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Airlift Operations
During the Lebanon Crisis

Airlift of a Marine Corps battalion to Lebanon demonstrated that deploying contingency forces from the continental United States to an overseas operation was feasible and expeditious.

During the Cold War, the United States deployed its Armed Forces to support the national objectives of various countries around the globe. The majority of those operations were short in duration and occurred in underdeveloped areas of the world. Most were joint operations, and some were conducted with forces from allied nations. Nearly all of them were contingency operations in which the goals, the time available, and the operational area were limited. One such mission was Operation Bluebat, the code name for the U.S. military intervention in Lebanon in 1958. That country, which is situated between Israel and Syria, was threatened by a rebellion aimed at toppling its pro-Western government. Because the resources needed to deploy an airborne brigade were limited, Operation Bluebat was one of the most complex operations of the Cold War.

A Continental U.S. Strike Capability

The XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was designated as the Strategic Army Corps (STRAC) in 1958. The designation was, in reality, the assignment of an additional mission rather than a true designation. The additional mission was to provide a flexible strike capability that could deploy worldwide on short notice without declaration of an emergency. The 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, and the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, were designated as STRAC’s first-line divisions, while the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, and the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg were to provide backup in the event of general war. The 5th Logistical Command (later inactivated), also at Fort Bragg, would provide the corps with logistics support, while Fort Bragg’s XVIII Airborne Corps Artillery would control artillery units.

Airlift assets were made available to U.S. forces based on the possible outbreak of a general war in Europe. In his paper, “Not War But Like War: The American Intervention in Lebanon,” prepared for the Army Command and General Staff College’s Combat Studies Institute, Roger J. Spiller notes—

The Military Air Transport Service could deliver up to 188 million ton-miles of mobility under the general war scenario, and it was calculated that the Army’s part would come to 80 million ton-miles of the total. From these figures, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Major General Earle Wheeler, made the assumption that “if the general war requirement could be met, it would seem likely that the limited war requirement of the Army could be met in most circumstances.”

Although the STRAC mission was to provide an easily deployable force for use in a limited war or other emergency, its ability to deploy overseas was limited by airlift constraints. Without the declaration of a national emergency, the required lift assets would not be released to support a STRAC deployment.

Overseas Operations

In March 1957, a year after its deployment to Germany, the 11th Airborne Division was organized under the “Pentomic” structure. A poorly conceived organization, the Pentomic division was cellular in structure and designed to fight on nuclear and conventional battlefields. Five infantry battle groups replaced three infantry regiments and became the basic fighting units of the division. Each battle group contained a headquarters company; five rifle companies; an organic mortar battery; and the reconnaissance, antitank, and logistics units needed to make it an independent, self-sustaining fighting force. The division’s supporting units (artillery, signal, engineer, support, and command and control) were organized similarly in cellular multiples of five.

Based at Augsburg, the 11th Airborne Division was forward deployed, which limited its use as an airborne counterattack force. The division planned for numerous contingency missions requiring an airborne assault capability, not only in Europe but also in other parts of the world. However, the 11th Airborne Division was inactivated 1 July 1958, and its assets were transferred to the 24th Infantry Division, also in Germany.

Two-thirds of the 24th Infantry Division was organized as airborne, which made the division the first infantry division to have organic airborne assault units. Airborne elements of the division consisted of two battle groups; an artillery battery; a cavalry troop; two engineer companies; a parachute supply and maintenance company; and signal, ordnance, supply, and medical detachments provisionally formed into an airborne brigade known as the 24th Airborne Brigade.

Unrest in the Middle East

In the spring of 1958, U.S. interests in the Middle East were compromised when nationalist uprisings threatened pro-Western governments. In May, troubles sprang up in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. On 14 July, King Faisal and Crown Prince Abdul Illah of Iraq were assassinated in a coup d’état led by Brigadier General Abdul Karim al’Kassim, a nationalist. At the same time, it was rumored that another coup was in the making against King Hussein of Jordan.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, reacting to the overthrow of King Faisal’s government in Iraq, alerted U.S. forces and deployed to Europe a tactical strike force from the Ninth Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, and transport planes from Donaldson Air Force Base, South Carolina. A naval task force of 75 ships, including three aircraft carriers and two cruisers, and 45,000 men, 5,000 of whom were marines, was deployed to the Middle East from the Sixth Fleet in Italy.

The Government of Lebanon, faced with political turmoil, requested United States military intervention to prevent a collapse. With the situation deteriorating, President Eisenhower ordered U.S. forces to begin deploying on 14 July. The purpose of Operation Bluebat was to bolster the pro-Western government of President Camille Chamoun against internal opposition and threats from Syria and Egypt. The plan was to occupy and secure Beirut International Airport, a few miles south of the city, then secure the port of Beirut and the approaches to the city.

Because it was difficult to obtain sufficient airlift assets, the decision was made to employ forces that were closer to the region rather than STRAC elements. Contingency plans that had been formulated in 1956 for such an eventuality gave the 11th Airborne Division responsibility for the mission. The 24th Infantry Division assumed the mission after the 11th Airborne Division was inactivated.

