After more than three decades and dozens of Hollywood movies, the U.S. Army’s Delta Force—one of Washington’s premier specialized units—is still largely hidden from public view. The Pentagon offers few details about the group, its organization or even how many Delta “operators” there are in total.
But the unit—technically the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment D—is a part of the Army, and has all the formal trappings that come along with being part of that bureaucracy. As a result, some of the detachment’s formative history is a matter of public record.
The Army originally planned Delta Force as “an organization which can be deployed worldwide and has the capability to provide an appropriate response to highly sensitive situations including acts of international terrorism,” explains a 1977 analysis of the proposed unit held by the Army’s Center of Military History.
The center keeps an assortment of records to help track Army units, their histories and honors. The staff help determine what battalions and squadrons the Army keeps—or even brings back into existence—when the ground combat branch shuffles things up.
Both Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six trace their origins to an outburst of political violence in the 1970s. At the time, Washington watched as acts of terror became a significant problem in Europe and the Middle East.
In 1972, Palestinian militants shocked the world when they attacked Israeli athletes at Munich Olympics. Smaller groups like the radical leftist Red Army Faction and ethnic Basque separatists carried out a campaign of bombings and assassinations across the continent.
One Army officer, Col. Charlie Beckwith, was personally responsible for pushing his superiors to create Delta.
In the 1960s, Beckwith embedded with the United Kingdom’s 22nd Special Air Service Regiment in Malaysia. His influence, if not his actual hand, is clearly visible in the 1977 review. Beckwith’s concept for the Delta Force is based on his experience with the SAS.
“The proposed organization will provide a high specialized force, rich in rank structure, built upon small teams which contain mature, professionally trained, psychologically prepared individuals capable of making on-the-spot judgments,” according to the narrative.
These goals largely mirror’s Beckwith’s perception of SAS members. He was particularly impressed with their selection process.
“What the [SAS] regiment ended with, I thought, were men who enjoyed being alone, who could think and operate by themselves, men who were strong-minded and resolute,” Beckwith, who died in 1994, writes in his memoir Delta Force .
The analysis is also attached to a draft organizational document, called a Table of Order and Equipment. Army officials use these charts as a starting point to map out how many soldiers units should have, and what gear they need.
Delta Force is no different. As of July 1978, the unit used a formal TOE that put the organization’s official strength at 21 officers and 151 enlisted soldiers.
The proposed organization splits the unit into separate groups for administrative duties, and troops for actual operations. Depending on the circumstances, medical personnel, intelligence specialists and radio operators from the admin side could go along on missions.
The operational portion called an E Detachment, controlled four 20-man teams, or F Detachments.
This naming convention followed the practice of referring to the basic building blocks of Special Forces units as A, B and C Detachments. The 12-man Operational Detachment As—commonly referred to as “A-Teams”—are still the foundation of the Army’s elite formations.
In addition to larger teams, Delta had more officers, with higher ranks, than a normal special forces company or other similarly-sized units. Today, a regular Army infantry company with more than 130 soldiers has only five officers.
“The highly sensitive nature of operations and degree of specialist training required fully justify this rank structure,” the analysis states. “The level of professional maturity required cannot be found in abundance among the first term enlistees and second lieutenants.”
Delta didn’t allow officers below the rank of captain—who outrank all lieutenants—into the unit. The minimum acceptable rank would be staff sergeant, three full grades above a lowly private first class.
The non-commissioned officers in the F Detachments would be the primary “doers,” the review explains. The F Detachments could function as one 20-man team, 20 one-man elements or almost anything in between, according to the plan.
Just like the British Army’s elite troops, these “fighters of the organization” would have to function as “single operators,” the analysis declares.
Unlike Beckwith, the Army expected its commandos to spend most of their time training and working with friendly forces in foreign countries, rather than launching raids by themselves. Even now, Army special operators devote a lot of time partnering up with American allies.
We don’t know how long Delta Force kept to this organization. The official historical data card has no updates after 1979.
The next year, the elite commandos participated in the abortive attempt to rescue American citizens in Tehran after the Iranian revolution. Eight special operators died in an accident after Washington aborted the raid.
The unit might now have nearly 1,000 highly-trained soldiers, wrote journalist and author Sean Naylor in Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.
More recently, the secretive troops tried to save American journalist James Foley and other captives from Islamic State terrorists Syria in July 2014. The following month, the Sunni extremist group murdered Foley.
And whatever Delta’s structure looks like now, Beckwith’s legacy no doubt continues to have an impact on the force.
This article by Joseph Trevithick originally appeared at War is Boring in 2015.
Time for Change in U.S. Special Operations Command?
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command has gained manpower and money as well as responsibility for an ever-wider range of missions. But now Congress is beginning to question, and push back against, the commando mission-creep.
At present SOCOM is the lead agency for U.S. military counterterrorism operations and security-force assistance. The latter involves U.S. forces training foreign armies and other proxy forces.
SOCOM in 2016 also assumed the lead role in combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a mission that previously belonged to U.S. Strategic Command. More recently, SOCOM became the lead command for America’s “military information support operations.” In essence, propaganda.
The command wants even more responsibility, according to CRS. “The current unified command plan stipulates USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing planning for global operations to combat terrorist networks,” CRS noted.
This focus on planning limits its ability to conduct activities designed to deter emerging threats, build relationships with foreign militaries and potentially develop greater access to foreign militaries.”
