What Is Delta Force, the Super Secret Military Group?

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Meet the most elite tactical combat group, the Delta Force. Michael Sugrue / Getty Images

How can a group — trained as professional assassins and approaching the status of mercenaries — be reeled in if the U.S. government won't even confirm that the group exists?

Questions like these swirl around the United States' most elite tactical combat group, the Delta Force. But what is Delta Force, exactly?

Consider a special operations force trained to the highest level in the United States military, armed with cutting-edge weaponry, well-funded and answering only to one person. Would such a force make the United States safer or more vulnerable?

What Is Delta Force?

Delta Force, short for Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, is a Tier One Special Mission Unit under Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). It's also known as the Combat Applications Group (CAG), the Unit and Task Force Green.

While it often draws its ranks from the Army Special Forces groups (the Army Green Berets) and shares Fort Bragg, North Carolina, headquarters with them, it isn't an Army Special Forces detachment.

They're not called soldiers but Delta operators and are said to shun the traditional philosophies of military life. They wear civilian clothes. They work for whoever needs them — for the Army, the FBI and the CIA.

Covert Operations

Neither the U.S. government nor the military officially acknowledges the existence of Delta Force. To this end, almost all the information in this article is unsupported by any official reports.

It's only in recent years that vague references by the government to the group's existence have been allowed to go uncensored. These references have turned up in transcripts from Congressional hearings and biographies of high-ranking military leaders.

But it's nearly impossible to keep a force so deadly and made up of the stuff of legends entirely under wraps. Since its inception in 1977, stories of the Delta Force's exploits and missions have leaked out, little by little, eventually forming a brief sketch of the unit.

In 1993, Delta Force came under the microscope when its operators were among those who fought and died in a failed operation to remove a Somali warlord. And in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, reports of two missions by Delta Force — one failed and one successful — have become common knowledge.

Security or Liability?

But the group has received criticism for undertaking missions that are on the fringe of regular laws governing the military. Delta Force is funded out of secret government accounts, away from the public eye, and is believed to answer only to the president.

But others claim that its purpose — maintaining the United States' role as a leading power and as the world's police force — necessitates the lack of restrictions and accountability surrounding its activities.

Delta Force Origin, Recruitment and Structure

The Delta Force is one of two military outfits in the U.S. charged with counterterrorist operations. Like the other, the Navy's Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), Delta Force can deploy at a moment's notice. But unlike DEVGRU, Delta Force doesn't officially exist.

Origins of Delta Force

In the 1970s, the world began to see an outbreak of extremism. Groups like Germany's Red Army Faction and the Palestinian Liberation Organization introduced new words into the global vocabulary — words like terrorism and hijacking.

As a response to the sudden and widespread emergence of terrorist ideologies, U.S. Army Colonel Charles Beckwith proposed that the government create a small, skilled tactical team capable of responding with quick and deadly force to terrorist activities.

In 1977, Beckwith assembled the force along with Colonel Thomas Henry, recruiting from the Green Berets, the Army Rangers and the Airborne divisions. Beckwith created a grueling training course based on that of the British Special Air Service (SAS) — an elite commando unit capable of carrying out highly specialized missions.

Beckwith spent a year as an exchange officer with the SAS and used the group as a model. Today, Delta Force and SAS still serve side by side and exchange members in their cross-training programs. In 1996, Delta Force operators and SAS members stormed the home of the Japanese ambassador to rescue him from hostage-takers in Lima, Peru.

How to Join Delta Force

Delta Force recruits operators from all military branches based on their special skills, like exceptional sharpshooting ability. It's reputed that Delta Force recruits must show 100 percent accuracy in shooting from 600 yards and 90 percent accuracy at 1,000 yards [source: VFW Magazine].

Beckwith also created a 40-mile hike as an endurance test to separate the truly capable from those who had simply managed to remain in training. This method is taken directly from the SAS.

Delta Force holds nationwide recruitment drives several months out of the year, culminating in two selection processes: one in the spring and one in the fall. Following the monthlong selection process, recruits who make it through move on to the operator training course, which is believed to last six months.

