SEASPRAY: Clandestine Air Operations and Covert Activity


    SEASPRAY was a covert air unit and collaborative effort between the CIA and US Army, which began in 1981 and was later absorbed by Delta Force.

    It is very likely that anyone reading this has never heard of the term SEASPRAY. This is for good reason, as the United States government has spent the last four decades and great effort to cast a murky shadow over the program. SEASPRAY was a joint effort to provide the US Army with clandestine air power and serve the adjacent goals of the CIA.

    A grossly inaccurate pop culture representation of these phenomena forms our modern conception of black operations, black helicopters, black sites and plausibly deniable operators. Yet beyond the Tom Clancy novels, Modern Warfare video games, Bond movies, etcetera, there is an actual world of shadow covert activity. SEASPRAY, as we can tell from open sources, fits the bill perfectly.

    1. So What?

    The point of congressional oversight in the United States is to hold military and executive power accountable to the popular will of the electorate. Without public accountability, respect for the Rule of Law suffers enormously. This distinctly American sense of public sovereignty poses a difficult dilemma for the practitioners of covert action. Naturally, there are certain elements of a nation’s covert capabilities which should never be made public. Additionally, it is, in fact, in the public’s own interest that the government does not reveal these things.

    However, we should place other elements under the scrutiny of public oversight. Without the benefit of public scrutiny, the temptation to cut corners, act recklessly or commit downright illegalities is far too great. This, in turn, could place the national security of a nation in jeopardy, rather than protect it.

    As we will examine in the following pieces of evidence, the history of SEASPRAY and its evolution into Delta Force left a lot to be desired in the way of consensus and accountability. The American public would have benefited from the knowledge of the US Army’s covert activity and the CIA’s role in those activities. This is particularly relevant during election years when foreign policy issues exist in the election cycle.

    2. Historical Background

    Unravelling the history and piecing together the saga of SEASPRAY is a complex and nearly impossible task. It exists in a miasma of murk, shadow, misinformation, myth and deliberate non-disclosure. To complicate matters, very few credible journalists or researchers have ever bothered to approach the subject. Perhaps it is far too niche to capture wider attention. Perhaps the lack of records is a daunting obstacle for anyone who wants to outline a brief sketch of the program. In any event, open sources paint a picture of ingenuity, conviction in public service, personal sacrifice and professional capability worth admiring. They also paint a picture of evasive practices designed to avoid public scrutiny and congressional oversight.

    2.1 Failure over Iran

    No one truly knows the exact origin of SEASPRAY in the sense of the granule details. As far as the public records show, the concept of SEASPRAY exuded out of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. On 1 February 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini landed at Tehran International Airport in a chartered Air France Boeing 747. Millions of Iranians turned out to greet him. So thick were the throngs of adoring supporters. They forced him to take a helicopter to an awaiting vehicle. And so, the Ayatollah’s return to Tehran marked a major turning point in the Iranian Revolution. Massive crowds underscored the outpouring of human emotion. This outpouring proceeded with the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty and the collapse of the provisional government.

    A good indication that US diplomatic assets are in danger is when angry mobs begin to burn US flags (via

    In the mire of this historical moment, drastic, desperate passions captured the collective minds of the Iranian public. Caught in the middle of this exultation of nationalist fervour was the American diplomatic staff under siege at the US Embassy in Tehran. From February onwards, this fever of nationalism only grew to violent levels of expression. On 4 November, a group of militants from the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line stormed the US Embassy. In the end of the ordeal, they took 52 American citizens hostage [source].

    2.1.1 American Response to the Hostage Crisis

    President Jimmy Carter, urged on by then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, began to develop an appropriate and commensurate response. Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance clashed over the operation, with Brzezinski advocating for his trademark hawkish, militaristic approach. Vance urged the President to consider other avenues. With the input of the US Armed Forces, President Carter settled on an audacious plan to rescue the hostages. Operation Eagle Claw was to be one of the very first missions of Delta Force. The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment had only just been cleared for active duty one year prior in 1979. It was still a relative newcomer on the scene of the special operation and was first and foremost a counter-terror unit [source].

