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April 30, 2012

Seaspray, the Black Ops Shadow of TF 160th

After the tragedy that unfolded at Desert One, the attempted Delta Force rescue of American hostages held in Iran in 1980, the Pentagon was forced back to the drawing board.  While it is easy to take for granted the Special Operations infrastructure that we have today, thirty years ago the military was still struggling in a Post-Vietnam War climate and engaged in much trail and error in trying to respond to the specter of terrorism.

One of big lessons learned from Desert One was that Special Operations forces needed dedicated aircraft to carry and otherwise support the “shooters” of Delta and other Special Operations units.  Stood up at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, most people are familiar with Task Force 160th, the amazingly talented Special Operations pilots who put Rangers, Special Forces, SEAL Team Six, and Delta Force shooters exactly where they need to be, plus or minus thirty seconds as the pilots are quick to tell you.  Far fewer people are aware of a program stood up two months prior to 160th, on March 2nd 1981.

Seaspray was a joint venture between the CIA and the Army, one of many projects stood up for the second Iran hostage rescue mission which went into the planning phase immediately after the failure of Desert One.  Due to the legalese used in Executive Order 12036, only the CIA could perform covert operations.  That said, the CIA had only provided a single reconnaissance flight prior to Desert One and serious rifts had developed between the Agency and the Pentagon as Desert One progressed towards disaster.  It was a marriage of convenience, perhaps comparable to that of MACV-SOG during Vietnam, in which each party brought something to the table.

While TF 160th would fly Direct Action combat operations for US Special Operations units, Seapray would fly covert operations in which the presence of the United States was to remain undetected.  “We provided instant clandestine aviation to anyone and anywhere worldwide,” according to a former member of Seaspray.

Alleged CIA Little Bird in Iraq

Helicopters were purchased completely outside the normal Army procurement process, their aircraft were in the black and off the books, registered through civilian cut-outs.  Only ten pilots were specially selected from the Army to serve in Seaspray when the unit was stood up in ’81, the black aviation outfit having their pick of the best from both the CIA and the Army.  The unit’s first commander was Lieutenant Colonel Vasken Moomjian.  Stationed at Ft. Eustis Virgina, they later set up a base in Tampa to support Central American operations.

“Seaspray went on to conduct some of the most sensitive covert missions ever undertaken by the US Army.  It supported Signal Intelligence operations, secretly transported foreign leaders, ferried Delta soldiers and worked extensively with other counter-terrorism forces in exercises and rescue operations.”

The unit’s inventory included Cessnas, Beechcraft King Airs, and highly modified Hughes 500MD helicopters.  These helicopters were day/night capable with so-called “people pods” for transporting assaulters like on today’s Little Bird helicopters, and specialized silencers on the tail rotors to decrease noise.  The 500MD’s also incorporated a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system for scanning the ground for targets or landing sites.  That said, my understanding is that Seaspray helicopters do not look military at all but were marked up like civilian aircraft.

Ultimately, TF 160th helped provide cover for action for the Seaspray program as the jet black Chinooks, Blackhawks, and Little Birds of 160th drew the attention of the press and kept it well away from covert actions of Seaspray.

(Source: Secret Warriors by Steven Emerson / Picture Credit: TF 160th AH-6F during the Iran-Iraq War from ARC Forums)

About the Author

is an eight year Army Special Operations veteran who served as a Sniper and Team Leader in 3rd Ranger Battalion and as a Senior Weapons Sergeant on a Military Free Fall team in 5th Special Forces Group. Having left the military in 2010, he graduated from Columbia with a BA in political science. Murphy is the author of Reflexive Fire, Target Deck, Direct Action, and numerous non-fiction articles about Weapons, Tactics, Special Operations, Terrorism, and Counter-Terrorism. He has appeared in documentaries, national television, and syndicated radio.

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  • JosephusOptimusMaximus

    So, to be clear Jack, seaspray is the CIA version of the Special Operations aviators, and the original SPECOPS aviators, in OPS which need to remain undiscovered as being American?

  • caseymac1944

    Thank you JackMurphyRGR . You always give us interesting information.

  • green beret retired

    One thing about the aviation assets available for Desert One, the 1st SOW at Hurlburt had the choppers and the experienced pilots for the mission. Because they decided to move the heliocpters in theatre on board an aircraft carrier, the AF choppers (CH-53) wouldn't fit on the deck, so they used Navy RH-53 (minesweeps) with Marine pilots. The acft were not equipped with the avionics for flying in that evironment and the pilots didn't have the experience.

  • TomHunter1

    AKC4417  There is nothing in this article that hasn't been previously published - and quite some time ago. That you didn't know this information, respectfully, draws into question your qualifications to imply this was an OPSEC violation. Jack just put together the old open source info and paired it with unclassified information about the 160th, of which the Army itself has had online for at least a decade. Had he named any Agency unit conducting these ops even in 2012, then I'd agree, but he broke nothing here. 1/160 runs black ops for the military, which is common knowledge, and as to Aviation Branch at CIA, that too, is common knowledge. The specific program that may or may not be operating as a follow on to Seaspray (later renamed) would be an OPSEC violation. This is is history lesson, not current operational information.

  • LarryNiver

    Great article but you left out Operation Honey Badger, which started TF160. You can Google it.