The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), commonly referred to as Delta Force, Combat Applications Group (CAG), "The Unit", Army Compartmented Element (ACE), or within JSOC as Task Force Green, is an elite special operations force of the United States Army, under operational control of the Joint Special Operations Command. The unit is tasked with specialized missions primarily involving counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, direct action, and special reconnaissance, often against high-value targets. Delta Force and its Navy and Air Force counterparts, DEVGRU and 24th Special Tactics Squadron, are the U.S. military's primary Tier 1 special mission units tasked with performing the most complex, classified, and dangerous missions directed by the National Command Authority.
Most Delta Force operators are selected from the United States Army Special Operations Command's elite Special Forces Groups and the 75th Ranger Regiment, as well as from other special operations units.
Delta Force was formed after numerous well-publicized terrorist incidents in the 1970s. These incidents led the U.S. government to develop a full-time counter-terrorism unit.
Key military and government figures had already been briefed on this type of unit in the early 1960s. Charlie Beckwith, a Special Forces (Green Berets) officer and Vietnam War veteran, served as an exchange officer with the British Army's 22nd Special Air Service Regiment during the Malayan Emergency. On his return, Beckwith presented a detailed report highlighting the U.S. Army's vulnerability in not having an SAS-type unit. U.S. Army Special Forces in that period focused on unconventional warfare, but Beckwith recognized the need for "not only teachers, but doers." He envisioned highly adaptable and completely autonomous small teams with a broad array of special skills for direct action and counter-terrorism missions. He briefed both military and government figures, who were resistant to creating a new unit outside of Special Forces or changing existing methods.
Finally, in the mid-1970s, as the threat of terrorism grew, The Pentagon and Army senior leadership appointed Beckwith to form the unit. Beckwith estimated that it would take 24 months to get his new unit mission-ready. Beckwith's estimate came from a conversation he had had earlier with Brigadier John Watts while in England in 1976. Watts had made it clear to Beckwith that it would take eighteen months to build a squadron, but advised him to tell the Army leadership that it would take two years, and not to "let anyone talk (him) out of this." To justify why it would take two years to build Delta, Beckwith and his staff drafted what they dubbed the "Robert Redford Paper." In it Delta outlined its necessities and historical precedents for a four-phase selection/assessment process.
Delta Force was then established on 19 November 1977, by Beckwith and Colonel Thomas Henry. In the meantime, Colonel Bob "Black Gloves" Mountel of the 5th Special Forces Group was tasked with creating a unit "to breach the short-term gap" that existed until Delta was ready, dubbed Blue Light. The initial members of the unit were screened from volunteers and put through a specialized selection process in early 1978, involving a series of land navigation problems in mountainous terrain while carrying increasing weight. The purpose was to test candidates' endurance, stamina, willingness to endure, and mental resolve. The first training course lasted from April to September 1978. Delta Force was certified as fully mission capable in Fall 1979 right before the Iran hostage crisis.
On 4 November 1979, 53 American diplomats and citizens were taken captive and held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran. Delta Force was tasked to plan and execute Operation Eagle Claw and recover the hostages from the embassy by force on the nights of 24 and 25 April in 1980. The operation was aborted due to problems with helicopter failures. The review commission that examined the failure found 23 problems with the operation, among them unexpected weather encountered by the aircraft, command-and-control problems between the multi-service component commanders, a collision between a helicopter and a ground-refueling tanker aircraft, and mechanical problems that reduced the number of available helicopters from eight to five (one fewer than the minimum desired) before the mission contingent could leave the trans-loading/refueling site.
After the failed operation, the U.S. government realized more changes needed to be made. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), also known as the "Night Stalkers", was created for special operations requiring air support. The Navy's SEAL Team Six, an earlier incarnation of the current Naval Special Warfare Development Group, was created for maritime counter-terrorism operations. The Joint Special Operations Command was created for command and control of the various counter-terrorism units of the U.S. military.
Operations and clandestine operations
The majority of the operations assigned to Delta are classified and may never be known to the public. However, details of some operations have become public knowledge. For service during Operation Urgent Fury, Delta was awarded the Joint Meritorious Unit Award. The unit was awarded the Valorous Unit Award for extraordinary heroism during the Modelo Prison Hostage Rescue Mission and the capture of Manuel Noriega in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama. 1st SFOD-D operators from C Squadron were also involved in Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia. During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the 1st SFOD-D was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for combat operations in Afghanistan from 4 October 2001 to 15 March 2002 and Iraq from 19 March 2003 to 13 December 2003. On 26 October 2019, Delta operators and Army Rangers raided ISIS leader Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi's compound, leading to his death.