    From the collection of Farawayman, who has skillfully made this map (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

    2.1.2 The Failures of Eagle Claw

    Operation Eagle Claw was an unmitigated disaster. Delta Force was just lucky enough to survive the chaos without casualties. However, US air assets did not enjoy the same good fortune. The mission began to disintegrate at the staging ground in the Karakal Desert near Yazd, some 200 miles from Tehran. The following is a sequence of events which culminated in the failure of Eagle Claw:

    • On April 23th, 1980 Maj. Gen. James Vaught, based at a Russian-built airbase in Wadi Qena, Egypt, radioed a message to all of the operation’s various units: “Execute mission as planned. Godspeed” [source].
    • In the early morning hours of the 24th, an MC-130 Combat Talon carrying a 132-strong detachment of Delta Force, Army Rangers and a USAF combat controller team departed from Masirah Island in Oman towards Desert One. At the same time, RH-53D Sea Stallions lifted off from the USS Nimitz towards the Iranian coastline, carrying the remaining Delta operators [source].
    • In order to refuel, the Sea Stallions would rendezvous with the EC-130 Hercules aircraft. The MC-130 ran into a thick cloud of sand and dust known locally as a ‘haboob’. The aircraft powered through, but the Sea Stallion formation, under callsign Bluebird, was not so lucky [source].
    • Aboard Bluebird 6, a Blade Inspection Method, or BIM, warning light came on. This was likely caused by the dust cloud. Earlier on, they swapped Navy pilots out for Marine Corps pilots who were better trained in land assault landings. Marine pilots trained on H-53s and grew accustomed to landing immediately when such a warning light came on. The pilots and occupants landed and another helicopter in the formation would extract [source].
    Which leads to tragedy…
    • About an hour later, Lt. Cmdr. Rodney Davis, piloting Bluebird 5, turned back after becoming disorientated in the sandstorm. The sand resulted in several electrical failures, which took out his cockpit instrumentation. As a result, he became so disorientated that he began to have vertigo. Despite being 25 minutes away from clear weather, the strict radio silence order prevented the other air assets from communicating that fact to him [source].
    • Despite enormous delays and difficulties, the remaining aircraft made it to Desert One. However, Bluebird 2 encountered a failure of the secondary hydraulic system. The helicopter could not fly. And, without a minimum of six helicopters, and they forced the mission to abort [source].
    • As the operation’s force attempted to depart, one helicopter was blocking the path of one of the C-130’s. The helicopter’s landing gear was flat, so taxing was not an option. Maj. James Schaefer attempted to lift the helicopter off the ground in order to re-position it. The rotor wash kicked up sand into the hydraulic system. The helicopter slid off to the side uncontrollably and sliced through a C-130, leaving at least 8 members of the aircrew dead [source].
    The MC-130E Combat Talon II (USAF)

    2.1.3 Lasting Consequences of Eagle Claw

    The remaining soldiers and aircrew evacuated on the available aircraft. According to subsequent investigations and with the input of eyewitness testimony, the operation would have succeeded if there were more available helicopters piloted by more qualified Air Force pilots. That the command-and-control structure was “ad-hoc” and confusing also contributed heavily to the failure of the mission. The operation failed not because of the incompetence of the Delta Force operators, but the failure of air assets to complete their assigned tasks.

    One of the major recommendations of the report was to create a special, dedicated command to handle such complex and difficult missions. In 1986, the Special Operations Command came into being. But more crucially, the failure of Eagle Claw demonstrated that a dedicated, professional team of aviators is essential to the execution of covert operations.

    2.2 Early Origins: 1980 – 1981

    In September of 1980, Brigadier General Dick Scholtes received a call from the 82nd Airborne Division’s division commander for operations, Major General Guy Meloy. Scholtes was told to expect a call from the “chief of staff”. Scholtes assumed that Meloy was referring to the 82nd’s Chief of Staff. When he picked up the phone, he was surprised to find that the individual on the other end was not the Colonel who held that role in the 82nd. He was speaking to none other than the Army Chief of Staff, General Edward Charles “Shy” Meyer. Meyer was brief and cryptic. From Sean Naylor’s Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command |

    “Dick, I want you to know you’re leaving the division,” Meyer said. “You’re going to be leaving it very shortly. I need you to come to Washington Thursday. I can’t talk to you anymore about what’s going to happen but I’ll tell you all about it when you get up here Thursday.”

