In October 1983, the attention of the United States was drawn to the Caribbean island of Grenada, where a military coup had just occurred. At the time, hundreds of U.S. citizens attended medical school on the island and President Ronald W. Reagan was concerned for their safety. After an official request from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, President Reagan decided to intervene to protect the medical students, to restore democracy to the tiny nation, and to eliminate an ever-increasing Cuban presence on the island. The Department of Defense began to work on plans for an invasion, code named Operation Urgent Fury.
The U.S. joint task force formed to conduct the operation was led by Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf III, the commander of the U.S. Navy Second Fleet. On his staff were U.S. Air Force officers Maj. Gen. Robert B. Patterson and Brig. Gen. Richard L. Meyer, who advised Admiral Metcalf on airlift and strategic and tactical airpower forces. The invasion plan called for U.S. Marines to assault the northern half of the island while the USAF would airlift U.S. Army soldiers onto the southern section of the island near the capital, St. George's. The invasion was scheduled for October 25. In preparation, the USAF deployed E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and F-15 fighters to Puerto Rico, where, refueled by Strategic Air Command tankers, they patrolled the Caribbean Sea to forestall possible Cuban intervention. In addition, USAF strategic and tactical reconnaissance aircraft flew over Grenada to gather information on enemy forces and to locate the medical students.
While the Marine assault in the north met little resistance, the two battalions of Army Rangers airlifted to Point Salines near the capital by USAF C-130s faced a more daunting task. Air Force AC-130 gunships supporting the airlift observed construction equipment blocking the runway and alerted the inbound C-130s, causing the mission to change from an airlift to an airdrop of the Rangers. One C-130 was damaged by ground fire before the AC-130s could suppress the enemy fire. By the time the rest of the C-130s were ready to drop their troops, dawn had arrived and a well-prepared enemy waited.
Still, the first wave of airdropped Rangers managed to clear the runway, and C-141s and C-130s began landing and unloading troops and cargo. At the same time, the Rangers freed 138 medical students held at a nearby campus. However, resistance increased and more students remained trapped four miles behind enemy lines. The USAF also encountered difficulties with the short length and limited ramp space at Grenada's airports, causing many tanker and transport aircraft to use staging bases, such as in nearby Barbados.
To rescue the remaining hostages, the Rangers deployed from Marine helicopters supported by AC-130 gunships. As fighting diminished, USAF A-10 attack aircraft supported U.S. Marines who captured a suspected enemy base on the nearby island of Carriacou. By early November, all military objectives had been met and an interim government was established until a democratic government could be elected. In total, the USAF airlifted nearly 700 medical students out of the country, as well as 755 Cubans for repatriation to that nation. Overall, the U.S. Air Force supported Urgent Fury through a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance, close air support, troop and cargo delivery, casualty and evacuee transportation, air refueling, psychological warfare missions, and communications and air control.
When U.S. troops finally left Grenada, USAF aircraft transported at least 6,000 back to their home stations. As in other operations, the U.S. Air Force gathered important lessons from Urgent Fury, such as the need for adequate staging bases, better navigation equipment for its C-130 fleet, and, as the Point Salines drop demonstrated, the requirement of air superiority for a successful airlift. Indeed, Operation Urgent Fury convinced the USAF to continue its development of the C-17 transport, an aircraft that could function as a strategic airlifter but with the ability to take off and land from short fields. Overall, the invasion of Grenada was considered a success and historian Daniel L. Haulman noted, "The many missions that air power performed in URGENT FURY proved its indispensability in a future of joint contingency operations."
Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D.
For more information, see:
"Crisis in Grenada: Operation Urgent Fury," by Daniel L. Haulman from the Air Force History and Museums Program Publication: Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations 1947-1997.