Operation Just Cause was a quick, decisive mission to remove Manuel Noriega from power in 1989. The operation was opened by the largest airborne operation since World War II and is often cited as an example of using overwhelming force to achieve mission objectives.
The operation also saw many firsts for the U.S. military.
1. First deployment of the entire 75th Ranger Regiment
While Rangers are one of the oldest units in the US military, the unit in its modern incarnation did not come into being until 1986. Just three short years later the entire 75th Ranger Regiment would spearhead the assault into Panama with parachute landings at Rio Hato Airfield and Torrijos/Tocumen International Airport.
The next time the entire regiment would be deployed to one operation was the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
2. First (and only) airborne deployment of the M551 Sheridan tank
The M551 Sheridan armored reconnaissance/airborne assault vehicle had been in the military’s inventory since 1967 and had served in combat in Vietnam. However, by the mid-1980’s it had been phased out of all units, without replacement, with the exception of the 3rd Battalion, 73rd Armored Regiment (Airborne), a part of the 82nd Airborne Division.
When the 82nd jumped into Panama as part of Operation Just Cause, they brought tanks.
This was the first, and only, time that tanks and their crews were delivered by parachute in combat. With little else in the way of armored units, these tanks provided a much needed punch to the assault forces. Less than ten years later, though, the 82nd also divested itself of the M551 without a planned replacement.
Two F-117A Nighthawks dropped bombs during Operation Just Cause. (Photo: Department of Defense)
3. First mission for the F-117
Having just been revealed publicly the year prior, six F-117A’s flew from the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada — though only two would actively participate. Those two aircraft dropped 2,000 laser-guided bombs on the Rio Hato airport prior to the parachute insertion of the Rangers in order to stun and confuse the Panamanian soldiers stationed there.
After a successful debut in Panama, F-117’s would next see action in Operation Desert Storm where they flew through strong Iraqi air defenses to take out targets in Baghdad without a single loss.
4. First combat deployment of the AH-64 Apache
The AH-64 Apache, another weapons system that would see extensive service in the First Gulf War, also made its combat debut in Panama. In its first missions, the Apache proved a capable Close Air Support platform and, though not tank-busting, provided precision fires against fortified targets.
Its superb night-fighting capabilities ensured it had a long career ahead with the U.S. Army. After the warm-up in Panama the Apache would also see extensive service in Iraq in 1991, where it wreaked havoc on Iraqi armored formations. An improved Apache, the AH-64D Apache Longbow, continues to serve in the Army and has seen extensive use in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
5. First combat deployment of the HMMWV
The venerable “Humvee” is as ubiquitous to the modern military as its predecessor the Jeep. The HMMWV had come into service earlier in the decade to replace a multitude of different service, cargo, and combat vehicles. In its debut in Panama, it quickly showed that it could outperform all of them.
The Humvee received praise for its durability and reliability from ground commanders in Panama. The Humvee has served troops all over the world for over 30 years, seeing extensive action in both Afghanistan and Iraq, before finally succumbing to the operational needs of the battlefield.
It will begin to be replaced in active service starting in 2018.
6. First combat deployment of the LAV-25
Operation Just Cause also saw the combat debut of a Marine Corps weapons system, the LAV-25. In its first combat use the LAV-25 showed its versatility as it covered Marine advances, conducted breaching operations, and quickly transported Marines from objective to objective across the battlefield.
The LAV-25 received praise from the Marines who employed it and it has gone on to serve the Marines for nearly 30 more years.
7. First unified combatant command operation after the Goldwater-Nichols Act
While this sounds rather boring (yawn) compared to the rest of this list, it is actually very important. The Goldwater-Nichols Act had changed the chain of command and the interoperability of the branches of the armed forces. Like the rest of this list, Panama was a testbed for this new organizational structure.
The success of the operation proved that Congress had gotten it right. The new streamlined chain of command, which goes from the President to the Defense Secretary right to the Combatant Commanders, greatly increased speed of decision-making and the ability of the different branches to coordinate for an operation. This has been the model used throughout our current conflicts to ensure that each service is properly coordinated for joint operations.