The geopolitical transformation of warfare demanded an entirely new doctrine of war. Beginning during the Cold War, the rise of militant non-state actors and proxy wars established a need for a new set of unconventional forces. A force that was small, agile, and adaptable. In the 1980s the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was created to unify these units tasked with America’s toughest missions. As America continues to expand and grow the scope of its special operations forces, so too does the command element of such forces.
During the second world war, the United States first began to field unconventional forces tasked with special operations. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, recruited men and women from the Army to act as commandos. These teams of paramilitary commandos known as Jedburgh Teams would parachute deep behind enemy lines to conduct sabotage operations. The Jedburgh Teams was the US’s first modern foray into unconventional warfare and laid the groundwork for future special operations forces. The lineage of the OSS can be seen today in the spearhead iconography of SOCOM’s unit patch, a direct homage to the OSS’s crest.
2.1. Unconventional Units
While most unconventional units were stood down at the end of the war, the geopolitical transformation kicked off by the Cold War demanded an entirely new doctrine of war. The rise of militant non-state actors and proxy wars established a need for a new set of unconventional forces. In 1952 the US Army formally established the Special Forces aka the Green Berets. After close to a decade of attempts from the big Army to squash the Green Berets, John F. Kennedy’s advocacy for the unit permanently established the first group of unconventional warfighters.
At the same time, other elements of the US military were beginning to establish their own unconventional forces capable of conducting difficult missions deep behind enemy lines. By the mid-60s the Navy had established the SEAL teams. These teams of special operations forces would prove their worth through intense combat during the Vietnam War. When the war ended the special operations groups remained and would continue to conduct operations across the globe.
2.2. A New Type of Unit
Despite the establishment of these special operations groups, there was still a growing need for more elite forces. Colonel Charlie Beckwith was a Green Beret and had fought alongside the SAS in Vietnam. He was one of the first people to recognize the need for an even more elite unit that could conduct operations against enemies that didn’t wear uniforms and counter-terrorism missions.
After years of advocating, Beckwith was able to establish the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta aka Delta Force. By the late 1970s, terrorism was on the rise and Beckwith was ready to answer the call with his new unit. In April of 1980 Delta Force got their first real mission: conduct a covert action mission to infiltrate Tehran, Iran and rescue hostages from the American embassy.
2.3. Operation Eagle Claw
The Iran Hostage Crisis, and the subsequent operation to rescue them, would fundamentally change how the US viewed its usage of special operations forces. (Source) The plan was to fly a team of Delta Force operators, a group of Rangers, and bags of fuel via C-130s into a hasty landing zone in the Iranian desert under the cover of darkness. An advanced party of Air Force Combat Controllers would infiltrate first to establish the landing zone. Eight Sea Stallion helicopters followed the C-130s. The plan was to refuel the helicopters from the fuel bags inside the C-130s, and then they would fly the Delta operators closer to Tehran. From there they would covertly enter the capital city, raid the embassy, and extract the hostages back to the C-130s deep in the desert. Unfortunately, The plan would never make it that far.
A combination of intelligence failure, poor contingency planning, and a lack of dedicated units doomed the mission before it started. The C-130s made it to the desert landing site, code named Desert One, without issue. However, an ad hoc group of helicopter pilots was assembled from the best sources available to fly the mission. Unfortunately, these pilots had little experience flying under night vision and subsequently had no standard operating procedure (SOP) when unexpected variables occurred.
2.3.1. Unexpected Variables
There was very little intelligence dissemination across operational elements of the mission. Despite the US having a presence in Iran for close to 40 years, no one in the operation was aware of haboobs. Haboobs are multiple kilometre-wide and long sand storms that are common in the Iranian desert. The C-130s could fly through them without issue. However, the Sea Stallion pilots were unable to see and the helicopters were suffering from overheating. Two of the helicopters had to turn back due to mechanical issues. Some of the pilots chose to land while others pressed on. Ultimately six helicopters made it to Desert One.
