A Delta Force operator in west Baghdad, October 2003. He carries an M4A1 with EOTech optic and Knights Armament QD suppressor. Note the custom-built forward grip incorporating buttons for both his light mount and infrared laser. The `ZE4′ patch is known as a `zap number’ and can be used to identify the operator.
A Delta Force Pandur AGMS (Armored Ground Mobility System) seen in northern Syria, June 2017. The Pandurs have been extensively retrofitted and upgraded over the years; notable here is the increased vision port for the driver. Visible on this example is a TOW II anti-tank guided missile system, a field expedient solution to Islamic State suicide car bombs.
Also known as: SFOD-D, Delta Force, Combat Applications Group (CAG), Army Compartmented Element (ACE)
Nationality: US Branch: Army Established: 1977
In the late 1970s as Europe struggled against the scourge of international terrorism, President Jimmy Carter queried whether America’s military had a similar capability to the Germans with GSG9 or the United Kingdom’s SAS. In fact at the time two US Army units were competing to provide that capability – Blue Light, an ad hoc unit drawn from the Green Berets of the 5th SFG, and Delta, a unit fashioned by its hard-charging future leader, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, as a US version of the British SAS.
A third unit, the little-known Detachment A, drawn from the 10th SFG and based in Germany, was also given counter-terrorist responsibilities. Detachment A was primarily, however, a deniable stay-behind unit tasked with conducting sabotage and guerrilla warfare in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Incidentally, many of the period images from the 1970s attributed to Delta are actually of Detachment A soldiers (their Walther MPK sub machine guns and Walther P5 pistols are distinctive)
Along with serving in Vietnam as commander of Project Delta, a covert reconnaissance unit, Charlie Beckwith had fought in Malaya on exchange with the British SAS, returning to the United States with the goal of forming an SAS-style unit within the American military. Eventually, in 1977, Beckwith was successful and Delta was officially brought into existence with the primary mission of conducting hostage rescue operations to recover US nationals held anywhere in the world. After a six-month training programme, it became fully mission capable, with one squadron established in 1979.
The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta (Airborne) was based in a restricted compound deep within Fort Bragg in North Carolina. It was structured, not surprisingly, along SAS lines with three Sabre squadrons (A, B and C), each composed of four 16-man troops. Selected soldiers, primarily but not exclusively from the Rangers and Special Forces, took part in a selection course that was also heavily influenced by the SAS selection process which Beckwith had completed while on exchange with 22SAS.
The 5-10 per cent who typically passed Delta selection then began the Operator Training Course (OTC), a six-month-long introduction to close quarter battle (CQB), covert reconnaissance and hostage rescue. Only at the conclusion of OTC were soldiers designated as Delta Force `operators’. The term `operator’ has now become common shorthand for any special operations soldier but originally it referred only to Delta soldiers who had passed OTC. Beckwith was looking for a distinctive title for his soldiers and, after dismissing `operative’ as it was already used by the CIA, he settled on `operator’. Delta itself became known simply as `the Unit’.
The Unit’s first real-world mission would sadly end in disaster. Operation Eagle Claw was an ambitious attempt in 1980 to rescue 52 US Embassy staff held captive by Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran. Delta’s part in the mission was to conduct an assault on the Embassy to secure the hostages, along with a nearby sports stadium where Navy RH-53 helicopters would land to extract the assaulters and the hostages. Concurrently, Army Rangers would seize an Iranian air force base to allow C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft to land. The plan called for the RH-53s to fly to the airbase where everyone would board the C-141s for the flight out of Iran. Detachment A even had a role under its own Operation Storm Cloud, infiltrating personnel into Tehran for advance force reconnaissance and contributing assaulters to the final mission.
The complex mission was launched but ran into difficulties when one of the RH-53s developed a serious malfunction and had to be abandoned while a second helicopter had to turn back on account of a dust storm. With too few helicopters to insert his Delta assault teams, Beckwith was reluctantly forced to abort the mission. As the helicopters attempted to refuel before exfiltration from Iran, tragedy struck when an RH-53 collided with an EC-130 refuelling aircraft at the forward base called Desert One. Eight Navy and Air Force personnel were killed in the collision and resulting explosion.
Unfortunately Delta’s next operation fared little better. As part of the American invasion force to secure medical students on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, a B Squadron raid, supported by Rangers from 1/75, to release political prisoners saw an MH-60A Black Hawk from the then-Task Force 160 – the precursor to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment – shot down with its pilot killed and some 16 Delta personnel wounded, after the mission’s start time was delayed, giving the defenders advance warning. Other targets frustratingly proved to be `dry holes’.
During much of the 1980s, Delta operators served in covert roles in Central America and Africa (including a little-known assistance mission in Sudan in 1983 to support a kidnap recovery of two American missionaries) and were forward deployed in response to several terrorist incidents including the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking in 1985; they even planned but did not execute a joint Delta-SAS mission to recover Western hostages held in Beirut.
