WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 4, 2014) -- Twenty-five years ago this month on Dec. 20, 1989, U.S. forces commenced combat operations in Panama as part of Operation Just Cause.

The operation was significant because U.S. interests in Panama were threatened by its dictator, Manuel Noriega, and his Panama Defense Forces, or PDF, according to Dr. Larry Yates, who was there in 1989 and 1990, documenting the operation and events leading up to it on behalf of the Center for Army Lessons Learned, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Yates, now a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, delivered a lecture, "Crisis, Invasion, Restoration: The U.S. Military in Panama, 1989-1990," at the Pentagon, Dec. 3, 2014.

Noriega's PDF and militia sympathizers were harassing U.S. troops and citizens, Yates said. Noriega and his cronies were also involved in election fraud, drug dealing and money laundering.

U.S. interests that were threatened included thousands of American civilians living in Panama, some 13,000 U.S. troops stationed there at a number of U.S. bases, and, security of the Panama Canal itself, which was a vital shipping lane for vessels transiting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Aside from security concerns, the operation also was significant because it would be the first test of joint operations planning and execution, following the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

One of the aims of the act, according to Yates, was to minimize the inter-service rivalries and turf battles that were prevalent from Vietnam through the most recent conflict, Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, in 1983.

Although Urgent Fury was ultimately a success, he said, a lot of flaws were uncovered in that operation, including operational planning between the services and equipment mismatches. Planners were hopeful that this operation would be much smoother.

Today, one-team, one-fight is well understood and accepted and is a critical part of the recently released Army Operating Concept, a document that describes how future Army forces will prevent conflict, shape security environments and win wars while operating as part of the joint force and working with multiple other partners. But in part, the genesis of the Army Operating Concept can be understood from lessons learned during Just Cause.


Planning for Just Cause started months earlier, under the name Elaborate Maze, which in fact was a very elaborate plan for buildup of forces, fighting, if necessary, and post-conflict stability operations, a term then known as nation-building, Yates said.

Then in May 1989, as violence in Panama escalated, President George H.W. Bush ordered the troop buildup, which became known by the improbable name Operation Nimrod Dancer.

In the annals of warfare, Yates said, Panama was special in that nearly half of the 27,000 troops that would participate in Just Cause were already based in country. Area surveillance, reconnaissance and even the training could all take place within or near the likely battle space.

Overall control of forces in Panama fell under Gen. Frederick F. Woerner Jr., commander of U.S. Southern Command, which was then headquartered in Panama -- it's in Florida today. Woerner's intent for Elaborate Maze, Yates said, was to avoid war through a gradual buildup of forces, which he proposed, would cause the PDF to stand down when faced with the threat of U.S. intervention.

The thinking behind Elaborate Maze, Yates said, was that the PDF could recognize that their organization was being threatened -- as well as their own survival -- and that when push came to shove, they'd step aside and possibly offer up Noriega for sacrifice. In essence, fighting could be avoided.

Unfortunately for Woerner, Yates said, only he and some of his closest associates bought into this idea. Instead, the opinion among other senior leaders -- including Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, the Joint Staff's director of operations, and planners at XVIII Airborne Corps, the large Army element that would be in the fight -- was that Elaborate Maze was "incrementalism," smacking of the buildup in Vietnam.

On Sept. 30, 1989, Woerner was replaced by Gen. Maxwell "Mad Max" Thurman, who was an advocate of the so-called Weinberger-Powell Doctrine.

In November 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger announced to his military staff that to win military objectives, the employment of forces should be decisive and overwhelming. This became known as the "Weinberger Doctrine," Yates said, and when it was "slightly revised" later by Gen. Colin Powell, who at the time of Just Cause was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his name got added.

In any case, Thurman stuck to a less elaborate form of Woerner's Elaborate Maze plans, with the force buildup accelerated and with the major alteration that there would be a surprise attack on the PDF -- a conclusion that he and others, including the president, had come to: that U.S. force would be necessary following a failed coup attempt within the PDF, Yates said.