Delta Force Organization

Delta Force consists of an A, B and C squadron along with a combat support squadron, signal squadron, aviation platoon and a "funny platoon" — the intelligence-gathering outfit of the Delta Force.

The combat squadrons are composed of smaller units called troops, which specialize in airborne, ground or water insertion, much like the Green Berets. Ultimately, troops can split into small mission teams of up to 12 people and as few as one.

As counterterrorist operatives, Delta Force members receive training in hostage rescue in closed spaces. When they rescue hostages, the hostage-takers are rarely left alive.

Beckwith mandated the simple two-tap method of dealing with terrorists — two shots go into each target [source: VFW Magazine]. In stark contrast to movie or TV representations, Delta Force operators don't spare those who may come back to fight them again.

<b>Delta Force is reputed to favor arms manufactured by Heckler and Koch, like the MP5.</b> Photo Ross Land/<a class="link " href="http://www.gettyimages.com" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas">Getty Images</a>
Delta Force is reputed to favor arms manufactured by Heckler and Koch, like the MP5. Photo Ross Land/Getty Images

Delta Force Arsenal

At its training facility, known in some circles as the "House of Horrors," Delta Force is believed to work tirelessly, honing its skills. Its facility is believed to include buses, trains and even a passenger airliner for staging hostage-rescue scenarios. The group refines its training in close-quarters combat, and since its members are also required to be excellent marksmen, they also practice shooting regularly.

The arsenal available to the Delta Force is said to be limitless. The very best weaponry the world has to offer is at its fingertips, and much of its arms are heavily customized. High-performance submachine guns and high-powered sniper rifles alone do not make a successful Delta Force mission.

In addition to its weaponry and extensive training, Delta Force also requires a lift. In many cases, operators rely on their squadron's aviation platoon. These platoons are composed of aircraft that are painted and outfitted to look like civilian helicopters. These aircraft are even said to have made-up civilian-class registration numbers on them.

In missions where it must appear that the U.S. government, military or federal agencies have no official involvement, the Delta Force aviation platoon serves the battle squadrons well.

Operators invading in civilian clothing, in what looks to be civilian aircraft, create a tremendous amount of plausible deniability. After all, these people could just as easily be overzealous citizens or employees of a private security firm (a job that many former Delta Force operators take after retirement).

In special cases, the Delta Force calls in the Night Stalkers. Officially referred to as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), this group of highly trained pilots flies Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters close to the ground to deliver special operations forces like the Delta Force to its insertion areas. The Night Stalkers use night vision equipment, flying without lights in black helicopters at night.

<b>An American hostage is shown at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.</b> Photo MPI/<a class="link " href="http://www.gettyimages.com" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas">Getty Images</a>
An American hostage is shown at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Photo MPI/Getty Images

Delta Force Operations and Assignments

The group's first assignment came shortly after its formation, guarding the Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico in 1979 [source: SOC]. While that detail reportedly went smoothly, its next operation — Eagle Claw — failed.

Iran Hostage Crisis

The objective of the operation Eagle Claw (to rescue 66 American hostages at the embassy in Tehran, Iran) wasn't completed.

A helicopter carrying Delta Force and other special operations team members crashed, killing eight and ending the operation. Following that, control of Delta Force was taken out of the hands of traditional special operations command [source: VFW Magazine]. Exactly where it was placed, however, remains a mystery.

Hijacked Indonesian Passenger Plane

Delta Force carried out at least one notable textbook operation, based on exactly what the group was formed to do — rescue hostages in tight spaces. The force boarded a hijacked Indonesian passenger plane in 1980, rescuing the hostages and killing all four hijackers.

While its primary role is to carry out counterterrorist operations, Delta Force also serves other functions — essentially any type of mission that requires quick and deadly skill from a small group. The group is reported to carry out operations on behalf of other branches of the military and agencies, like the CIA's shadowy Special Activities Staff [source: SpecWarNet].

