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Battle of Mogadishu (1993) - Black Hawk Down

Despite the humanitarian-minded end-goal, the American involvement in Somalia proved a nightmare all-around, shaping U.S. foreign policy for the next decade.

The Battle for Mogadishu evolved from a well-planned kidnapping to an all-out fight for the lives of American Special Forces. The public forum mainly remembers the image of dead, half-naked, mutilated soldiers being dragged through the streets of the city though the event proved deeper than the much-publicized, unforgettable conclusion. The operation was riddled with poor intelligence and equally-poor strategic decisions. Operation Restore Hope placed Special Forces in a position that they were not specifically trained for - civilian crowd control and urban fighting.

The situation began in 1992 under the Bush Administration. Violence in Somalia was on the rise throughout the 1980s and 90s which allowed various regional warlords to come to power and, in turn, these forces went to war with one another. The images and reports of starving citizens spurred the world to action by delivering large supplies of food to the weary. However, warlords and their payroll cronies claimed the food from delivery vehicles before they ended up in the hands of the needy. As news of the operation grew so too did the global response to protect the vital supply lines. This resulted in President George H. W. Bush committing American troops to the region to both counter the reach of the warlords and to ensure that Somali citizens could be fed. The initiative proved rather interesting from the beginning for special forces operatives, seemingly under the cover of darkness and secrecy, made their way ashore only to be greeted by awaiting international camera crews.

As more and more foreign forces and journalists made their way into the volatile country, it became apparent that neither group could establish a clear understanding of the politics of Somalia. Attention began to fall on one warlord in particular - General Aidid. After one catastrophic firefight that left 24 Pakistani UN soldiers dead, a resolution was passed by the United Nations (Resolution 837) which ordered the arrest of those responsible in the massacre. In a nation such as Somalia, where enemy combatants can melt into the civilian population, it would prove decidedly impossible to pinpoint the exact perpetrators. The general understanding grew that the UN resolution looked specifically to capture General Aidid himself.

As tensions continued to mount, several attempts to capture Aidid failed. Pakistani troops then fired into a crowd of civilians in attempt to control the masses, killing some 20 in the process and making a bad situation worse. Somalis then turned and killed four members of the reporting press. Three Italian UN soldiers then lay dead only adding to the confusion. The US was firmly committed now to hunting Aidid down but this proved fruitless. Suspected supply dumps were targeted in an effort to curtail the power of Aidid's men and Aidid's own command post was finally destroyed - at the cost of 70 lives.

Admiral Howe, a UN senior administrator, requested the use of United States Special Forces - specifically Delta Force and Army Rangers. The group consisted of 400 well-trained and disciplined specialist that were collectively designated "'Task Force Ranger" (TFR) with the sole purpose of capturing Aidid.

From the beginning, the required intelligence for the group was poor. On one occasion, TFR kidnapped a Somali thought to be Aidid only to have his identity confirmed as someone else, in particular - and rather embarrassingly, a large US supporter within the country. The detachment then mistakenly arrested and detained eight members of a special UN envoy until, finally, on September 23rd, a US helicopter was shot down by enemy forces, killing three aboard. The $25,000US bounty put on Aidid's head was not enough for locals or his supporters to turn him in.

Somali guerillas gained several tactical advantages during this period. They were fighting on familiar ground and leaders could muster an army of several thousand men and boys in short order. Their civilian appearance made identifying friend from foe impossible to American troops. The Somalis also learned a great deal of the American strategy in the theater, particularly in the timed response of air support dispatching to assist ground forces. They understood Army Rangers were utilized to cordon the outlying areas of an engagement zone and Delta Force were used to clear structures within. Within time, Somali commanders were able to draw up their own tactical plans and respond to the American response in turn.

Special Forces elements were lightly armed warriors fielding submarine guns, automatic rifles and light machine guns. Delta Force members were issued variety of assault rifles whilst Army Rangers could count on the support of squad-level, small-caliber machine guns in the M60 and M249 SAW. Heavy-caliber, vehicle-mounted 0.50 caliber weapons might be available on lightly-armored HUMVEE vehicles though the main line of heavy support lay in the air cover provided by Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk medium transport and Hughes OH-6 "Little Bird" light helicopters. The Black Hawks were outfitted with a pair of 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns while "Little Birds" fielded a collection of mini-guns, rocket pods or M60 machine guns as needed. The true danger for American troops lay in the scenario where air support was not possible.

Another factor working against American Special Forces was the urban fighting environment where tight streets and passageways were common settings for maneuvering Somali fighters. There proved few wide-open roads and intersections in the city as most of Mogadishu was built from winding alleys with guerillas eventually blocking off certain streets from access with debris. American forces were trained and accustomed to wide-open streets and alleyways of their hometowns and training grounds. Additionally, Mogadishu itself was awash with weapons that could arm all manner of Somalis - men, women and children able to move about the familiar city with ease.

On October 3, 1993, US intelligence learned of a secret meeting to take place in a nondescript, two-story building. It was suggested, and then later confirmed, that Aidid himself would be there and this ultimately presented itself as an opportunity for American elements seize the warlord utilizing the talents of Task Force Ranger.

The attack would utilize Army Rangers, Delta Force, AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships, Little Birds and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Another batch of infantry would be traveling by convoy through the streets in armed HUMVEEs and military trucks. Air command would be controlled by a Delta Force official in another circling Black Hawk. A United States Navy P-3C Orion would provide the necessary surveillance overhead.

