 (ANG), 4 EC-130E (RR), from Hurlburt AFB
- 711th SOS (AFRES.), 3 AC-130A, from Duke Field and Howard AFB
- 919th SOG (AFRES), 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, from Tinker AFB
- 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

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