    Scholtes attended a late-night meeting at the Pentagon with about 30 other high-ranking military officers. They proceeded to give him an unprompted series of briefings on conducting a second attempt at rescuing the American hostages in Iran. Scholtes later called the ideas presented at the meeting “bizarre and outlandish” [source]. But Scholtes was far more interested in why he was even at this meeting. He was, after all, the assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne, a job which the Army’s Chief of Staff had only just suddenly pulled out from under his feet.

    Richard Scholtes

    2.2.1 New Names for All

    It seems as if the officers in the briefing room had jumped ahead before the Secretary of Defense could properly acclimatize him to his new job [source]. Scholtes was informed the following day why he had been pulled from Fort Bragg and given this unprompted series of briefings. He was told that he would be heading up a new operation to rescue the hostages to be conducted no later than 31 October and that he would be given charge of the new command. He would be reporting directly to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Initially, the new organization was known internally as the Counterterrorist Joint Task Force [source].

    This unofficial name was soon abandoned when Scholtes began polling the new staff of the command for a name which would better serve the purpose of the command’s intended breadth of operations. Major Logan Fitch, one of Scholtes assistants assigned to him from Delta Force, put it rather succinctly: “Why don’t we call it ‘Joint Special Operations Command,’ because it’s joint and it’s special operations?” [source]. After some bureaucratic haggling with the Pentagon, the command’s new headquarters at Fort Bragg soon became known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.

    2.3 SEASPRAY is Born

    Despite its high ambitions for itself, JSOC very quickly found itself seriously lacking rotor wing capabilities. In order to correct the failures of Desert One, the 101st Airborne Division’s 158th and 159th Aviation Battalions formed Task Force 158 to train aircrews on the new UH-60A Black Hawk. But these new helicopters still lacked the necessary manoeuvrability to navigate the congested and enclosed urban environment of Tehran. Maj. Gen. James Vaught immediately noticed this shortcoming. The Hughes OH-6 Cayuse was the perfect platform for this type of mission. Yet, the OH-6 lacked space for weapons and passengers, so TF 158 modified the Cayuse to carry operators on small, side-borne platforms. They also were able to fix weapons and countermeasures onto the helicopters. Designated as the MH-6 and the AH-6, TF 158 created the “Little Bird” to meet these mission requirements [source].

    In another major milestone in the saga of SEASPRAY, the US Army established the Field Operations Group in July of 1980. With only 50 operators at its disposal, the purpose of the FOG was to conduct covert operations in foreign nations and sabotage key pieces of military infrastructure. In the following months, FOG would manage to insert intelligence operatives into Iran to conduct surveillance and recruit agents [source].

    On 3 March, 1981, the Intelligence Support Activity was officially established in Arlington, Virginia. General Meyer had directed the staff of the FOG to simply change its name to better reflect the intended purpose of the organization. The previous day, the CIA and the Army quietly birthed SEASPRAY. According to Sean Naylor:

    “[Because] JSOC was considered a purely tactical counterterrorist organization and ISA was to have wide-ranging national-level clandestine intelligence-gathering missions, the Pentagon did not place “the Activity,” as it became known, under Scholtes’s command”.

    2.4 A Match Made in Heaven

    The CIA approached the US Army in 1981 with a very specific goal in mind. The failure of Eagle Claw led to a growing sense of hostility between the Agency and the Pentagon. The CIA conducted a single reconnaissance overflight of Desert One prior to the operation. It is not immediately clear that Eagle Claw was the result of an intelligence failure. Even if the CIA had conducted a more throughout reconnaissance of the staging area, the dust storm would have still posed a major issue. The US Air Force was actually aware of the recurring dust storms but never briefed the pilots on the complications which could arise from flying the helicopters into the sand. Stated otherwise, it was a department of the Pentagon which dropped the proverbial ball [source].