At the meeting house, it was confirmed by a Somali insider that 90 people including Aidid was present, triggering the official start of the ground assault by US forces. AH-1 Cobra helicopters unleashed a salvo of TOW anti-tank missiles into the building for shock and approximately 120 Delta Force and Ranger members roped down from hovering Black Hawks towards the building. The street was now alive with panicked civilians running for safety. As quickly as they were filled with people, the streets went eerily quiet soon after.

Delta Force was given the mission to enter and subdue Aidid as well as anyone else of particular importance to the mission. The Rangers would provide a protective perimeter outside of the building. Whilst some Somalis within the building escaped after the missile attack, American forces were able to capture 24 prisoners - though none of which was General Aidid. In fact, Aidid was never present in the meeting let alone present in the the building - American intelligence failing once again.

As soon as the explosion occurred, the Somali militia rounded up as many Aidid supporters as possible and, within minutes, hundred of armed civilian-soldiers were marching down towards the American position. Acting on what they had learned from studying previous American tactics, Somali militiamen fired RPG-7 rockets at the three Black Hawks in the air. One rocket struck the tail rotor of a UH-60 and sent the aircraft spinning towards the ground and into one of the houses below. The fuselage then rolled over into an adjacent alleyway and came to rest. As the other Black Hawk came to the scene, it began disembarking soldiers from its open cabin by rope. As it was hovering, it too came under fire and was also struck by an enemy RPG. The helicopter was damaged but managed to limp back to the safety of an American base.

As the ground convoy began making its way to the scene, they too came under small arms and rocket fire. The US troops naturally responded with rifle, light machine gun and heavy machine gun fire in turn. Casualties began to mount as gunners protruding from the tops of HUMVEEs were injured. Bullet proof glass and armor began to give away from the effects of close combat. The convoy was also cursed with wrong turns which involved repositioning the entire line in another direction. Eventually, the convoy reached the building where the prisoners were being held. The prisoners were then loaded onto the waiting trucks while still under the fire from the militiamen and casualties for both the Delta Force and Army Rangers mounted.

Under cramped conditions, the convoy began making its way out of the city with several soldiers forced to travel on foot due to the limited space aboard the vehicles. Orders now came to the convoy to make their way to the downed Black Hawk, some three blocks away, and provide security. Minutes later, a second call came that another Black Hawk had gone down at yet another crash site. The convoy was now ordered to the second site after rescuing any remaining members at the first site.

By this time, communications between Ranger and Delta Force elements became estranged which further added to the confusion. Firefights in the streets and alleyways broke out consistently and separated members form their home groups and keeping US troops primarily on the defensive. The soldiers on foot finally reached the helicopter site and assisted in defending the crew and remaining infantry.

The vehicle convoy, still trying to make it the three blocks, took several long turns into dead end streets or those blocked with debris while under fire. After sustaining multiple casualties, the convoy commander ordered the group to HQ to salvage what could be saved - including the prisoners for subsequent interrogation.

At this time, a second convoy of HUMVEEs and 5-ton trucks were dispatched from the HQ along the Somali coast hoping to reach the second Black Hawk in time. As the second convoy made their way into the city, it too came under heavy fire and was forced down several wrong turns before eventually meeting up with the initial convoy. The two convoys merged and decided it was pertinent to return to HQ, regroup and return to save the others. This effectively left the downed crewman and soldiers to defend for themselves until they found a way out of the city.

As nightfall approached, roughly 90 American soldiers had made their defensive stance near the site of the first crash. Little Bird gunships provided air support as best they could with miniguns as thousands of Somali militiamen closed in all around the ground forces. The survivors were also attempting to keep the militia at bay while retrieving available medical supplies and ammunition from airdrops. With wounded men, limited ammunition and a growing enemy presence, the situation for the survivors was getting bleak.

The UN Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was put into action to reclaim the stranded personnel. This force consisted of approximately 300 infantry and specialists from the US 10th Mountain Division with some remaining elements of the original Delta Force and Army Rangers accompanying them. Pakistani UN forces provided support by way of tanks while Malaysian UN forces supplied armored personnel carriers.

The stocked armored convoy made their way into the city, encountering enemy fire and roadblocks once again. A section of the convoy reached the first crash site and rescued the wounded and recovered the dead. Reorganized, they began to make their way to the second crash site. The second convoy escaped the city and found a temporary reprieve at an open-air stadium-turned-hospital. Those personnel not lucky enough to be picked up by vehicle ran the mile or so to the stadium for cover.

By the end of the fighting, US casualties numbered 73 wounded, 18 dead and one helicopter pilot taken prisoner (Michael Durant was released after eleven days in captivity). Somali militiamen and civilians (including armed and unarmed women and children) suffered over 500 dead and another 1,000 wounded. What began as a peacekeeping endeavor turned into a nightmare mission of survival that proved a disaster for American prestige and an embarrassment to the Clinton Administration. The gradual withdrawal of US forces from the region gave rise to Osama Bin Laden's rather incorrect assessment that the American soldier was weak and cowardly. The "Black Hawk Down" incident undoubtedly shaped US policy for the long term and restricted American involvement in subsequent humanitarian crisis such as that occurring in Rwanda.