On the ground, things weren’t going any better. Upon the arrival of the four C-130s the Rangers onboard immediately got into action. Their primary role was to set up blocking positions along the desert road that passed through Desert One. When an Iranian fuel truck blew through the Ranger’s position, they responded by firing an anti-tank rocket at it. The night sky of the desert was illuminated by a massive fireball. Shockingly the driver of the fuel truck managed to get out and into another passing vehicle. Then a bus full of Iranian civilians showed up at the blocking position. The bus was disabled, the passengers were searched, and subsequently left stranded.
2.3.2. Out of the Frying Pan
Back at the Desert One landing strip things weren’t going smoothly either. There was no real coordination between the Air Force, Marines, or the Army. One of the C-130s had landed significantly further away than it was supposed to, causing delays. Additionally, the last of the six helicopters were 25 minutes late arriving at Desert One. Dawn was quickly approaching. As Delta was getting ready to board the helicopters to fly towards Tehran, the mission was scrapped.
One of the helicopters began having mechanical issues with its hydraulics. The minimum requirement for the mission was six helicopters, now they were down to five. Beckwith scuttled the operation. Delta and the Rangers would load back up into the C-130s and they would fly out of Iran. Once the Desert One operation centre was torn down and all the soldiers were back on board the helicopters would take off and then the C-130s would follow. An Air Force combat controller stayed on the ground directing air traffic of the landing zone and would board the last C-130 out.
2.3.3. Into the Fire
The sand surrounding Desert One was fine and loose. The rotor wash from the helicopters kicked it up into the air causing a brownout. As the combat controller was directing the first of the helicopters of the landing zone, tragedy struck. In the brownout conditions, the only point of reference the pilot could see was the blob that was the combat controller. Due to the heavy rotor wash and sand in the air, the combat controller decided to run to the ramp of the C-130 for shelter.
The pilot had been checking his instruments and realized the blob had moved. Thinking he was simply drifting, he manoeuvred his helicopter back into alignment with the blob who was now standing on the ramp of the C-130. That’s when the helicopter’s rotor clipped the top of the plane. The helicopter began to crash into the ground as its rotors dug into the plane’s cockpit. Petrol from the freshly refuelled helicopter covered the plane and sparks from the rotors hitting the airframe caused it to ignite. It created the second fireball of the night.
Delta and the air crew began to pour out of the C-130 as it was engulfed in flames. The helicopter pilot had regained consciousness, his co-pilot had already bailed out. He freed himself from his burning helicopter but would forever be scarred by severe burns covering his body. Ultimately, eight men died as a result of the crash at Desert One. (Source)
2.4. Creation of JSOC
Operation Eagle Claw was in many ways doomed before it started. There was little to no cross-agency cooperation, both in planning and intelligence sharing. An operation dress rehearsal was proposed but denied due to fear of Soviet satellites. (Source) There was very little intelligence dissemination across operational elements of the mission as seen with the haboobs. Additionally, the operation lacked a distinct command and control element. At each phase of the mission, a new commander took charge. The pilots were in control of the air mission, and Beckwith was in charge of the direct action portion. However, there was no one in control over all elements involved, able to provide concise directions and orders.
Such a critical failure was, like many military failures, an extremely insightful, albeit painful experience. The US has never been opposed to learning from mistakes, and Eagle Claw would result in the formation of many new units, departments and strategies. Such innovations prioritized the creation of special mission units (SMU) that could act as America’s reactive force against non-state actors, terror groups and insurgents. (Source)
Eagle Claw was Delta’s debut mission but despite the mission’s failure the unit remained. Beckwith’s firsthand account of the tragedy made him a staunch advocate for the formation of a new command and control element for these elite SMUs pulled from all branches of the military. On the 15th of December, 1980, only eight months after the catastrophe in the Iranian desert, the Joint Special Operations Command was formed.