There is a long-standing but unconfirmed rumour that the unit was responsible for the 1984 rescue of 79 hostages (including four Americans) on board a hijacked airliner in Curacao. The mission was officially credited to the Venezuelans but former Unit members have hinted to the author that the operation was conducted by Delta. Both criminal hijackers were killed in the assault and all hostages and crew were safely recovered.
The Unit was standing by to assault the hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985 with two full squadrons supported by SEAL Team 6 operators and Task Force 160. Frustratingly, they were never given the go-ahead and missed their best opportunity owing to a lack of dedicated air transport. The hostages were then dispersed around Beirut making a successful recovery difficult. Eventually the hostages were released after negotiation and the release of terrorist prisoners from Israeli jails. The mission did result in JSOC and consequently Delta being assigned their own designated Air Force transport aircraft, available 24 hours a day to ensure the unit could respond quickly to any global crises.
In 1987, Delta deployed domestically to Georgia under Operation Pocket Planner to support the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team with specialist breaching, communications and intelligence gathering during a prison siege. The siege was eventually lifted through negotiation and the operators were never called upon to support an assault.
In Panama in 1989 as part of the American invasion, A Squadron of the unit conducted a successful hostage rescue of a CIA agent held in Modelo Prison by the Panamanian authorities in Operation Acid Gambit. Although the mission was a success, one of the MH-6 Little Birds carrying the assault force away from the target crash-landed, wounding a number of operators and leading to them being exfiltrated by a nearby US Army armoured unit. Delta was also tasked with the capture of Panamanian ruler Manual Noriega and surrounded the fugitive outside the Vatican Embassy from where he eventually emerged after ten days.
Operation Desert Storm saw two squadrons deployed to Saudi Arabia to partner with 22SAS on the famous `Scud Hunt’ in the western deserts of Iraq. Delta operators in modified Pinzgauers and HMMWVs (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles) and the SAS in their `Pinkie’ Land Rovers were key to keeping Israel out of the war by drastically reducing the number of Scud missile launches against Israel and thus maintaining the fragile Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein. Three operators and four flight crew from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) were killed during the exfiltration of a reconnaissance patrol when their MH-60 crashed.
In the 1990s Delta was busier than ever with deployments to Somalia and Colombia. Both were `man-hunting’ operations, the former to capture a Somali warlord and the latter to help track Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug kingpin (who was eventually cornered and killed by Colombian forces trained by Delta). Task Force Ranger in Somalia ended in the battle of 3 and 4 October 1993 with two 160th SOAR helicopters shot down in Mogadishu and the joint Delta and Ranger force fighting their way out of the city.
Delta also operated in the Balkans as part of an international effort to capture war criminals – known as Persons Indicted For War Crimes (PIFWC) – indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia under Operation Green Light. In addition, it worked closely with the CIA, forging a relationship that would continue in the post-9/11 years.
Delta planned a joint operation with SEAL Team 6 and the 160th SOAR to kill or capture Usama bin Laden in 1998 but the mission was cancelled. A second mission was planned the following year with covertly infiltrated Delta operators tasked with laser designating bin Laden’s compound for an airstrike. Again the mission was aborted.
After the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001, Delta deployed to Afghanistan on a commitment that would last for more than a decade and continues to some degree even today. It was involved in the first special operation of the war when B Squadron, reinforced by a troop from A Squadron, conducted a heliborne assault on the residence of Mullah Omar (the leader of the Taliban) outside Kandahar.
Contrary to what was reported at the time, the target was a ‘dry hole’ and Delta flew out after conducting a sensitive site exploitation (SSE) without a shot being fired, although one MH-47 was damaged as it clipped a wall during the infiltration (the only Delta wounded were caused by a friendly fire incident with a grenade while clearing rooms).
B Squadron conducted mounted reconnaissance patrols in its venerable Pinzgauers, often landing at remote airstrips to conduct a week-long patrol or direct action mission before returning to exfiltrate via MC-130 Combat Talons. It was supported by integral close air support from AH-6 Little Birds flown in on the same aircraft. One of these missions saw a Pinzgauer mounted troop reinforce the Green Berets shepherding future Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
At Tora Bora in December 2001, A Squadron would come frustratingly close to killing bin Laden himself. Elements of the locally recruited Afghan Militia Forces (AMF) double-crossed the Americans and, under the ruse of a cease-fire, helped by the fact that Delta had been denied reinforcement to close off all passes out of the mountains, allowed bin Laden and his al-Qaeda loyalists to escape. After Tora Bora, a Delta squadron continued to hunt bin Laden until mid-2002 when it rotated out of Afghanistan to focus on the upcoming invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, Delta operated in western Iraq conducting raiding and harassment operations that pinned down a substantial proportion of the Iraqi Army, stopping it from reinforcing its comrades in the south. During the following insurgency, Delta, along with the British SAS, became the lead allied SOF in the war against al-Qaeda in Iraq and sectarian terror gangs. In fact Delta was given the lead in Iraq while SEAL Team 6 took responsibility for Afghanistan (in a role that would soon see the ever-expanding Ranger Regiment rotating the overall command and control for JSOC forces under Task Force 373 in Afghanistan in 2009).
