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And the Principles of War


Lieutenant Colonel William C. Bennett, US Army *

Copyright c 1991 #

Published March 1991 in MILITARY REVIEW


In the many debates regarding future missions

and doctrine for the post-Cold War Army,

contingency missions such as Operation Just

Cause must surely be examined in detail. The

author uses the framework of the principles

of war to analyze Just Cause and finds many

interesting insights while describing many

aspects of its planning and execution. He

concludes that the principles, viewed from a

broad perspective, still apply to current

U.S. doctrine.


HISTORICALLY, nations and their armies learn best from their defeats. Seldom do they learn from their successes. On 20 December 1989, the U.S. Armed Forces conducted one of its most successful operations ever. In the aftermath of such a resounding success, there is a tendency not to critically examine our performance and, hence, not to learn from it. Future knowledge and competence rest on a foundation of a thorough understanding of the past. Additionally, as a future general officer once stated, "There are those in Washington who expect us to be able to do our job, and when the time comes, they will accept no excuses. (1)  This article is an attempt to critically examine our performance during Operation Just Cause against a known doctrinal base with the hope that we may gain in professional competence.

The method used in this article will capitalize on the technique used in Retired Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr.’s 1982 work, On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context. (2)  A major part of that work analyzed applying the principles of war against our performance in that conflir have been resurrected and refined, and are well presented in US Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations. But, now, in the aftermath of Just Cause, we must as how well the principles of war were applied in our operations in Panama. This article addresses that question.

Objective. The military objective must flow from the nation’s political purpose. In the case of Panama, the nation’s political purpose had been clearly enunciated by two presidents: safeguarding American lives, protecting the Panama Canal and removing Manuel Noriega. Militarily, steps had been taken toward those goals. Military dependents were drawn down, and the profile of the US civilian community was reduced in Panama City. Additionally, US forces conducted exercises to improve military preparedness for defense of the canal as called for in the Carter-Torrijos Canal Treaty.** As the events of the fall of 1989 unfolded, it became obvious that merely removing Noriega as head of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) would not accomplish the other goals. As Noriega successively purged his officer corps of those with professional tendencies, none remained who could reform the institution. Some of the potential successors to a deposed Noriega were at least as bad as Noriega, if not worse. And merely creating a "promotion opportunity for another thug," as General Fred F. Woerner, commander of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), phrased it, would be insufficient to solve Panama’s problems or to further the US strategy of encouraging democracy throughout the region. (3)

The strategic objectives of the operation were clearly and concisely expressed in the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) execution order; namely, "To ensure continuing freedom of transit through the Panama Canal, freedom from PDF abuse and harassment, freedom to exercise US treaty rights and responsibilities, the removal of Noriega from power in Panama, the removal of Noriega’s cronies and accomplices from office, the creation of a PDF responsive to and supportive of an emergent, democratic government in Panama and a freely-elected GOP [government of Panama] which is allowed to govern. (4)

These strategic military objectives were translated into the mission to "neutralize the PDF."  The unified command translated the overall strategic objective into operational objectives. Viewing Panama as a target with the bulls’eye centered around the Panama City-Canal complex, SOUTHCOM selected operational objectives that were located within or could directly reinforce that battlefield. Three categories of objectives were identified. The first category directly and solely addressed the mission of neutralizing the PDF. Generally, these objectives were force-oriented instead of installation-oriented. The second category was composed of objectives that attacked the PDF and supported unilateral US goals. The third category solely support US actions without neutralizing and PDF units.

For example, an objective of the first category was the primary command and control node of the PDF known as s without neutralizing and PDF units.

For example, an objective of the first category was the primary command and control node of the PDF known as La Comandancia. Its isolation and seizure would critically disrupt PDF operations. An example of a second category was Tinajitas, home of the PDF 1st Infantry Heavy Weapons Company. Also representative of the second category, the Tocumen-Torrijos Airport had be to seized not only to facilitate future US operations but also to neutralize the 2d Infantry Company. A third category objective, the Bridge of the Americas, was seized to secure the lines of communication between the east and west banks and to defend the canal.

From the earliest planning, the intent was to immediately neutralize forces with the bulls-eye with the H-hour operations. The PDF response to the 3 October 1989 coup attempt had been adroit and flexible. Infantry forces were airlifted from Rio Hato to the Tocumen-Torrijos Airport to link up with transport from the motorized battalion at Fort Cimarron. The force then attacked the Comandancia from the east through Panama City. Nearly two battalions of PDF were located on the two bases, and their quick response in October indicated a high degree of training and motivation. Ignoring these forces may have put the rest of the plan in peril. Both bases were included in D-day objectives. More important, attacking these units directly supported the mission of neutralizing the PDF.