Organization and structure
The unit is under the organization of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), but is controlled by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Command of 1st SFOD-D is a colonel's billet. Virtually all information about the unit is highly classified and details about specific missions or operations generally are not available publicly. The unit is headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Delta Force's structure is similar to the British 22nd SAS Regiment, the unit that inspired Delta's formation. In Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, Army Times staff writer Sean Naylor describes Delta as having, at the time, nearly 1,000 soldiers, of which approximately 250 to 300 are trained to conduct direct action and hostage rescue operations. The rest are highly specialized support personnel who are among the very best in their fields.
Sean Naylor further goes into detail of Delta Force's structure in his book Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. He describes a few formations in Delta, primarily the operational squadrons:
- A Squadron (Assault and Reconnaissance)
- B Squadron (Assault and Reconnaissance)
- C Squadron (Assault and Reconnaissance)
- D Squadron (Assault and Reconnaissance)
- E Squadron (Aviation, formerly known as SEASPRAY)
- G Squadron (Clandestine Operations)
- Combat Support Squadron (contains WMD experts, EOD personnel, medical personnel, SIGINT specialists, and other specialists)
Within each squadron there are three troops: two assault troops specializing in direct action and a reconnaissance and surveillance, or "recce", troop, for penetrating enemy lines unseen, watching enemy positions, and sniping. Each squadron is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) and troops are led by Majors (O-4). Each troop has multiple teams, each one led by a non-commissioned officer, usually a Sergeant Major (E-9) or Master Sergeant (E-8). The rest of these teams are filled out with operators ranging in rank from Sergeant (E-5) to Master Sergeant (E-8).
Delta trains with other foreign units with the purpose to improve tactics and increase relationships and exchanges with international special operations communities.
Since the 1990s, the Army has posted recruitment notices for the 1st SFOD-D. The Army, however, has never released an official fact sheet for the elite force. The recruitment notices in Fort Bragg's newspaper, Paraglide, refer to Delta Force by name, and label it "...the U.S. Army's special operations unit organized for the conduct of missions requiring rapid response with surgical application of a wide variety of unique special operations skills...". The notice states that applicants must be male, in the grade of E-4 through E-8, have at least two and a half years of service remaining in their enlistment, be 21 years or older, and score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to attend a briefing to be considered for admission. Candidates must be airborne qualified or volunteer for airborne training. Officer candidates need to be O-3 or O-4. All candidates must be eligible for a security clearance level of "Secret" and have not been convicted by court-martial or have disciplinary action noted in their official military personnel file under the provisions of Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
On 29 June 2006 during a session of the Committee on Armed Services, General Wayne Downing testified before the U.S. House of Representatives that 70 percent of all Delta operators had served in the Army Special Forces with a Ranger Tab (Ranger qualified Army Special Forces). General Downing also testified that while some are directly recruited into Delta Force, others spend time in Army Special Forces with a Ranger Tab (Ranger qualified) before transitioning into Delta Force.
Eric Haney's book Inside Delta Force described the selection course and its inception in detail. Haney wrote that the selection course began with standard tests including push-ups, sit-ups, and a 2-mile (3.2 km) run, an inverted crawl and a 100-meter swim fully dressed. The candidates are then put through a series of land navigation courses to include an 18-mile (29 km) all-night land navigation course while carrying a 40-pound (18 kg) rucksack. The rucksack's weight and the distance of the courses are increased and the time standards to complete the task are shortened with every march. The physical testing ended with a 40-mile (64 km) march with a 45-pound (20 kg) rucksack over rough terrain that had to be completed in an unknown amount of time, this is also colloquially known as "The Long Walk". Haney wrote that only the senior officer and NCO in charge of selection are allowed to see the set time limits, but all assessment and selection tasks and conditions were set by Delta training cadre.
The mental portion of the testing began with numerous psychological exams. The men then went in front of a board of Delta instructors, unit psychologists, and the Delta commander, who each ask the candidate a barrage of questions and then dissect every response and mannerism of the candidate with the purpose of mentally exhausting the candidate. The unit commander then approaches the candidate and tells him if he has been selected. If an individual is selected for Delta, he undergoes an intense 6-month Operator Training Course (OTC), to learn counter-terrorism and counterintelligence techniques, in which the individual maintains little contact with friends and family for the duration. Training includes firearm accuracy and various other weapons training.
