Small Wars Journal

How the Rangers Got into SOF - Barely

Mon, 08/13/2018 - 6:24am

How the Rangers Got into SOF - Barely

Part 2 of 3 - TF160/SOAR to Follow

Part 1 - The Birth of the Field Operations Group

Keith Nightingale

Today, the Army Rangers are a key component of the US Special Operations capability.  Their participation in world-wide SOF operations, as portrayed in “Blackhawk Down”, highlights their employment in this role.  It was not always so, and its transition to SOF was bitterly resisted by many within the Army structure.  It was only due to force deficiencies in Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D) during the planning phase of the Iran rescue attempt, that forced their inclusion.  From that, all else has flowed.  Inclusion, now taken for granted, was a hard and bumpy road.

As background, I was brought into the nascent Iran rescue task force on day three of its creation - then only a commander, MG Vaught, and the existing staff of JCS J3 SOD.  As the lowest ranking member, I was the organizational “gopher” and scut laborer.  One of my tasks was to put together the twice daily briefing for the SecDef, Chairman, Chiefs of Staff and other drop in’s such as National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and other Carter staffers.  I evolved into the Deputy Ops officer responsible, inter alia, for Protocol, Budget, Rangers and Army element liaison (read take intel and ideas to SFOD-D).  As a Plankholder in the creation of 1-75th, I was quite familiar with the force, but initially, it was not a player.  This would change.

As the planning matured, it was becoming clear that a significant force would be required to perform all the tasks. To this point, only Delta was assigned and would have to take on all missions.  This was fine with Col Beckwith, the commander, but a source of concern by General Vaught who saw the unit as becoming seriously over-stretched, if not beyond the ability to perform.

The gradually evolving planning scenario ate large bites out of the posited force.  Security forces would be needed at:

  • Desert One (the refuel/helo-fixed wing meeting site) still TBD.
  • Plan B. An airfield seizure at a small remote field identified as an alternate to Desert One.
  • Desert Two. The site for the lift birds after dropping the assault force on Night One prior to the assault on Night Two.
  • The soccer stadium across from the Embassy which was the extraction point.
  • The street access to the Embassy grounds (27 acres)
  • Seizure of the unoccupied extraction airfield and task to destroy the helos prior to fix wing takeoff.

As we began to game actions at each location, we assigned the minimum forces for security, tasks that Delta would have to do in addition to its focused rescue attempt.  In Vaught’s mind, these tasks, if done by Delta, would be a distraction from the key task and probably beyond Delta’s capability in totality. After mulling this over with Col King, the Chief, and myself one afternoon, he decided to address the issue with Col Beckwith.

Using my paper flip charts and magic marker outlines of each objective (listed above), we assigned the best guess number for each station.  These numbers had been previously agreed to by Col Beckwith. The totality exceeded 100-more than half of Delta’s available force.  This was presented to Col Beckwith in the late afternoon with the basic question:  How are you going to do this with available forces?  Might we not be well-served to bring in the Rangers to do this?

Charlie was adamant.  No new forces.  No Rangers. No rubber-neckers.  The discussion became somewhat heated to the point where Beckwith said he would not continue if Rangers were involved.  Vaught adjourned the meeting to his office with himself, Col King and Beckwith.  After less than thirty minutes, Charlie stormed out and returned to Ft Bragg, unmoved in his position.

Vaught then directed that we provide this briefing to Gen Meyer in Vaught’s office the following afternoon.  Gen Vaught laid out the manning issue and Beckwith’s objection.  Meyer asked that Beckwith return to the Pentagon the following morning for a further discussion.  He asked that Vaught attend, and I brief with the charts.

We setup ahead of time in the CSA briefing room and Beckwith came in.  I repeated my discussion, showing the numbers by location.  Meyer asked Beckwith if he agreed to the figures.  Yes.  At the conclusion, he then asked Charlie how he intended to perform the dual tasks of security and rescue.  Charlie simply said he would figure it out.  Meyer then asked Vaught what he thought was the right answer.  Vaught said the Rangers.  Meyer paused and then said he agreed and that the Rangers would be added to the force, size TBD.

He turned to Beckwith, now clutching his brief case and looking down at the floor, if he, Beckwith, would support this and if he, Beckwith, recognized that Vaught was in command and needed his 100% loyalty-Could you do that?  Absolutely.  Not an issue.  Gen Meyer quietly said; “Meeting is over.  Issue resolved.”

