Delta Force or simply The Unit 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 humble private first class. Delta Force is the leading basic military counterterrorism unit of the United States acting on foreign soil.
The U.S. Army’s Delta Force—one of Washington’s premier specialized units—is still largely hidden from public view despite more than three decades since it has been formed and dozens of Hollywood movies. The Pentagon never really confirmed the existence of The Unit and so far they offered very few details about the group, its organization or even how many Delta “operators” there are in total.
They operated strictly in secret. The army would not even speak the word “Delta.” If you had to refer to them, they were “operators,” or “the Dreaded D.” The Rangers, who worshiped them, called them D-boys. Secrecy, or at least the show of it, was central to their purpose. It allowed dreamers and the politicians to have it both wazs.
But the unit—technically the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta (1st SFOD-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 United States 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 their honors. The staff help determines what battalions and squadrons the Army keep—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 Force.
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 highly 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 organizational level
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.”
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. They took the credits for the elimination of at the time the world’s most wanted terrorist, the notorious leader of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was killed in a raid carried out by the unit.
And whatever Delta’s structure looks like now, Beckwith’s legacy no doubt continues to have an impact on the force.