Force Package Deployment

Although both Army and Marine Corps troops were ordered to Lebanon, only Marine Corps units made assault landings. On 15 July, within 30 hours of the President’s order, a battalion landing team from the 2d Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, arrived at Red Beach—only 700 yards from Beirut International Airport—and went ashore on
landing craft or amphibious tractors. In cooperation with the Lebanese Army, marines kept the airport open for commercial air traffic. The following day, a second battalion landing team from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, also from Camp Lejeune, landed at Yellow Beach 4 miles north of Beirut.

U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) was to provide forces as stipulated in the February 1958 revision of Emergency Plan 201. This plan directed the formation of Army Task Force (ATF) 201 to handle emergencies in the Middle East. The task force would consist of two airborne battle groups that were reinforced with minimal combat support and combat service support elements. The task force would comprise five echelons, four of which were committed to the operation in Lebanon.

Force Alpha, which was composed of the task force command group and the 1st Airborne Battle Group, 187th Infantry Regiment, received orders to move from Germany to Adana, Turkey. On 16 July, the unit departed an air base near Munich, Germany, for a staging area in Adana and then moved to Beirut International Airport on 19 July.

On 18 July, the 2d Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, arrived in Beirut by airlift through Port Lyautey, Morocco. It took 34 hours in the air on board 26 C–124C Globemaster II aircraft and 54 hours overall for approximately 800 marines and their equipment to reach their destination. In less than a week, 7,200 combat troops were in Beirut, including three battalions of marines.

The troops established Camp Zeitune in an olive grove near the airport and manned a perimeter defense around the airport. All three marine battalions assumed positions northeast of the city. U.S. soldiers and marines made a show of force in and around the area. By the end of July, they encircled Beirut with an armed perimeter. Since combat did not develop in Lebanon, a second airborne battle group, Force Bravo, and the advance headquarters of ATF 201 never deployed from Germany.

Force Charlie, made up of combat, combat support, and combat service support units, deployed from Germany by sea and air beginning 19 July and closed on Beirut by 25 July. By the time the airlift phase was completed, over 1,600 soldiers and 1,718 tons of equipment had been flown into Beirut in 166 C–124C Globemaster II and C–130 Hercules transports from four separate airfields in Europe.

According to Emergency Plan 201, Force Echo, a medium tank battalion, was to move by sea. Leaving Germany on 22 and 23 July, the battalion arrived at Beirut on 3 August. Force Delta, which was the sea echelon of the second airborne battle group, left Germany on 26 July and closed on Beirut between 3 and 5 August. By 5 August, all major ATF 201 forces had reached Beirut and the bulk of their equipment and initial resupply had arrived or was en route. A total of 3,234 personnel and more than 2,310 tons of equipment were airlifted for the Army in 242 aircraft. All operations had gone according to plan, and conditions remained stable until a new government was installed in Lebanon.

Political Situation

Plans to end the intervention were underway as soon as it began, and President Eisenhower called on the United Nations to safeguard Lebanese independence. However, a Japanese resolution in the Security Council calling on the United Nations to protect Lebanon was vetoed by the Soviet Union.

Robert D. Murphy, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, arrived in Beirut on 17 July as President Eisenhower’s personal representative. His task was to speed a political solution to the internal Lebanese problems that had led to the intervention. He and U.S. military leaders believed that the causes of Lebanon’s internal conflict were domestic and bore little relationship to international issues.

As the political situation cleared, U.S. forces trained Lebanese forces to use American weapons and conducted a combined land-sea-air training exercise on the shore adjacent to the historic ruins of Byblos. U.S. Army and Marine Corps units continued to man checkpoints and conduct patrols, and the 1st Airborne Battle Group jumped occasionally.

In October, after 3H months in Lebanon, the United States began to withdraw its forces and the confrontation subsided. On 23 October, the Lebanese formed a balanced government with representatives from each of the major parties. Two days later, the remaining U.S. Army forces left the country. During Operation Bluebat, one U.S. soldier was killed by sniper fire and four others died in accidents during what a Pentagon spokesman told the New York Times on 16 July was “not war, but like war.”

The absence of opposition during Operation Bluebat and the underlying dilemma of whether contingency forces should be supplied by USAREUR or STRAC in the United States were significant factors in the Lebanon operation. Airlift of a Marine Corps battalion from the continental United States to the objective area demonstrated that such a movement was feasible and could be done quickly. The airlift increased the difficulty of justifying the need for a USAREUR contingency force for the Middle East when STRAC was being maintained for that purpose.

Although the intervention did not solve Lebanon’s chronic political chaos, it helped maintain peace and demonstrated that the United States would support a small country that wanted to maintain its independence. The United States did not use its military power to sustain one faction against the other, but its presence made it possible for the Lebanese to devise a temporary political solution. Importantly, U.S. forces pulled out voluntarily as soon as possible.

Operation Bluebat was a nominal test of power. Because its amphibious and air landings were unopposed, the operation has been recorded in history only as a brief note. That it might have been the beginning of a conflict of Korean War proportions is overshadowed by the fact that it was not. ALOG

Lieutenant Colonel Mark A. Olinger is the Secretary of the General Staff of V Corps in Heidelberg, Germany. He has a bachelor’s degree from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and is a graduate of the Defense Strategy Course and the Army Command and General Staff College.