Operation Urgent Fury

Delta Force has participated overtly alongside the military in major invasions carried out by the U.S. In Grenada, during Operation Urgent Fury, it stormed a prison to release hostages. And in Panama, as part of Operation Just Cause, the group rescued an American CIA operative and helped capture president Manuel Noriega.

Operation Desert Storm

Perhaps its most widely known operation is the "Great Scud Hunt" during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Delta Force operators infiltrated hundreds of miles into Iraq, finding Iraqi Scud missiles, acquiring them as targets for American fighter jets and killing Scud-launching crews [source: Global Securty.net]. Members also served as bodyguards for General Norman Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm in Iraq [source: SpecWarNet].

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was designed to create a clear division between the military and domestic police forces. The act outlaws any direct involvement by the U.S. military in any law enforcement operation.

But it also contains a provision that allows the act to be temporarily repealed in some instances. A waiver signed by the president can remove the act's provisions in cases of emergency, and this has taken place at least twice since the creation of the Delta Force.

In 1987, a wave of Cuban refugees came to the United States. Unsure about what to do with such large numbers of emigrants from a nation unfriendly to the U.S., President Ronald Reagan ordered the refugees locked up in federal prisons until they could either be processed by Immigration officials or sent back to Cuba.

At the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, a group of the Cuban refugees mounted an uprising. When federal agents could not control the riot, Reagan waived the Posse Comitatus Act and ordered a unit of Delta Force operators to subdue the uprising.

Delta Force was also called out to serve as guards for visiting dignitaries during the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, Washington, in 1999. Mass protest against the summit was held near the meetings, causing alarm for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The Posse Comitatus Act wasn't waived in this case since it was Albright, not law enforcement, who called upon Delta Force's services.

In 1993, the Posse Comitatus Act was again waived, this time by President Bill Clinton. In Waco, Texas, an armed religious sect known as the Branch Davidians mounted a standoff against the FBI. Three Delta Force operators were allowed at the site of the standoff. Two served as trainers and technical advisors to the FBI on a classified piece of surveillance equipment. Another served as an observer.

This wasn't the first time the Delta Force and the FBI had seen each other in action. In 1978, the Delta Force and the FBI trained together in the Nevada desert, near an old nuclear test site. Known as the Joshua Junction exercise, the two groups worked together in hostage negotiation and rescue training.

Since then, the FBI and its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) has worked with Delta Force in other operations, like security details for Olympic games held in American cities — Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996.

<b>The body of Pablo Escobar on the roof where he died evading the Colombian (and possibly American) forces that eventually killed him.</b> Photo Medellin Police/AFP/<a class="link " href="http://www.gettyimages.com" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas">Getty Images</a>
The body of Pablo Escobar on the roof where he died evading the Colombian (and possibly American) forces that eventually killed him. Photo Medellin Police/AFP/Getty Images

Delta Force Scandals, Speculations and Rumors

There is no lack of people who try to track and document Delta Force's activities. There are blogs, organizations and websites dedicated to exposing what some believe to be illegal and unethical acts perpetrated by Delta Force.

But outside observers have an extremely difficult time proving these allegations. Even in cases where the traces left from Delta Force operations lead back to the group, news reports have a tendency to disappear.

In 2004, reports surfaced in mainstream media that a secret prison operated and staffed by Delta Force members was located at the Baghdad airport. This prison, reserved only for insurgents and terrorists, served as the setting for torture methods like near-drowning, smothering and drugging [source: NBC News].

And in 1985, Time magazine reported that several Delta Force operators had to be cleared to leave the country after they were dispatched to a hostage rescue mission in Sicily. They were under investigation by the federal government for embezzling and misappropriating money from the secret "black fund" that supports the group [source: Time].

Another allegation — suggested by "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden in his book, "Killing Pablo" — is that Delta Force operators were the ones who killed Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

While the group is known to have been in Colombia when Escobar was gunned down, its members served as trainers for an elite Columbian counter-drug squad, the "Search Bloc." It was the Search Bloc, says the Columbian government, that fired the shots that killed Escobar.

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