Why Nothing Can Stop the Delta Force

Joseph Trevithick

Key point: America has put these well-trained forces to use around the world.

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.

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.

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