2.5. Trouble Integrating
Despite the formal establishment of JSOC, its members were still largely seen as outsiders by the rest of the military. The relaxed grooming standards and unconventional nature of special operations units put them at odds with the tow-the-line mentality of the conventional military. Additionally, the secrecy surrounding JSOC only added to the disdain felt by conventional forces.
By the fall of 1983 JSOC once again had another mission. This time they were spearheading the invasion of Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury. However, JSOC was largely unhappy about this. Their mission was strictly counter-terrorism, but now they were being forced into a role they weren’t equipped for. To make things even worse, most of the conventional forces doing the heavy lifting were completely unaware of JSOC’s presence on the island. While some of JSOC’s missions were successful during Urgent Fury, others were not. SEAL Team 6 along with a few combat controllers were sent to Point Salinas to do some reconnaissance. Unfortunately, a helicopter carrying four SEALs crashed and their bodies were never recovered. The surviving SEALs attempted to complete the mission but their boats flooded while evading an enemy patrol and the mission was aborted. (Source)
2.6. Finding Their Place
Moving forward from the success of Urgent Fury, JSOC began to find its place in the US military. JSOC would see use in Operation Just Cause, Operation Restore Hope, and the Gulf War. Additionally, JSOC’s strictly counterterrorism mission was beginning to evolve. The proliferation of nuclear materials and devices was becoming a growing concern. Radical states and non-state actors could create dirty bombs with relative ease if they had the right material. JSOC had a new mission, to prevent the nuclear disaster.
To combat this new threat JSOC began to have its operators become impromptu nuclear experts. Elements from DEVGRU and Delta would conduct training raids on nuclear sites. Training for the event that terrorists took over a domestic nuclear reactor. Additionally, Delta recruited heavy breaches from the Green Berets. These breaching experts were given tools and training to practice breaching an enemy nuclear facility. They’d practice drilling through meters of earth to gain access to a nuclear facility. However, the concept was largely flawed as most facilities could be breached by having an operator crawl through a ventilation shaft and open the doors from the inside. (Source)
Nevertheless, JSOC was beginning to solidify its purpose within the US military. Conventional units no longer looked down upon the teams of scruffy unconventional operators.
Modern JSOC has expanded its scope since its initial inception. Their initial purpose included overseeing general organization, training, equipping, tasking and operations, as well as covert mission planning and counter-terror operations. (Source) As perceived threats to the US increased, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the need for effective special operations strike capabilities were higher than ever.
Prior to this JSOC had two primary missions:
- 0300 – Counterterrorism
- 0400 – Counter Proliferation
However, the GWOT and the war in Iraq once again tested the limits of JSOC’s capabilities. JSOC essentially led the invasion of Afghanistan for the US military. Special operations forces outside of JSOC, like the Green Berets, were operating in the mountains along with indigenous forces. However, elements in JSOC task forces like the 75th Ranger Regiment and Delta were conducting airfield seizures and hunting down Al-Qaeda targets within the country. Elements from the 160th were setting up forward refuelling points and having Little Birds conduct search and destroy missions along Highway 1. US special operations forces both in and outside of JSOC would experience growth on all levels.
The Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron and the Army’s Intelligence Support Activity would also become critical components of JSOC. The need for more specialized enablers to the primary assault elements of DEVGRU and Delta set the conditions for ISA and the 24th STS to become JSOC elements.
3.1. GWOT JSOC
The contemporary JSOC involves a similar scope as what it was initially, with a few new additions. The study of special operations requirements and techniques, interoperability between SOF groups, equipment standardization and the development of joint special operations tactics are the responsibilities of JSOC. (Source)
The connected nature of each of these responsibilities is key to understanding the overall purpose of JSOC. Having cohesive equipment such as weapons and vehicles means larger joint operations can be planned much easier and in a more tactically consistent fashion. More cohesive design in turn allows for a more reliable standard to study and measure special operations tactics and strategy. This moulds JSOC into a capable, adaptable, and learning command that can respond to America’s increasing reliance on special operations to conduct high-stakes missions.
