Despite Problems, Invasion Seen as Military Success;U.S. Operation in Panama Contrasts With More Muddled 1983 Action in Grenada

The U.S. invasion of Panama began inauspiciously early on the morning of Dec. 20 when a dozen planeloads of paratroopers missed the landing zone in one of the few tactical glitches of an otherwise successful military operation, according to knowledgeable military and civilian sources.

The immediate after-action analysis of the complex operation suggests that Operation Just Cause suffered from four shortcomings, none serious enough to undermine the invasion's success: the failure to capture Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega; a miscalculation of the tenacity of the Panamanian defenders; the potential for looting by Noriega loyalists and ordinary citizens; and the scattered parachute assault by the 82nd Airborne Division.

The overall success, in military terms, in choreographing the attack by 22,500 U.S. troops is already being contrasted to the more muddled 1983 invasion of Grenada, which led to a major reorganization of the American military command structure. The attack against Panama was the first test of the new organization, which gives controlling authority to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the expense of the disparate services.

"It looked to me like this was as good as we get with so many units involved, unless you practice this specific operation a lot more," said a knowledgeable Army officer. "At the battalion level and below, there probably wasn't much difference between this and Grenada. But at higher levels, there were a whole lot less warts on this than in Grenada."

Part of the reason for fewer "warts," according to military officials, was the extensive contingency planning that preceded the Panama invasion, compared to the hastily drafted plans for the Grenada assault six years ago. "There were minor things, like the airdrop in the wrong place," one U.S. official said yesterday. "But there were not the massive stupidities we had in Grenada."...

..."The old plan wasn't serious," said a U.S. official familiar with the proposal. "This plan was serious. It was a massive operation-getting all the Military Airlift Command resources in from all over the world."...

...The U.S. assault on a series of Panamanian defense strongholds was designed to disorient and frighten Noriega's troops into surrendering or fleeing, rather than surround the forces and provoke them into firing back, leaving both sides with more casualties, according to several military officials.

"The assumption was these guys {the Panama Defense Forces} had a job-they were not serving in the military as a career or dedication to their country," said one U.S. official. "We thought that if there was a lot of noise outside of the front door, they would go out the back."

Instead, many of the troops stood their ground and waged dramatic firefights with the Americans, and many of those who did flee "took their weapons and went into town and started looting and sniping," said the official.

"The one hole you could criticize, was that with the frontal attack, we paused and let them disperse," the official added.

One Army officer yesterday said that several U.S. paratroopers were wounded when a group of PDF soldiers feigned surrendering with their hands raised, and then threw a grenade. Four of the Panamanians were killed by return fire.

The "biggest killer" in the U.S. arsenal, according to one officer, was the AC-130 gunship, a slow-flying airplane armed with a Gatling gun; after the AC-130, the Apache helicopter gunships probably have been credited with the most kills, he added.

A week after the assault was launched, U.S. troops have captured or detained about 80 percent of the 3,500 troops that are the military contingent of the 16,000-member PDF, military sources said.

American military officials have been surprised by the massive stockpiles of weapons discovered in warehouses and other locations throughout Panama. U.S. forces have uncovered about 78,000 weapons thus far and estimate a few thousand more weapons may be found...far greater numbers have been found in huge caches, raising new questions about possible arms sales by Noriega to other Latin American nations, military and congressional sources said.

The most obvious shortcoming of the military operation was the failure to find and capture Noriega, who was on the run for five days, then evaded the U.S. intelligence nets and walked into the guarded Vatican embassy in Panama City...

U.S. officials familiar with the military plans said it was Noriega's alleged drug-trafficking connections that first began to persuade American military authorities in Panama to consider Noriega more than a diplomatic nuisance. When President Bush gave the military a major new role in the nation's drug war last spring, Southern Command authorities concluded they could not wage their drug mission without "openly recognizing the Noriega problem," one official said.

In addition, the military in recent months had become increasingly intolerant of PDF harassment of U.S. military officials in Panama. The failed coup attempt against Noriega Oct. 3 and embarrassment over the slow U.S. reaction to the incident spurred senior military leaders to draft a new contingency plan for attacking Panamanian forces, according to military and congressional sources. The killing of a U.S. Marine and assault against a naval officer and threats against the officer's wife on Dec. 16 "was the last straw" that gave Bush and the military the opening to launch the invasion, officials said.

Congressional leaders are already planning hearings on the invasion, and are expected to raise questions ranging from military tactics to civilian deaths caused by the large application of military force...whether there was a legitimate military need for all four military services to participate in the operation-including the use of such exotic weapons as the Air Force F-117 "stealth" fighter plane.