    A typical Haboob pictured in Ransom Canyon in Texas, 2009

    In any case, despite who was at fault, the marriage between the CIA and the Army would work to bury that bad blood. More importantly, the US Army was in desperate need of a workaround to the technicalities of President Ford’s recent covert operation reforms. In February 1976, Ford issued Executive Order 11905, which prohibited assassinations by any employee of the US government [source].

    This began a wave of reforms targeting the Intelligence Community. Under Executive Order 12333 and the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act, the CIA has a virtual monopoly on covert operations. President Carter further implemented Executive Order 12036, which ultimately designated the CIA as the only federal agency allowed to carry out covert activity [source]. In other words, a clandestine US Army unit which conducts covert operations is contravening several acts of Congress, at least 3 executive orders, not to mention the architecture of administrative oversight which Congress built around the CIA.

    2.4.1 Mutual Benefit and Assistance

    The US Army could field a covert operations unit, equipped with the most advanced and capable technology and weapons. By joining hands with the CIA, the unit existed in the air of legality. The CIA could also provide civilian aircraft and heavily modified military helicopters, piloted by the best airmen the Army offered. They purchased and managed these air assets through a CIA front company, Aviation Tech Services. This way, they would not appear on any official US Government register and remain hidden from the prying eyes of Capitol Hill.

    The Army would provide military-grade assistance to covert intelligence activities. There isn’t much point in speculating which agency was the junior partner in this arrangement because both the CIA and the Army gained enormously from working together. It was, in other words, a match made in heaven.

    2.5 SEASPRAY from 1981-1985

    SEASPRAY was in reality the secret back end of Task Force 160 aka 160th SOAR, the successor force of Task Force 158 [source]. TF 160 was exclusively a military unit. SEASPRAY would be responsible for providing clandestine air service to CIA intelligence operatives [source]. For good measure, they gave SEASPRAY a military cover name: 1st Rotary Wing Test Activity. The unit would grow to work closely with Delta Force and become an integral component of Delta’s capabilities.

    The very first real test of SEASPRAY’s capabilities came in April of 1981. Lebanese Christian leader Bachir Gemayel departed Lebanon for the first leg of his trip to the United States. They flew him on a SEASPRAY helicopter to Cairo, and from there to Washington [source]. Gemayel was in Washington to garner US support for his plan to unify the disparate factions of Lebanon, in an arrangement agreeable to Tel Aviv [source]. This was but a minor episode in the history of SEASPRAY, but the very first publicly known operation of the fledging unit.

    2.5.1 South America

    South America acted as SEASPRAY’s training and proving ground through most of 1982-1985. The Army selected 10 pilots out of a candidate pool of 4,000 [source]. These pilots could prove themselves and run through best practices over the jungles of Honduras when the Army was called in to perform SIGINT overflights [source]. SEASPRAY rapidly came into possession of a fleet of civilian “sheep-dipped” aircraft registered to CIA front companies. SEASPRAY had access to at least 9 Cessna and Beechcraft King aeroplanes and the civilian version of the Little Bird, the Hughes MD500 [source].

    According to Willian LeoGrande, the Army could decline participation in at least several questionable activities. The Army apparently refused to allow any SEASPRAY units to be used to traffic weapons between Nicaragua and El Salvador [source]. Most of SEASPRAY’s other activities in this period are subject to rumour, speculation or distortions, but from what we can gather from public information, SEASPRAY was really the elite, highly competent, air arm of US covert operations. Command deployed SEASPRAY units across a large range of environments. For example, when a pair of Lebanese terrorists commandeered Trans World Airlines Flight 847 in 1985, they deployed SEASPRAY helicopters to the region [source].

    3. SEASPRAY Becomes ‘E Squadron’

    In 1989, they attached SEASPRAY to Delta Force. The unit became known as the Echo Squadron of Delta Force, and although it was not a fully integrated component of the US Army’s special forces unit, the CIA would still have a place in the Byzantine arrangement of covert aviation. TF 160 still worked intimately with the much smaller E Squadron [source]. Echo’s new headquarters was in fact located remarkably close to the CIA’s training centre. Echo Squadron would be able to demonstrate its independence over the skies of Bosnia throughout the early 1990s. With only 15 pilots at its disposal, Echo was tenacious as much as it was small [source].

