WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 — Pentagon officials insist that the American intervention in Panama successfully demonstrated the armed forces’ proficiency at airborne operations. But a closer examination of the Panama attack indicates that its large scale increased the number of civilian casualties and possibly forfeited the opportunity to seize Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. The Panama operation also stirred concern in the United States military over the surprisingly high casualty rate among special operations forces, small clandestine units designed for commando-type operations. The high casualty rate is certain to figure prominently as the Pentagon reviews its strategy in the 1990’s in the face of the diminished Soviet threat. Military planners have said special operations forces will probably play an enhanced role in so-called low-intensity conflicts. C.I.A. Agent Freed. The small commando-like teams drawn from the Army and the Navy carried out a variety of missions in Panama, including the release of a Central Intelligence Agency agent from a local prison, the seizure of an airstrip and raids on sites where General Noriega was believed to be hiding. There were other missions that most of which the Pentagon will not discuss.
But the special operations forces suffered 10 killed and 93 wounded, easily the highest rate of any of the conventional units in the 12,000-man force sent to do the fighting. The number of special operations personnel in the Panama attack is classified. The main part of the Panama attack was a virtual replay of a World War II battle, with paratroops dropping from the sky and tanks blasting through a city to overwhelm the opposition. By most accounts, the American military command underestimated the opposition they faced, and heavy casualties to a mainly friendly civilian population was a result. Noriega Was Alerted. Panamanian resistance might have collapsed quickly and casualties might have been minimized if General Noriega had been captured by the special forces teams that had been searching for him for days before the attack. Special operations forces are designed for just such missions. But the preliminary movement of troops and equipment to Panama weeks before the attack and the impossibility of keeping the airlift secret were more than enough to alert General Noriega and the Panamanian Defense Forces, preventing the special operations teams from achieving surprise. ‘Security Was Poor’