Paratroopers of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division and "Green Berets" of the Special Services could be on their way to Iran in hours if President Carter ever gave the order.
These and other seasoned units of the XVIII Airborne Corps were prepared, says the corps commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas H. Tackaberry, to try a rescue of the US hostages immediately after their capture in Tehran last November.
Despite the obvious risk, "that is when many of us expected to move," General Tackaberry said in an interview with the Monitor at his headquarters here. In those early hours of the crisis, the situation was confused in Tehran, providing the opportunity for a quick response. "Of course, as time went on" and the administration's policy of restraint became clear, "the difficulties grew more and more," said the general, a combat veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Though seen as too little and much too late, President Carter's April 7 measures against Iran were applauded in this sprawling military reservation near Fayetteville, N.C.
US Defense Secretary Harold Brown's follow-up promise before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council April 7 that the US would respond "promptly and successfully" if Iran moved to choke off US oil from the Persian Gulf was not yet known here when General Tackaberry was interviewed.
"We've got the power" to respond forcibly to Iran, General Tackaberry said. "The problem would be in confronting any Soviet opposition and is basically getting to the right place quickly enough. For operations in the Middle East or Africa, you've got to get the people there in time -- and be able to land somewhere nearby."
General Tackaberry said Egypt, Israel, and other areas would make good staging places for US airborne units, but had so far been considered politically out of bounds. Oman, which now permits US aircraft to make logistical landings, "now looks good," he added.
General Tackaberry and the 82nd Airborne's commander, Maj. Gen. G. F. Meloy, would make elements of their units available to the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) , commanded by Lt. Gen. P. X. Kelley, a marine. From April 10 to 15, units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force attached to the RDF command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., are to hold their first joint readiness exercise, code-named "Positive Leap."
Senior officers here say Positive Leap was planned before the latest Carter administration moves against Iran.
General Tackaberry said he disagreed with analysts who had ruled out an early airborne rescue of the hostages because of the need to seize and secure Tehran International Airport first. He said his early judgment had been that, despite the obvious peril to the hostages involved, a direct air drop and helicopter landing in the downtown embassy compound were feasible without deploying the vast amount of power needed to seize and hold the airport.
Several 82nd Airborne enlisted men, interviewed in a mess hall here, said they had been personally ready and willing to go on a rescue operation.However, as time passed with no action, they said, doubts about the probable cost in casualties to troops and the hostages had been discussed within their units.
The 82nd and its sister 101st Air Assault Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky., are kept at high readiness always. Some units of the 82nd, which calls itself the "All-American division" (with AA on its shoulder patch) are always on call, prepared for instant departure from the "Green Ramp" of nearby Pope Air Force Base.
On a rotating basis, one infantry company and support units including artillery, engineers, and an antiaircraft team are always on alert. The unit assembles its personnel, weapons, and equipment, including vehicles, for parachute drop.The division's full strength is 16,000 -- mostly men, with a few women in noncombat posts.
General Tackaberry said he favors the administration's request for money to build a number of new CX transport planes, combining the midair refueling capacity and the ability to land heavy loads, including battle tanks, on short airstrips. The existing C-130, C-141, and C-5A Galaxy transports do not have those capabilities.
Nonspecialists sometimes forget, General Tackaberry said, that any airport can be successfully closed just by parking trucks or placing barrels on the runways, as Tehran airport was for brief periods during last year's Iranian revolution. Paratroops must be dropped to clear the obstructions, he pointed out.
The planning center for the type of semi-covert operation developed by the Green Berets in past wars, especially Vietnam, is here at Ft. Bragg. Called the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, it includes unconventional warfare, psychological warfare, and civil affairs liaison units.
Two Special Forces Groups, the fifth and the seventh, are trained to land behind enemy lines, infiltrate enemy countries, and train and work with friendly partisan and guerrilla forces there.
"This is the kind of outfit we would have to send into Iran now, to back up the Navy and Marines in the area, if we were going to send anyone," a noncommissioned officer of the 82nd Airborne said.