Delta fought a long and costly campaign but one that ultimately succeeded in breaking the back of al-Qaeda in Iraq and reducing the influence of the Iranian Quds Force, which, amongst other nefarious activities, was shipping deadly explosively formed projectile IEDs to the militias in the south. Sadly Delta lost a significant number of operators over the years in Iraq and suffered many more wounded as it raided multiple targets each night – and eventually in the daylight in Mosul as terrorist leaders turned off their mobile (cell) phones at night, reducing Delta’s targeting efforts.
With the reduction of US forces in Iraq following the `Anbar awakening’ in 2005, which saw Sunni militias within the Anbar Province uniting to operate against al-Qaeda, and the eventual handover to Iraqi security forces, Delta along with the Rangers and SEAL Team 6 surged into Afghanistan during 2008. Its operators attempted to replicate their Iraq success but were somewhat stymied by the lack of mobile (cell) phones and other electronic communications used by their adversaries. In 2011 they deployed to Paktika Province in what developed into a two-day operation against a Haqqani Network base area. During the operation, one of the fiercest experienced by Delta in recent years, one operator was killed and a number wounded in a battle that claimed upward of 80 insurgents.
After conducting operations with local partner forces in Central Africa as part of Task Force 27, Delta returned to Iraq in 2014, establishing the Expeditionary Targeting Force (ETF) and heading up efforts to target Islamic State External Operations personnel. Officially, the ETF was created to `conduct raids of various kinds, seizing places and people, freeing hostages and prisoners of ISIL [Islamic State], and making it such that ISIL has to fear that anywhere, anytime, it may be struck.’
In 2016 the ETF conducted an aerial vehicle interdiction on a convoy of vehicles carrying the second-in-command of Islamic State. When he exited his vehicle with an AK-47 in his hands he was shot and killed by the operators. One ETF operator from Delta has been killed in Iraq, in October 2015, during a joint operation with Kurdish SOF to rescue a large number of Kurdish and Iraqi political prisoners held by Islamic State and due to be executed the following day. A former Secretary of Defense noted in a government press release: `We have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL’s external operations. And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield.’
There is still a small Delta presence in Afghanistan dedicated largely to combating Islamic State – Khorasan (ISIS-K), a branch of the militant Islamic State group which is active in the east of the country, although most special operations are conducted by Rangers and Green Beret ODAs partnered with Afghan special units. Delta has also maintained a small task force in Libya.
This team famously captured an al-Qaeda linked high-value target in a covert snatch in October 2013. The next year it also captured one of the leaders of the militia responsible for the attack on the Benghazi Consulate and CIA outstation (in which two Delta operators from Task Force 27 had actually led a small rescue force to evacuate the remaining Americans) in Operation Greenbrier River.
Somewhere in the region of 200 personnel including a Delta squadron have been operating in Syria since 2015. This number is in addition to those operators assigned to the ETF which is believed to be based in northern Iraq with a forward location in Jordan and to conduct kill or capture missions in both Syria and Iraq.
One of its better-known recent operations was the defence of a forward operating base at Deir al-Zour, Syria in February 2018. A small contingent of operators and Rangers was faced with a night-time attack by Russian mercenaries and Iranian-backed Syrian jihadists supported by T72 tanks and APCs (armoured personnel carriers). The JSOC team, numbering fewer than 30, opened fire with Javelin anti-tank guided missiles and .50 heavy machine guns, holding back the enemy until US airpower could arrive overhead.
AC-130s, fighter-bombers and armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) all engaged the Russians and their jihadist allies for a number of hours, targeting both infantry and armoured vehicles. Some 200-300 enemy including a large contingent of Russians from the Wagner private military company were killed. Incredibly not a single operator or Ranger was wounded despite coming under prolonged mortar and artillery fire.
Delta has expanded greatly over the years and now operates four Sabre squadrons – A, B, C and D – along with Echo Squadron which flies low-signature or deniable aircraft for the unit and G Squadron, formerly the Operational Support Troop, which employs both male and female operators to conduct undercover reconnaissance and advanced force operations. Each Sabre squadron also has its own complement of four combat assault dogs with specially trained handlers. It is equipped with low-light video cameras and body armour that are drawn from the Combat Support Squadron, which also maintains the unit’s capabilities in heavy breaching, EOD and counter-WMD (weapons of mass destruction).