In an interview, former Delta operator Paul Howe talked about the high attrition rate of the Delta selection course. He said that out of his two classes of 120 applicants each, 12 to 14 completed the selection.
The Central Intelligence Agency's highly secretive Special Activities Center (SAC) and more specifically its elite Special Operations Group (SOG), often works with – and recruits – operators from Delta Force.
According to Eric Haney, the unit's Operator Training Course is approximately six months long. While the course is constantly changing, the skills taught broadly to include the following:
- The trainees shoot without aiming at stationary targets at close range until they gain almost complete accuracy, then progress to moving targets.
- Once these shooting skills are perfected, trainees move to a shooting house and clear rooms of "enemy" targets – first one only, then two at a time, three, and finally four. When all can demonstrate sufficient skill, "hostages" are added to the mix.
- Demolitions and Breaching
- Trainees learn how to pick many different locks, including those on cars and safes.
- Advanced demolition, and bomb-making using common materials.
- Combined skills. The FBI, FAA, and other agencies were used to advise the training of this portion of OTC.
- The new Delta operators use demolition and marksmanship at the shoot house and other training facilities to train for hostage and counter-terrorist operations with assault and sniper troops working together. They practice terrorist or hostage situations in buildings, aircraft, and other settings.
- All trainees learn how to set sniper positions around a building containing hostages. They learn the proper ways to set up a TOC and communicate in an organized manner. Although Delta has specialized sniper troops, all members go through this training.
- The students then go back to the shoot house and the "hostages" are replaced with other students and Delta Force members. Live ammunition is known to have been used in these exercises, to test the students, and build trust between one another.
- Tradecraft. During the first OTCs and creation of Delta, CIA personnel were used to teach this portion.
- Executive Protection. During the first OTCs and creation of Delta, the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service and the United States Secret Service advised Delta.
- Students take an advanced driving course learning how to use a vehicle or many vehicles as defensive and offensive weapons.
- They then learn techniques for VIP and diplomatic protection developed by the Secret Service and DSS.
- Culmination Exercise
- A final test requires the students to apply and dynamically adapt all of the skills that they have learned.
The Department of Defense tightly controls information about Delta Force and refuses to comment publicly on the highly secretive unit and its activities; usually unless the unit is part of a major operation or a unit member has been killed. Delta operators are granted an enormous amount of flexibility and autonomy during military operations overseas. To conceal their identities, soldiers rarely wear a uniform and usually wear civilian clothing both on and off duty. When military uniforms are worn, they lack markings, surnames, or branch names. Civilian hair styles and facial hair are allowed to enable the members to blend in and avoid recognition as military personnel. Their Navy counterpart DEVGRU is also granted the same amount of autonomy and flexibility.
The term operator
The origin of the term "operator" in American special operations comes from the U.S. Army Special Forces (aka the Green Berets). The Army Special Forces was established in 1952, ten years before the Navy SEALs and 25 years before DELTA. Every other modern U.S. special operations unit in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines was established after 1977. In Veritas: Journal of Army Special Operations History, Charles H. Briscoe states that the Army "Special Forces did not misappropriate the appellation. Unbeknownst to most members of the Army Special Operations Force (ARSOF) community, that moniker was adopted by the Special Forces in the mid-1950s." He goes on to state that all qualified enlisted and officers in Special Forces had to "voluntary subscribe to the provisions of the 'Code of the Special Forces Operator' and pledge themselves to its tenets by witnessed signature." This pre-dates every other special operations unit that currently uses the term/title operator.
Inside the United States Special Operations community, an operator is a Delta Force member who has completed selection and has graduated OTC (Operators Training Course). Operator was used by Delta Force to distinguish between operational and non-operational personnel assigned to the unit. Other special operations forces use specific names for their jobs, such as Army Rangers and Air Force Pararescuemen. The Navy uses the acronym SEAL for both their special warfare teams and their individual members, who are also known as Special Operators. In 2006 the Navy created "Special Warfare Operator" (SO) as a rating specific to Naval Special Warfare enlisted personnel, grades E-4 to E-9. (See Navy special warfare ratings). Operator is the specific term for operational personnel, and has become a colloquial term for almost all special operations forces in the U.S. military, as well as around the world.
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- Boykin, William (2011). Never Surrender: A Soldier's Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom. FaithWords; Reprint edition. ISBN 0446583227.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Airborne).|
- The official website of the United States Department of Defense (DoD)
- The official website of the United States Army
- Special Operations.com Special Forces Article
- Transcript of Sean Naylor's speech to American Enterprise Institute
- 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment (Airborne) DELTA at Global Security