How Delta Force Works

millitary force
Most elite tactical combat group, the Delta Force. Michael Sugrue / Getty Images

Consider a special operations force that's trained to the highest level in the United States military. The force is armed with cutting-edge weaponry, well-funded and answers only to one man. 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? Does such a force make the United States safer or more vulnerable? It's questions like these that swirl around the United States' most elite tactical combat group, the Delta Force.

Delta Force is often referred to as Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. It's also known as the Combat Applications Group (CAG). While it often draws its ranks from the Army Special Forces (the Army Green Berets) and shares Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters with them, it isn't an Army Special Forces detachment. Delta Force is a unit unto itself, composed of members from all branches of the military.


They're not called soldiers, but operators and are said to shun the traditional philosophies of military life. They wear civilian clothes. They work for whomever needs them -- for the Army, the FBI and the CIA. Mark Bowden, author of the book "Blackhawk Down" -- for which he interviewed several Delta Force members -- famously said of the operators, "They are professional soldiers who hate the Army" [source:].

It must be said that neither the United States government nor the military officially acknowledges the existence of Delta Force. To this end, almost all of the information contained in this article is unsupported by any official reports from the United States. 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 [source: SOC].

But the group has been criticized for undertaking missions that are on the fringe of regular laws governing the military. This causes some to worry that Delta Force has more power and less accountability than any military organization in a free democracy should. 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.

In the next section, we'll look at how the Delta Force is structured.


Delta Force Origin, Recruitment and Structure

The Delta Force was created to combat increasing hostage­ situations, like this hijacking of a TWA flight in 1985.
Photo Nabil Ismail/AFP/ Getty Images

The Delta Force is one of two military outfits in the United States 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.

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, United States 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 [source: SOC].


In 1977, Beckwith assembled the force and recruited 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 in an exchange program with the SAS and was inspired by his experience [source: SOC]. He used the group as a model, and 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.

Delta Force recruits are selected based on the special skills they possess, like exceptional marksmanship. 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 to that point. 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 training process, which is believed to last six months.

Delta Force is separated into three combat squadrons -- A, B and C -- along with a support squadron, signal squadron, aviation platoon and a "funny platoon" -- the intelligence-gathering outfit of the Delta Force, rumored to be the only special operations platoon to include women.

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 be split into small mission teams of up to 12 men and as few as one.

Coming from military backgrounds, recruits are already trained to kill, but as Delta Force operators, they become trained killers. As counterterrorist operatives, Delta Force members are trained in the art of hostage rescue in closed spaces. When they rescue hostages, the hostage-takers are rarely left alive. It was Beckwith who mandated the simple two-tap method of dealing with terrorists -- two shots go into each terrorist [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.

Read on to learn about the equipment Delta Force uses and how it gets from place to place.


Delta Force Arsenal

Delta Force is reputed to favor arms manufactured by Heckler and Koch, like the MP5, shown above.
Photo Ross Land/Getty Images

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. The force is believed to favor submachine guns made by Heckler and Koch, the German arms manufacturer. Specifically, the group is thought to prize the H&K M4 and MP5 as light weapons, along with the company's PSG1 7.62mm sniper rifle [source: Forces-Speciales]. They've also been known to use American manufacturer Browning's M82A1 .50-caliber sniper rifle for long-range targets up to 1,750 yards [source: Tekawiz].


Delta Force is believed to have worked directly with Heckler and Koch to develop the new 416 model, a carbine that fires 5.56mm rounds, as a replacement for the M4. 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 United States government, military or federal agencies have no official involvement, the Delta Force aviation platoon serves the battle squadrons well. Operators invading in civilian clothes, 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 Blackhawk 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. They pride themselves on being able to get to any destination within plus or minus 30 seconds of their stated time frame.

In the next section, we'll learn about the circumstances under which the Delta Force come face-to-face with their targets.



Delta Force Operations and Assignments

An American hostage is shown at the United States embassy in Tehran.
Photo MPI/Getty Images

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. The objective of the operation, 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.

