The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D) is the U.S. Army’s elite, Tier 1 special operations unit. Founded in 1977, the 1st SFOD-D force has had several titles within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) over the years, including Delta Force, Combat Applications Group (CAG), Army Compartmented Element (ACE), “The Unit,” and Task Force Green. While Delta Force is administratively under the Army, it is operationally controlled by JSOC. Delta specializes in Counter-terrorism, Direct Action, Hostage Rescue, and Reconnaissance. They are often tasked with carrying out high-risk operations that are often classified and directed from the highest levels of the U.S. government. Delta recruits heavily from the Special Forces and the 75th Ranger Regiment communities.

Joining Delta Force

There is no pathway to go from civilian to Delta Force operator. In order to apply for Delta selection, an individual, at a minimum, must enter the Army, have the rank of E-4 through E-8 or O-3 through O-4, and be 21 years old. In addition, he must be Airborne qualified or volunteer for Airborne training, must have a certain ASVAB score, be capable of obtaining a Secret security clearance, have no disciplinary action recorded on his file, and have at least two and a half years remaining in his military obligation.

As stated before, most Delta Force operators come from the Special Forces and the 75th Ranger Regiment. In June 2006, General Downing briefed the U.S. House of Representatives that 70 percent of Delta Force’s operators come from the Army Special Operations community.

It’s important to note that you are not required to be a member of Special Forces or of the 75th Ranger Regiment in order to apply for Delta Force. Furthermore, based on contract obligations and approvals, special operations members in other branches can submit a package to go through Delta selection.

Selection

All things Delta Force are shrouded in secrecy, including the training pipeline. Eric Haney’s book “Inside Delta Force,” provided a good insight of Delta’s training and selection process. Delta selection is known for its arduous land navigation and rucking evolutions. One of the tests involves an 18-mile, all-night land navigation course, accompanied by a 40 pound ruck. As the candidates progress through selection, the weight of the rucks increase, while the timeline to complete the land navigation courses decreases. The final test of selection, also known as “The Long Walk,” involves a 40 mile march with a 45 pound ruck. The time limit to complete this “walk” is kept secret. Only the selection course’s Officer in Charge and senior Non-Commissioned Officer know the time limit.

Not only must candidates complete a rigorous physical selection process. They are also evaluated mentally. Candidates are put in front of a review board, including psychologists, instructors, and the Delta Force commander. The candidates are confronted with many questions, and each response is broken down and analyzed. Of course, the goal here is to wear the candidate out and to evaluate how he handles overwhelming mental pressure. After the questioning, the Delta commander informs the candidate if he has been chosen to attend Delta’s Operator Training Course (OTC). The attrition rate is very high for Delta selection, often hovering around 90 percent.

The Operator Training Course

The OTC is an ever-evolving, six-month training course. There are six training blocks within the course.

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The first block is Marksmanship. This block starts out with candidates learning how to shoot at stationary targets without aiming. Once they perfect this skill, the targets increase in range and begin to dynamically move. Candidates then transition into close quarters engagement, learning the fundamentals of room clearing. As the candidates progress, multiple hostiles and hostages are added into the mix.

The second block is Demolitions and Breaching. During this phase, candidates learn how to pick an array of locks found on safes, cars, and buildings. They also learn advanced demolition techniques and how to build bombs and explosives with commonly available items.

The third block is Combined Skills. In this phase, candidates combine the skills they learned in the first two phases and put them to practice in dynamic Direct Action, Counter-terrorism, and Hostage Rescue takedown exercises. They execute these simulations in buildings, aircraft, and other locations. During this phase, all candidates go through sniper training. They also learn how to implement and utilize communications equipment, segueing into effectively establishing a Tactical Operations Command. The final segment of this phase sees the candidates return to the shoot house. During the hostage training exercises, fellow students roleplay as the hostages. The goal in this is to build camaraderie and trust between the candidates.

The fourth block is Tradecraft. In this portion of training, candidates learn how to conduct espionage and collect intelligence. In addition, candidates learn how to execute dead drops, pick-ups, signaling, and surveillance.

The fifth block is Executive Protection. Here, students learn the same techniques used by the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and the United States Secret Service. Candidates attend an advance driving course to learn how to effectively maneuver and drive defensively and offensively. Part of Delta’s mission is to provide security for VIPs and diplomatic personnel.

The sixth and final block is a Culmination Exercise. Candidates are tested on all the skills they have learned over the course in a dynamic and fluid environment.

The Delta Force Organization

Delta Force was inspired by and is similarly structured to the British’s elite SAS unit. The unit is stationed at Fort Bragg, NC. According to Sean Naylor’s “Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda,” there are about 1,000 soldiers assigned to Delta, with Delta “Operators” making up around 250-300 of the personnel.

Sean Naylor’s “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command,” breaks down the general operational structure of Delta Force:

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  • A Squadron (Assault)
  • B Squadron (Assault)
  • C Squadron (Assault)
  • D Squadron (Assault)
  • E Squadron (Aviation)
  • G Squadron (Clandestine)
  • Combat Support Squadron (EOD, Medical, Intelligence, and others)

There are three troops in each Assault squadron. Two of the troops are dedicated to Direct Action and assault style operations. The third troop specializes in Reconnaissance and Surveillance, often involving penetration behind enemy lines. Sniper elements are attached to this troop as well.