A message was sent through FORSCOM from MG Vaught tasking 1-75 to provide one full line company for detached service and to be prepared to provide more as required.  The battalion commander, mindful of the true purpose as he inferred, selected C Company led by Captain Dave Grange.  I flew to Hunter AAF and outlined the task requirements for the company.  This was the beginning of the Ranger participation in SOF.

Col Beckwith, now accepting Ranger inclusion, still insisted on control of the body.  In this, Vaught partially concurred.  Delta, through Major Jesse Johnson of the Support section, would command the Rangers at Desert One and the security force at the embassy/soccer stadium.  Cpt Grange would retain command for pre-launch training and the Ranger force at the extraction airfield.  This was the command arrangement for the raid.

Post-Raid, General Vaught and Col Beckwith both recognized that the emerging force must have an airfield seizure capability.  Beirut was used as the notional model to determine the specific equipment and force requirements.  This was a Joint staff action with 1st SOW, the 1-75th Rangers Bn, TF 160 and SFOD-D.  The general operational model that emerged was:

  • 1st SOW would conduct a NVG landing of the force with MC130’s landing on the same strip on opposing flight paths at 30 second intervals.
  • Rangers would debark and with jeeps and motorcycles and foot infantry, seize and secure the airfield.
  • Rangers would off-load the TF160 Little Birds and put the props into flying condition.
  • Delta would load on the birds and execute the mission.   

This was the first Joint task established for the Rangers.  The capability required a variety of special equipment, NVG’s, vehicle mods and weapons such as the MP5.  It was my task to provide the funds for the force.  Here, the conventional army began to stake a position:

Rangers are Light Infantry, not SOF.  Their inclusion as SOF will violate the Abrams Charter and destroy a key army capability.  The army base will be robbed of high quality NCO’s and officers.

This position was stated in various forms through both messages and meetings.  CG FORSCOM opposed the Ranger direction for other than a temporary requirement.  Many senior officers within the Infantry, LTC’s and up, concurred with FORSCOM and believed it would be impossible to be both Light and SOF.

This was all done during the divisive Services issue of assigning forces to JSOC, and the immediate operational needs that real world issues required.  CG JSOC rightly required a competent Ranger force on a continuous basis and its inclusion into the Joint training programs.  The response scenarios had evolved into a clear four-part base force; 1st SOW, TF 160, Rangers, SFOD-D/Seal 6.

Despite the real-world realities, senior Flags within the Army as well as many mid-grade officers opposed Rangers as a SOF force.  Gen Vaught with Gen Meyer’s concurrence, established a compromise.  With two Ranger battalions, there would be a revolving schedule of JSOC assignments.  Battalions would rotate between SOF training tasks with JSOC at Ft Bragg and elsewhere and standard light infantry tasks at home station.

DAMO-OD would fund Ranger SOF operations.  FORSCOM would fund standard light infantry expenses. ODSO would develop the funding lines.

This meant that each battalion had to have dual arms rooms and motor pools.  In my role as budget officer in ODSO, I developed funding lines for the SOF gear of each battalion.  This included the NVG’s, specialized weapons, vehicles and motorcycles as well as training expenses for real world contingencies.

Even so, this system incurred a lot of grumbling and carping amongst Army officers as detrimental to the purpose of the Ranger battalions. As a Ranger Battalion Commander in the 1980’s, I was often counseled by senior officers both in and out of the chain of command not to forget the conventional roots and to avoid “too much of that SOF stuff.”

Today, the Ranger Regiment is an extraordinarily robust, diverse, proficient instrument of National policy. It enjoys a rightly won credibility as an exceptional fighting force.  What the Rangers have demonstrated, is that for the maneuver elements, Conventional and SOF infantry have few real distinctions even though many believed otherwise.  It is the quality of the individual that makes the difference, not the nature of the task.  This has been a remarkable evolution for the “Finest Light Infantry” to the premier SOF infantry force. 

Every great nation and civilization had an element of unique and virtually unstoppable force that served as the final bedrock for that force.  The Greek force at Thermopylae, Xerxes Chariots, Ceaser’s Legions, the Praetorian Guard, Napolean’s Old Reliables, the English Guards and now, a niche must be assigned to America’s Rangers.

In truth, the quality of the Rangers is a direct reflection of the SOF community as a whole.  Each member has a distinct role that largely depends upon the other parts to succeed.  The Ranger’s-initially a tenuous member-have earned a rightful place as an utterly reliable, utterly dependable force whose application underwrites assured battlefield success.


About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.