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. This wasn't the last time they were called out to handle a hostage situation on an airliner. In other similar scenarios, including hijacked airliners in Algiers, Kuwait, and Cyprus, the Delta Force found themselves blocked from carrying out operations by local authorities [source: SOC].


Being activated -- only to find upon arrival that it wasn't needed or wanted -- would prove to be a pattern for Delta Force. In the early 1980s, for example, Delta Force was tapped to carry out operations to rescue American POWs in Vietnam. Each mission was scrapped, however, after a private American citizen staged his own publicized missions [source: SOC].

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].

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

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]. Members also served as bodyguards for General Norman Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm in Iraq [source: SpecWarNet]. Serving as bodyguards is a role Delta Force apparently continues today, as photos of reported Delta Force operators guarding Afghani president Hamid Karzai have emerged.

Delta Force operators have been involved in missions that required other skill sets. Members of the group infiltrated Libya in 1984, installing surveillance equipment that allowed the United States to keep tabs on militant training camps. From Libya, Delta is said to have made its way to Chad, an African nation friendly to the United States. There, operators trained the Chad military in the use of Stinger missiles and other high-tech weapons supplied by the United States, which was used by Chad to fire on Libyan planes [source: SOC]. A decade later, Delta Force took part in the extensive hunts for Serbian war criminals [source: U.S. News and World Report].

Some of the Delta Force's operations occur within the United States, something that makes the group unique. In the next section, we'll learn about the Delta Force's domestic operations.


The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878

The Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, after a siege by federal agents.
Photo Shelly Katz/Getty Images

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 United States 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 United States, 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, 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, Wa., 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.

There are claims, however, that there were far more Delta Force operators at the standoff in Waco than just three. Some speculate as many as 20 Delta Force members were there and that they took part in both the planning and the execution of the siege that later took place, leaving 80 Branch Davidian men, women and children dead. Reports of Delta Force involvement come from anonymous sources, however, and the U.S. government denies these claims.

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.

But this isn't necessarily the extent of Delta Force's domestic missions. In the next section, we'll look at some shady operations -- in which some claim Delta Force took part -- that test the limits of legality, and in some cases, go beyond it. ­


Delta Force Scandals, Speculations and Rumors

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

There is no lack of people who try to track and document Delta Force's activities. There are blogs, organizations and Web sites 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.

This seems to be the case in Kingsville, Texas. Allegedly, late one night in 1999, the town was besieged by low-flying, black helicopters, which inserted a small group of Delta Force operators onto the ground. These operators stormed two unoccupied buildings, using live ammunition and burning the buildings with detonated grenades before they were exfiltrated -- removed from the scene -- by the helicopters. This live-fire exercise was codenamed Operation Last Dance [source: World Daily Net].


A Web site called World Net Daily claims that United States Army officials later said that this group had grown bored of training on base and had opted to carry out training in real, populated American towns. The local newspapers wrote extensively on the staged attack exercise and Houston radio broadcaster Alex Jones gathered clippings of these articles.

But a search of the digital archives of the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and the Kingsville Record reveals just one reference to the alleged event. In an article entitled, "Exxon Building For Sale?" the last use of the building is mentioned as being a training exercise ground for a special operations force. You can view that article here, but don't be surprised if the link is broken or it has changed. This is most often the case when it comes to links leading to articles on operations that may have been carried out by the Delta Force.

Some allegations have more support from the media. 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: MSNBC]. 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 "Blackhawk 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 counterdrug squad, the "Search Bloc." It was the Search Bloc, says the Columbian government, that fired the shots that killed Escobar [source: Diaz-Granados].

For lots more information, including links, continue to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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  • Copeland, Larry. "Cubans repelled in move to expand control of Pen; no reports of major violence." The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. November 26, 1987.
  • Diaz-Granados, Alex. "Killing Pablo Chronicles the Hunt for Pablo Escobar, 'World's Greatest Outlaw.'" Associated Content. January 27, 2006. _the_hunt_for.htm?page=2
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