Thus began the transition from the Nimrod Dancer buildup phase to Operation Blue Spoon, the name selected for the actual operation itself.

The force of 27,000 Americans would be made up of about 80 percent Soldiers, with troops from the other services being the other 20 percent. These were all grouped under the fighting element known as Task Force - South.

A force of 27,000 was deemed "overwhelming" because the PDF consisted only of around 15,000. Of those, just around 3,500 were considered front-line troops.

Within Blue Spoon, there were 27 distinct operations throughout Panama planned, with the big ones focusing on Panama City, the city of Colon and the international airport. Powell himself said that was a lot of moving targets, Yates noted.

Success of Blue Spoon would also hinge on the services operating together seamlessly.

"The integrated planning worked well," Yates said. The rest of the joint effort worked well enough,but not without some wrinkles.

For example, he noted the Navy's intense displeasure at the prospect of having a carrier battle group fall under the command of an Army general, the special operations folks' reluctance to sit in on the planning with the conventional forces planners, and the Marines' dislike for the task force's rules of engagement, which they said put them in danger, Yates explained, adding that the task force thought the Marines to be "trigger happy."

The rules of engagement, though "extremely strict," made sense at the time, Yates said. In essence, the rules boiled down to not shooting unless fired upon or threatened with force. Troops were to give the enemy every opportunity to surrender.

As noted earlier, it was still believed that many, if not most of the PDF would stand down rather than die for Noriega. Also, indiscriminate firing at the PDF and causing collateral damage would turn the civilian populace -- then mostly sympathetic or at least neutral to the Americans -- against them.

As well, heavy damage to infrastructure, Yates said, would make nation building more costly later on.

Regarding nation building and the exit strategy, there was a plan in place -- called Blind Logic -- but military planners were more focused on the immediate combat phase, not on the aftermath, Yates said. That lesson wasn't learned in Iraq in 2003, in the invasion aftermath.

The other essential aspect of Blue Spoon was getting the timing right for the attack. It not only had to be a surprise, it had to come at a time when civilians wouldn't be outside or at the airport -- in short, it had to come at night. Another reason to attack at night, Yates said, was to utilize the advantage that the U.S. had over the PDF -- night vision equipment.

Just prior to the launch of Blue Spoon, the brass came to the conclusion that the name of the operation was a bit too colorful, Yates said. The change was made to the more pedestrian sounding Just Cause.


Expounding on all of the 27 operations within Just Cause would fill a thick volume, In fact, Yates authored two thick volumes: "The U.S. Military Intervention in Panama," recently published by the Center of Military History.

Suffice it to say, the operation was an overall success. The attack took place at 1 a.m., and while there were casualties, they were relatively light: 23 American killed and 324 wounded. At least several times that number of PDF were killed or wounded, but the numbers are hard to confirm because most of the PDF who fought, did so in civilian clothing in order to blend in with the populace if things went south, Yates said.

The PDF did manage to cause mayhem when they burned down a large neighborhood in Panama City, causing a flood of about 10,000 refugees. Planners hadn't planned for that, he said.

A note of interest: the troops involved in Just Cause much preferred the M113 armored personnel carrier, which the Army is now retiring, over the Bradley fighting vehicle, Yates said. They could carry more troops, their .50-caliber machine guns were invaluable for shooting up at snipers in tall buildings and their slimmer profile allowed them to navigate the narrow city streets.

As for Noriega, he was captured and tried in the U.S. on eight counts of racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering. He's been incarcerated ever since, and is now in a Panama prison.

Operation Just Cause, though big news at the time, soon faded from public memory because shortly after, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm commenced.

Desert Storm was remembered for the use of overwhelming force and joint operability under the capable command of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. But those same elements which led to victory were tested earlier in Just Cause, Yates said.

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