Planning, learning and adapting strategy is only half of JSOCs activity, with it also taking on the very active role of executing the special operations missions it designs. Its tactical operations were equally important to its development of effective SMUs.
Their tactics reflect the skills of the teams used, with each challenge that JSOC encounters being examined and tasked with the team that has the most relevant application. The success of this mission, alongside many others, is a testament to the operational and tactical skill of JSOC. (Source)
3.2. Core Operations and Activities
- Support to major combat operations & campaigns
- Advanced Force Operations
- Hostage Rescue
- Counter-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction
- HVT kill or capture missions
- Study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability
- Equipment standardization
- Plan and conduct special operations exercises and training
- Develop Joint Special Operations Tactics
JSOC also directly follows the National Strategies, Global Campaign Plans and Theater Plans set about in both US policy and US military strategy. (Source) Additionally, units within JSOC are on a constant rotation for an 18-hour worldwide deployment package. Also known as a JSO Package, the ready squadron for Delta is known as the “Aztec Squadron”, for DEVGRU it is known as the “Trident Squadron”, and for the 160th it is known as the “Bullet Package”. Squadrons alternate being the ready squadron, the purpose of which is to be able to respond to a crisis anywhere in the world within 18 hours of notice. (Source)
4.1. JSOC vs SOCOM
The distinction between these two organizations can be confusing. One is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the other is the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). However, JSOC is a command within SOCOM. SOCOM is a unified combatant command, responsible for all special operations forces across the US military. It can be thought of as the equivalent of AFRICOM or CENTCOM, only rather than a regional-based command it is an operational-based command. Ironically, despite SOCOM being the parent command of JSOC it was formed 7 years after JSOC. Additionally, it controls far more units than JSOC, including special operations forces from the Marine Corps, regular SEAL teams, the Green Berets, and many others.
4.2. Task Force Purple.
The astute observer reading the Gray Dynamics articles on the primary components of JSOC will have noticed that all of the SMUs have a colour-coded task force name. The colour given to JSOC itself was purple. On the surface, this is a colour typically given to military elements composed of multiple branches of the military. However, on a more metaphorical level purple was the colour of royalty and of the Roman emperors who had total control over the legions of the Roman Empire. The JSOC colour codes and known names of its units are as follows:
- Task Force Purple
- Joint Special Operations Command
4.2.1. Special Mission Units
- Task Force Green
- Combat Applications Group (CAG)
- Delta Force
- 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta
- “The Unit”
- Task Force Blue
- Naval Special Warfare Developmental Warfare Group (NSW DEVGRU)
- SEAL Team Six
- Task Force White
- 24th Special Tactics Squadron
- Task Force Brown
- 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (160th SOAR)
- Task Force 160
- “Night Stalkers”
- Task Force Orange
- Intelligence Support Activity (ISA)
- 1st Capabilities Integration Group (1st CIG)
- Joint Reconnaissance Evaluation Group (JREG)
- Mission Support Activity (MSA)
- Office of Military Support (OMS)
- Field Operations Group (FOG)
- Studies and Analysis Activity (SAA)
- Tactical Concept Activity
- Tactical Support Team
- Tactical Coordination Detachment
- “The Activity”
- “The Army of Northern Virginia”
- Task Force Red
- Regimental Reconnaissance Company (RRC)
- Regimental Reconnaissance Detachment (RRD) (1980-2001)
- Also refers to the rest of the 75th Ranger Regiment when attached to a JSOC task force.
4.2.2. Additional JSOC Support Elements
- Joint Communications Unit (JCU): Provides signals support in support of JSOC operations as well as other partner forces.
- Aviation Tactics and Evaluation Group (AVTEG): Studies, analyzes needs and tests new aviation-based technologies for JSOC to use. They tested the stealth Black Hawks used by the 160th to transport DEVGRU on the mission to kill Usama bin Laden.
- 66th Air Operations Squadron (66th AOS): Air Force element that transports JSOC units and equipment via fixed-wing aircraft.