An explicit goal of the operation was removing Noriega from power in Panama. Detailed plans had been developed to capture Noriega. In the months before, an attempt was made to develop an effective program of surveillance of Noriega. Confronted with Department of Defense (DOD) concerns on aspect of intelligence gathering, initially, and with the interagency coordination process, subsequently, the effort contributed little to Noriega’s capture. Here the institutional peacetime national intelligence policies of the United States severely constrained the ability of the operational commanders and planners to obtain real-time and meaningful information on Noriega’s whereabouts.

Several raid rehearsals were conducted before Just Cause. It was also hoped that the concentration of forces against the Panama City-Canal complex would essentially clamp down on the city. The effort was likened to casting a net over the city, prohibiting any movement. The net could then be drawn in. If any of the initial raids failed, planners thought the net would catch Noriega with the flotsam of the operation. Although the net itself did not ensnare Noriega, it effectively denied him any method of egress from Panama. Although Noriega initially eluded capture, the totality of the PDF’s neutralization effective removed him from power.

Should additional objectives have been assigned in the hope of capturing Noriega? After all, there were those who felt his capture was the sole criteria by which to judge the success of the operation. In hindsight, it is difficult to see how additional objectives would have made much difference without the freedom to conduct information on Noriega and the PDF.

Offensive. The offensive was seized in the opening movements of the conflict, and the initiative never once passed to the PDF. Isolated drive-by attacks and uncoordinated attacks by small elements did occur after the initial D-day operations, but they cannot be described as an attempt at a counteroffensive. Additionally, most of the attacks were thwarted before they came to any sort of fruition. For example, nine vehicles, including a V300 armored vehicle, were destroyed by the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, as Dignity Battalion of PDF members attempted drive-by attacks at Panama Viejo on D-day. (5)

It should be noted here that, even though the principles of war should be valid for any conflict, they are written in the context of a conventional war. As lethal as Panama was in isolated places, the conflict was essentially part of a low-intensity conflict (LIC). As such, many of the manifestations of the conflict were political in nature. Consequently, the current principles, especially the principle of the offensive, must be applied with a broader interpretation. The offensive must not only be applied militarily, which it was, but it must also be applied across the entire spectrum of conflict, to include police and political actions.

The massive looting that occurred in Panama City and Colon may be the greatest tragedy of the conflict. Months after the invasion, the economy has yet to fully recover from that depredation. It has been alleged that this looting was instigated by Dignity Battalion members to undermine the fledging democratic government. If the looting was not actually instigated by the Dignity battalions, it was the mindless rampage of a citizenry with no restrictions of law and order. The bottom line is that US forces lost the initiative either to the Dignity battalions

Or to some set of sociopolitical factors. The result was the same; forces of law and order were stripped away, and for too long a time, nothing was substituted. In the final analysis, the looting made the task of the "freely elected GOP" infinitely more difficult.

An argument might be made that the looting was indeed unfortunate, but it would have no relevance to a discussion of the principles of war. Such a view is too narrow a perspective in LIC, where political factors play a much larger role. A stated objective of the operation was "to ensure a freely elected GOP" which is allowed to govern."(6)  Consequently, anything that hindered the accomplishment of that objective is relevant to an analysis of the operation. Viewed then, in this LIC perspective in which the offensive must be waged across the entire spectrum of conflict, the US forces failed to maintain the offensive. The looting ran counter to the effort of assisting the new government. Consequently, it must be viewed as an integral part of the military campaign. Since US forces failed to stop the looting in a timely manner, they abdicated the initiative to either the Noriega factions or to sociopolitical factors embodied in the mobs.

US forces did maintain the offensive in the move to the interior of Panama, however. The fact that the PDF garrisoned in the interior of Panama made no apparent effort to resist US forces does not change the fact that militarily, the US forces maintained the offensive. The absence of fighting does not negate this successful application of the offensive.


(Author’s notes are located at the end of this article)


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William H. Ormsbee, Jr.  2006




Lieutenant Colonel William C. Bennett was, at the time of publication of this article, a plans officer in the J-3/Operations Directorate of the U.S. Southern Command, Quarry Heights, Panama.  He has since retired from the U.S. Army.



# Permission to reprint this article granted by the author  to William H. Ormsbee, Jr., for  his In Retrospect website since replaced by his new website WHO's Scroll. Photos in the original article not included here due to poor quality in copy available.

























**  The Panama Canal Treaties of 1977, signed by President Jimmy Carter and Brigadier General Omar Torrijos in Washington, D.C., September 1977, and entered into force on 1 October 1979.