USSOCOM is proposing changes that would, in addition to current responsibilities, include the responsibility for synchronizing the planning, coordination, deployment and, when directed, the employment of special operations forces globally and will do so with the approval of the geographic combatant commanders, the services and, as directed, appropriate U.S. government agencies.
Further, the proposed changes would give broader responsibility to USSOCOM beyond counterterrorism activities, to include activities against other threat networks.
But the world has changed in those nearly two decades. Congress increasingly has questioned SOCOM’s sprawling responsibilities and recently ordered two separate reviews of the command.
Lawmakers in part were motivated by reports of misconduct by SOCOM personnel as well as by SOCOM’s alleged participation in conflicts for which Congress did not provide authorization, specifically in Niger.
Four SOCOM troops died on Oct. 4, 2017 when militants ambushed their patrol in Niger in Central Africa.
“Prior to starting out on the ill-fated patrol, two junior officers, including an Army captain who remained at the base in Niger and the team leader, falsified a document to get approval for a mission to kill or capture a local ISIS leader,” CNN reported.
“That mission was never approved by the proper chain of command, according to [an official] summary. A much lower-risk mission was instead submitted and approved. However, the team was unable to locate the ISIS leader during their unauthorized mission.”
“Some believe this situation calls into question the adequacy of civilian oversight and control of U.S. SOF,” according to CRS.
The reviews of SOCOM that CRS mentioned will “take an introspective look at U.S. SOF’s culture, roles and responsibilities, adequacy of resources, organizational structure and the adequacy of training, education and personnel,” the research service reported.
“Some have suggested these provisions are a precursor for congressional and [Defense Department] actions to ‘rein in and reorient’ U.S. SOF from fighting terrorists to taking on nation-states, instead.”
Aware that U.S. [special operations forces] are overburdened and that there is a need to find the right balance between continuing to challenge terrorist organizations while simultaneously addressing growing irregular warfare threats posed by nation-states, policymakers will likely make good use of the two forthcoming congressionally mandated reviews.
It is possible that over the next few years, significant public policy debates on the future of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF will be undertaken, potentially resulting in a number of changes.
After 17 years at the forefront of the global military campaign against terrorism, policymakers, defense officials, and academics are questioning the future role of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
US SOF strengthen relationships with allied partners through combined training
U.S. Air Force’s 7th Special Operation Squadron, assigned to 352nd Special Operation Wing, based out of Mildenhall, England, deployed to Bacau, March 10-15, 2019, to conduct mission essential tasks, and simultaneously, familiarize Romanian SOF with the CV-22 Osprey.
“The importance is not only for the commonality of our tactics, techniques, and procedures between US forces and partner forces but combining that within the NATO spectrum to make sure we are all operating in the same format,” said a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Capt., the mission commander for the training event and flight lead pilot . “Being able to get these staged drills out of the way now in a safe and effective training environment, allows us to be able to have the confidence to forward deploy in any contingency operation.”
The 7th SOS operates the CV-22B Osprey throughout the entire range of military operations in support of conventional and special operations. The 7th SOS executes this mission at night, in adverse weather, performing long-range insertion, extraction and resupply missions in hostile, denied and politically sensitive territories.
US and ROU SOF conducted day and night fast rope infiltration and exfiltration operations (FRIES) and low-level flying. These capabilities are something ROU SOF are (trained and) skilled in; however, this was their first time conducting FRIES out of the CV-22.
“Everyone here had used fast rope before, on different platforms, so they understood their techniques,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt., 7th SOS, special mission aviator. “One of the main differentiators from our side was just reminding them that the CV-22 creates a lot more downwash and it’s a much different experience when it comes to deploying out of our aircraft, compared to a conventional rotary wing aircraft.”
Through these pieces of training, SOF members demonstrate and strengthen partner nation relationships and air operations in the European Theatre.
“The ROU SOF was able to extend the CV-22 familiarization training invitation to other units that are not co-located here at Bacau,” said the mission commander. “So they were able to cycle through as many of their special operation ground forces as they could, during this timeframe.”
Along with developing combined leaders, this deployment gave the US SOF members the opportunity to establish professional development at the tactical level.
“I’ve been flying for the Air Force for 15 years, and all my training has been stateside, so even for me in the short time I’ve moved to RAF Mildenhall,” said U.S. Air Force Capt., an instructor pilot for the 7th SOS. “I’ve learned a lot working with Allied partners, whether it’s working through language barriers or just the different techniques. It’s eye-opening.”
The 7th SOS mission commander was very thankful for the ability to utilize the diverse NATO terrain and base resources to accomplish their objectives.
“The Romanian Government and Air Force Base here in Bacau have been extremely supportive with their ability to reach out to us and help,” said the mission commander. “They’ve been able to work on request, with short notice, to include base access, providing us workspace and just being very accommodating when it comes to airspace and tower-controlled patterns that they run here on the airfield.”
This collaborative training event allows each force to improve its individual and collective capabilities, and the 352nd SOW and ROU SOF will continue to train shoulder-to-shoulder in similar exercises.
“The biggest takeaway for me, is the Romanian partners are more than willing to host us, but they are thirsty to work with us as far as continued training,” said the mission commander. “Looking forward to coming back, not just in Bacau but into Romania in general, so that we can work in the dynamic air space that they have, and their terrain, but also working with the ROU SOF members who seem to be very much interested in working with specialized air power like the tilt-rotor Osprey.”