Inside the Birth of the U.S. Army's Delta Force
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A secret history.
Key point: Even now many details of this top-notch unit remain classified.
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.
This article by Joseph Trevithick originally appeared at War is Boring in 2015.
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 first appeared earlier in 2019.
Image: DOD Flickr.