The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), also known as Delta Force, is one of two counter-terrorism special mission units (SMU) of the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). It was formerly listed as the Combat Applications Group (CAG) by the Department of Defense but some claim it has been re-designated the Army Compartmented Elements (ACE). While 1st SFOD-D is administratively supported by USASOC, it falls under the operational control of JSOC. The Delta Force’s Navy counterpart, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, is the other JSOC SMU.
Delta Force’s primary tasks are counter-terrorism, direct action, and national intervention operations, although it is an extremely versatile group capable of conducting many types of clandestine missions, including, but not limited to, hostage rescues and raids.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s highly secretive Special Activities Division (SAD) and more specifically its elite Special Operations Group (SOG) often works with and recruits operators from Delta Force.
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 a model for this type of unit in the early 1960s. Charlie Beckwith, a Special Forces officer and Vietnam veteran, had served as an exchange officer with the British Army’s Special Air Service (22 SAS Regiment) during the Malayan Emergency. Upon 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-terrorist missions. He briefed military and government figures, who were resistant to creating a new unit outside of Special Forces or changing existing methods.
Finally, in the mid-70’s, as the threat of terrorism grew, the Pentagon high command appointed Beckwith to form the unit. Beckwith estimated that it would take 24 months to get his new unit mission-ready. Beckwith’s estimate resulted from a conversation he had earlier with Brigadier John Watts while updating his SAS experience 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.
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.
On 4 November 1979, shortly after Delta had been created, 53 American diplomats and citizens were taken captive and held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran. The unit was assigned to Operation Eagle Claw and ordered to enter the country covertly 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 aviation failures. The review commission that examined the failure found 23 problems with the operation, among them unbriefed 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 aviation support. The Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group, formerly designated Seal Team Six, 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.
Most recruits come from the Special Forces Groups, with a sizable but significantly smaller portion are from the 75th Ranger Regiment, though a few have come from other units of the army. 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 ranks 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 test to attend a briefing to be considered for admission.
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 started their military careers in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Haney’s book Inside Delta Force described the selection course and its inception in detail. Haney wrote 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. 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 to mentally exhaust 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 counter-intelligence techniques, in which the individual maintains little contact with friends and family for the duration. Training includes firearm accuracy and various other munitions training.
In a recent interview, former Delta operator Paul Howe talked about the high attrition rate of his Delta selection course. He said that out of his two classes totaling 240 men, only 12 to 14 candidates completed the course.
According to Eric Haney the unit’s Operator Training Course is approximately six months long. While the OTC course is constantly changing the skills taught broadly include the following:
Marksmanship: 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, live “hostages” are added to the “enemies”.
Demolitions and entry: Trainees learn how to pick many different locks, including those on cars and safes. Finally comes advanced demolition and making bombs from commonly found materials.
Combined skills: The FBI, FAA, and other agencies were used to advise the training of this portion of OTC. Commercial airliners such as Delta Air Lines would allow Delta to train on their aircraft as well. The new Delta operators use demolition and marksmanship at the shoothouse 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 shoothouse 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.
Trade Craft: During the first OTC’s and creation of Delta, CIA personnel were used to teach this portion. Students learn different espionage-related skills, such as dead drops, brief encounters, pickups, load and unload signals, danger and safe signals, surveillance and counter-surveillance.
Executive Protection: During the first OTC’s 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.
Command of 1st SFOD-D is a Colonel’s billet.
Charles Alvin Beckwith – 1977 to 1981
William F. Garrison – 1985 to 1989
Peter J. Schoomaker – 1989 to 1992
William G. Boykin – 1992 to 1994
Bernard J. McCabe – 1994 to 1996
Eldon Bargewell – 1996 to 1998
While most operations remain classified, the following operations involved SFOD in some capacity:
Operation Eagle Claw: Iran, 1980
Operation Urgent Fury: Grenada, 1983
Operation Acid Gambit: Panama, 1989
Operation Just Cause: Panama, 1989
Operation Desert Shield: Iraq, 1990
Operation Desert Storm: Iraq, 1991
Operation Restore Hope: Somalia, 1993
Operation Gothic Serpent: the operation that led to the Battle of Mogadishu
Operation Enduring Freedom: Afghanistan, 2001
Operation Anaconda: Afghanistan, 2002
Operation Iraqi Freedom: Iraq, 2003