- Technical Applications Program Office (TAPO): Procures new aviation-based technologies for JSOC to test and employ.
- Ground Applications Program Office (GAPO) Procures new technology and equipment for JSOC’s ground-based elements like Delta and DEVGRU.
- JSOC Intelligence Brigade (JIB): Analyzes intelligence collected by elements of JSOC and disseminates it throughout the command. (Source)
5. Notable Operations
There are many operations that JSOC has participated in, as since its inception it has directed and coordinated some of the most secretive special operations missions undertaken by the United States. Some excellent representations of JSOC’s adaptability and multi-unit integration are the numerous task forces established during the Iraq War.
5.1. Task Force 20
In preparation for the invasion of Iraq, JSOC established a new task force similar to the one they had used for the invasion of Afghanistan. This new task force known as TF 20 was composed of multiple squadrons from Delta Force and DEVGRU, the 24th STS, all 3 battalions from 75th Ranger Regiment, a battalion-sized element from the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as armour assets from C Company, 2nd battalion, 70th Armor. This task force was composed of SMUs, special operations forces, and conventional forces. Together TF 20 would conduct deception operations intended to confuse Iraqi forces about the size and location of coalition forces in western Iraq. (Source) More notable actions include:
- Delta marking targets for coalition airstrikes on enemy armour.
- DEVGRU and the 75th raided chemical weapon facilities.
- Delta conducted ambush operations along the Tikrit highway to kill/capture HVTs.
- DEVGRU, Delta, 24th, and the 75th rescued PFC Jessica Lynch from Iraqi forces.
- Delta and the 75th captured Haditha Dam and held it against an Iraqi counterattack for five days.
Task Force 20 conducted hundreds of operations in Iraq. Their actions were crucial to the US’s successful invasion of the country. After the invasion was complete, the Task Force remained active. Alongside elements from the British Special Air Service (SAS), TF 20 was tasked with hunting down HVTs from the Ba’athists party. TF 20 illustrates JSOC’s capabilities and effectiveness regarding not only the integrations of SMUs, SOFs, and continental forces, but also multinational force integration.
5.2. Task Force Black
Task Force Black was the original name given to SAS elements operating in Iraq. However, as the war progressed the task force became closely integrated with JSOC following a restructuring of British special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elements from Delta and the SAS played critical roles in the post-invasion period, landing decisive blows against Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Following the Swords of Righteousness Brigade’s capture of four human rights workers from Christian Peacemaker, TF Black went to work searching for actionable intelligence. The task force conducted raids non-stop, day and night, until they retrieved intelligence that led to the captives’ whereabouts. In total, TF Black conducted close to 50 raids while searching for information.
5.2.1. Stopping the Bombs
In less than five years TF Black killed or captured over 3,500 terrorists operating in the Baghdad area. As a result, bombings in Baghdad dropped from over 150 per month to on average two. (Source) Additionally, after months of near misses, TF Black was able to hunt down and kill Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leader.
Despite Task Force Black being a primarily British-run task force, it helps to solidify the concept of JSOC as a whole. Much of what TF Black was doing in Iraq would not have been possible without JSOC’s support. JSOC is much more than a couple of groups of highly skilled shooters. It is also a collection of thousands of men and women who work behind the scenes in support of these operations. It is a support, research, and integration command as much as it is an operational one.
The Joint Special Operations Command was born out of failure. A failure which serves as a reminder of why its existence is so critical to the US military. JSOC’s original mission was counterterrorism but has evolved over the decades. It serves as an overarching command for the most elite units within the US military. It serves to not only support but also integrate these units, allowing for better cohesion and devastating capabilities on the battlefield. Capable of planning and conducting joint force and multinational operations, JSOC has become an essential tool for the US military. It is capable of being anywhere in the world, ready to fight, in less than 18 hours. With US foreign policy becoming more and more reliant on the use of JSOC’s special mission units, it is doubtful that they will continue to play a large role wherever US interests lie.