    3.1 Pioneering New Techniques

    JSOC used Echo Squadron to pioneer the use of a new key piece in the ISR arsenal of the US Military, the Wescam ball. This ball was a camera mounted under the nose of an aircraft or helicopter, and using a gyroscope, could provide real-time stable footage to special forces ground units. Echo Squadron used specially designed aircraft which could cut their engines and glide for an extended period while transmitting this date to troops. In the Wescam ball, they mounted the first of the now widely used FLIR cameras. These new ISR techniques predated the widespread use of Predator drones for the same purpose [source].

    3.2 Purpose, Mission and Tactics

    The unit broadly categorised its original mission into three primary concerns: “Sensor, Shooter and Transport”. The transport part of the mission did not last for very long, as the ISA took over responsibility for that end of the operations in 1987. But signals intelligence and covert attack helicopters would remain to become the mainstay of Echo [source]. Echo Squadron forged a path forward to build the US government’s covert air capabilities.

    • Echo Squadron trained its elite pilots on non-US aircraft to deepen the technical know-how and experience of the already experienced aircrews. In particular, they trained crews on Russian rotor wing aircraft such as the Mi-8s and Mi-17s. By using old Soviet aircraft, Echo crews were able to insert teams into parts of the world where these types of aircraft are more common and less likely to draw unwanted attention [source].
    • The Delta operators used US Embassy covers and ‘diplomatic packages’ to covertly ship so-called ‘sensor and shooter packages’ to aircrews which would then convert civilian aircraft into remote, unassuming hangars [source].
    • Echo came across their aircraft by purchasing civilian aircraft and heavily modifying them. At least several helicopters and aircraft were actually stolen [source].
    • Echo used official cover stories and US diplomatic missions abroad to conduct semi-official missions for US Embassies. It used publicly acknowledged military missions to support State Department personnel to create a pretext for why US Army units would be present in that area of the world.

    4. Later Developments and Summation Key Findings

    We can consider SEASPRAY the birth of the US Military’s modern covert air capabilities. The unit played an integral role in the story of how special operations developed and matured into the 21st century. In the last 10 to 15 years, government secrecy has been an episodic topic of debate. Often, leaked government secrets can prove rather embarrassing for the incumbent administration, as Edward Snowden’s current residence in Russia clearly shows. Yet covert operations are nothing new. Most states have developed similar practices which are implemented for their own intelligence purposes.

    In December 2001, Russian security forces detained and arrested representatives of Maverick Aviation. Moscow accused the men of attempting to organise the acquisition of Mi-17 helicopters for the CIA and the Flight Concepts division, a successor entity of SEAPSRAY itself [source]. The US Government later sued Maverick over the failure of the deal and alleged fraud. The effort to cloak American air assets in an air of covert deniability is still an ongoing mission of the agency [source].

    To the best of our knowledge, the CIA operated a fleet of Soviet-made Mi-17 throughout the Afghan War [source]. This modified Mi-17, fitted with satellite communications gear and marked with a US Civil Registration Code of N353MA, is being used to evacuate wounded Northern Alliance fighters in 2001. If one was to look this registration code up in the FAA registry, no results appear [source].

    The tightly guarded nature of the unit means that it is impossible to really assess the effectiveness and track record of SEASPRAY. Across the scant breath of its existence, we can only draw a series of terse conclusions:

    4.1 Summation of Key Findings

    • The modern framework of US Special Operations originated from the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, which generated a sense of operational inadequacy by US military planners.
    • The causes of the failure of Eagle Claw might have been mitigated or altogether avoided with better training, cooperation, communication and experience. The lack of coordinated command to orchestrate the various service branch elements of the operation further contributed to these issues.
    • SEASPRAY as a unit was beneficial to both the US Army and the CIA. Elements of the unit later became an integral component of Delta Force.
    • They made SEASPRAY possible through questionable legal practices which circumvented executive orders issued by several US Presidents and acts of Congress.
    Alec Smith
    Alec Smith
    Alec Smith is a graduate of the MSC International Relations program of the University of Aberdeen and holds an LLB in Global Law from Tilburg University. He works in the private sector in field investigations and security.

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