Delta Force Weapons

For years, Delta used the infamous Colt M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol. Years ago, Delta operators were issued the same standard pistol that all other members in the Army were given. The gunsmiths at Delta went to work to upgrade and modify the 1911, to fit the operational needs of the Delta Force community. The result was a state of the art, 100 percent reliable pistol. Recently, Delta Force, just like so many other special operations units, has shifted to the 9mm Glock 19. The Glock 19 is considered an exceptionally reliable, light, and user-friendly pistol.

Another very effective and perfected weapon that Delta utilizes is the HK 416, built by Heckler and Koch. The 416’s design resembles the M4, but is different in many ways. Delta Force and HK worked together to develop the rifle. Their goal was to design and produce an elite and reliable assault rifle. The biggest change made was to implement a short-stroke gas piston system which is utilized on other HK weapons systems. The rifle comes in four different barrel length sizes” 10.4″, 14.5″, 16.5″, and 20″. The HK 416 is a popular weapon among JSOC operators and is often carried by members of the Naval Special Warfare’s Development Group.

Delta Force
Two Delta Assault Teams during the Panama invasion, which took place in 1989 and 1990, resulting in the removal of dictator Manuel Noriega from power. (Image Courtesy of George E. Hand IV)

Delta Force History

Army Special Forces was coming off the Vietnam wave. The Special Forces community had seen a lot of combat, but its specialty was Unconventional Warfare, which involved training, supporting, and fighting alongside friendly armies against a common enemy.

Charlie Beckwith, Delta’s father, was a Special Forces officer and Vietnam War veteran. He had spent time as an exchange officer with the British’s elite 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) regiment during the Malayan Emergency, a conflict that in many ways paralleled America’s war in Vietnam.

Beckwith outlined why the U.S. needed a dedicated Direct Action assault unit, something that the Special Forces group did not explicitly specialize in at the time. Initially, Beckwith’s request for an SAS style unit was denied.

But as the 1970s saw an exponential increase in terrorist attacks, requiring elite specialized units capable of striking and taking down terrorist groups, Beckwith’s requests finally approved.

The Pentagon and top Army brass tasked Beckwith to head the unit. Beckwith and others wrote up the “Robert Redford Paper,” a document explaining that the selection and training would be broken up into four separate phases. Beckwith told the Army he would need two years to prepare and establish a fully functional and formidable unit.

Delta Force was officially established on November 19, 1977. Yet, to fill the two years’ void until soldiers made it through Delta selection, Beckwith assigned Colonel Bob “Black Gloves” Mountel of the 5th Special Forces Group to stand up a temporary unit. In 1978, Mountel pulled from a group of volunteers and put them through a six-month course involving land navigation and rucking with heavy loads in tough, mountainous environments. The purpose was to test these candidates physically and mentally. Delta Force was fully stood up in the fall of 1979, just in time for the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Delta Force

Delta Force Missions

In the Iran Hostage Crisis, 53 Americans were captured and held in the embassy in Tehran. In April of 1980, Delta Force was tasked with taking over the embassy and rescuing the American hostages. The mission was called Operation Eagle Claw. Unfortunately, the operation was a complete failure. A helicopter crashed during refueling, killing eight people. The mission was littered with mistakes and issues; the assault element never made it to the embassy. The aviation failure was the birth of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a dedicated aviation unit for special operations.

 

In 1993, Delta operators were present at the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, better known as Black Hawk Down, which was a part of Operation Gothic Serpent. During this operation, Delta Force operators, Army Rangers, and other special operations units found themselves engaged in an extensive firefight after two Black Hawks were shot down during a mission to capture high level targets. During the fighting, five Delta Force operators were killed. Two of them, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, were killed while securing a Black Hawk crash site. They were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Kicking off the war in Afghanistan, Delta operators were some of the first boots on the ground. Working under JSOC, Delta Force was attached to Task Force Sword, a secretive unit that was assigned to take down high level al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. Another portion of Delta operators worked as special reconnaissance teams. Two to three man teams would go deep behind enemy lines, setting up observation posts and gathering intelligence, to support Task Force Sword. Delta would go on to be involved in many high-profile operations and dangerous missions in Afghanistan.

Delta saw major action in Iraq. They were the first to enter western Iraq and were pivotal in taking down the Haditha Dam. They participated in both battles in Fallujah and Ramadi. Later, in 2008, they participated in the Abu Kamal raid. Delta made huge sacrifices in Iraq. By 2009, the casualty rate for the Delta command was 20 percent and 50 percent of the operators that went to Iraq received a Purple Heart.

In January of 2016, Delta operators participated in Operation Black Swan, where after a firefight in Los Michos, Sinaloa, Mexico, they captured “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Cartel leader.

More recently, in October 2019, Delta conducted Operation Kayla Mueller, to take down Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Eight helicopters loaded with Delta Force operators and additional support aircraft traveled through Iraqi, Russian, and Turkish airspace to get to their target in Syria. Upon arrival, they gave Baghdadi the option to surrender, which he did not do. With that, Delta breached the compound wall. Baghdadi fled down a tunnel and detonated a suicide vest, killing himself, two of his children, and injuring two Delta operators and a military working dog.