Nowadays, the US special-operations community is a behemoth, with over 70,000 special operators, enablers, and support troops assigned to it.
It is composed of many units, some more known than others. Everyone and their mother have heard about the Navy SEALs, but few know about Air Force Combat Controllers or Army Civil Affairs troops.
Since the 1980s, all these units have roughly fallen under the same organization: US Special Operations Command. SOCOM is composed of five component commands, all but one of them with a service affiliation — such as Naval Special Warfare Command or Air Force Special Operations Command.
The only SOCOM component command without a service affiliation is joint — meaning that it includes units from across the services — and is the most secretive one.
Joint Special Operations Command is America’s 9-11 force. Its four Tier 1 special mission units are the cream of the crop in the US special-operations community and are the first ones to get the call for a mission.
JSOC regularly changes the names of these units and keeps other details secret for operational security, meaning information about them is often outdated by the time it reaches the public, but here is a brief, open-source breakdown of what’s known about the four units, how they operate, and what missions they’ve done.
The Army’s Delta Force
Founded in 1977 by Charlie Beckwith, an enterprising Green Beret officer, Delta Force is the Army’s dedicated counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and direct-action special missions unit.
Delta Force has participated in almost every major and minor conflict since it was created, including Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Somalia in 1993, and, in recent years, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Some notable operations include the failed rescue of American hostages held in Tehran in 1980, the rescue of Kurt Muse from Modello Prison in Panama in 1989, the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in 1993, and the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.
The “Unit,” as Delta Force is nicknamed, was also pivotal in the industrial-scale counterterrorism campaign that dismantled Al Qaeda in Iraq during the counterinsurgency campaign there in the mid-2000s.
Delta Force is open to every member of the armed forces, including National Guard and Reserves troops. However, Delta operators tend to come from the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, which has a reputation as a feeder unit for Delta, and the Army Special Forces Regiment, nicknamed the “Green Berets.”
The Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group
The Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) — formerly known as SEAL Team 6 — is the Navy’s dedicated counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and direct-action special missions unit.
Created in 1980 by Dick Marcinko, a visionary and rule-bending Navy SEAL officer, DEVGRU has had a mixed record.
The unit is most well known for Operation Neptune Spear, the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in Pakistan in 2011. DEVGRU has participated in many more operations, including the recent rescue of an American citizen held hostage in Nigeria.
What makes DEVGRU different from Delta Force is that it recruits solely from within the Naval Special Warfare community, meaning that only Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft crewmen can join the unit.
The Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron
On paper, the 24th Special Tactics Squadron is just another special-operations squadron — there is also a 22nd and a 23rd Special Tactics Squadron.
In reality, the unit is the Air Force special-operations community’s elite, recruiting its special operators from the other non-tier-1, or “vanilla,” special tactics squadrons.
The unit is composed of Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen, Special Reconnaissance (formerly Special Operations Weather Technicians) operators, and Tactical Air Control Party commandos.
To enter one of these special-operations career fields, one has to pass a grueling selection and training process that takes up to two years. Then, after serving a number of years in a “vanilla” special tactics squadron, one has to pass another selection for the 24th.
The main difference from the rest of special mission units is that the 24th Special Tactics Squadron rarely, if ever, operates on its own. Rather, its special operators are attached to other JSOC units.
For example, during the Battle of the Black Sea in Somalia in 1993 — known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident — a small team of 24th Special Tactics Squadron Pararescuemen and Combat Controllers were attached to and fought alongside the Delta Force squadron involved in the operation.
The Army’s Intelligence Support Activity
The most secretive unit out of the four, the Intelligence Support Activity was created after the failed Iranian embassy hostage rescue operation in 1980 to provide the then-nascent SOCOM and the wider US military with credible, timely, and actionable human and signals intelligence.
The unit recruits from across the services and has a strategic rather than tactical mission, tasked with informing the decisions of policymakers and senior military and interagency officials. Many of the unit’s operations and activities are classified.
By Stavros Atlamazoglou
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
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