Night fell over the desert.
U.S. Air Force aircraft soared overhead, lowering their ramps and emptying their cargo into the night sky. Vehicles were heavy dropped on pallets while operators assigned to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta parachuted out into the darkness, conducting a military free-fall jump. Hitting their assembly area below, the operators quickly got their vehicles into operation and navigated approximately 40 kilometers across the desert until they reached their objective area.
The unit, commonly known as Delta Force or by one of any number of intentionally mundane acronyms, is the Army’s premier counterterrorism unit. Its members are drawn largely from the Ranger Regiment and Special Forces before being trained in the operational art of surgical raids, tubular assaults, close reconnaissance, and a dizzying area of specialized skills needed for raids like the one they conducted this night. The mission profile is called HDBT—hardened and deeply buried targets—which includes missile silos or underground nuclear bunker complexes in countries such as Iran.
That night, the operators struck quickly when they arrived at their target, using surprise, speed, and violence of action to breach a massive vault door to a bunker, assault inside the facility, and recover a warhead from a fully functional SCUD-B launcher. The operation went down like clockwork, but this was just a training exercise—one that took place at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). It was just one part of preparations for a larger operational plan, one that will be carried out if Delta ever gets the green light in the event the U.S. government decides to topple the government of Iran.
The Nevada Test Site is an out-of-the-way place where the U.S. government can conduct drills and training away from the prying eyes of curious citizens and nosy journalists.
NTS is where the Joint Ember Immune Teams test the security of convoys that transport nuclear weapons across the country, simulating what a real attack would look like and how it could be defended against. It is also where 1st Special Forces Group trained some of the officers for Cambodia’s counterterrorism unit when it was first stood up. According to a piece published by Seymour Hersh, the Iranian terrorist group MEK was trained at NTS by JSOC as early as 2005.
Despite being involved in the murder of six Americans, MEK was taken off the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization List by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 after lobbying from the likes of former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani, retired General Hugh Shelton, current National Security Advisor John Bolton, and former directors of both the CIA and FBI. Interestingly, MEK was de-listed just as entire CIA human intelligence networks were compromised, imprisoned, and executed in China and then in Iran.
Although MEK has been used at least since the Bush administration despite being on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations at the time, the Israelis also make use of them as a part of their proxy war against Iran. This was made evident during a string of high-profile assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Previously reported as a contingency plan for Stuxnet, some journalists have erroneously reported that NITRO ZEUS was simply another cyber weapon, when in reality it was an endeavor to prepare the operational environment in Iran for a full-blown military conflict. Some of those involved in the program jokingly referred to it as New Zion due to any eventual attack being a joint venture undertaken with the Israelis. Together, the United States and Israel had been developing a new generation of bunker busters that could reach the deeply buried Iranian nuclear facilities. If NITRO ZEUS and other operational plans pertaining to the destabilization and invasion of Iran were approved, Israel intends to participate in joint operations with the U.S. military.
Part of this operation would see American special operations units assaulting fortified underground bunker complexes that house weapons of mass destruction facilities.
Numerous countries have sought to conceal and protect vulnerable military resources underground inside facilities hardened with reinforced concrete, vault doors, internal environmental systems, and more, such as the United States has done at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. In a study done by Lt. Col. Eric Sepp on the issue of how the U.S. military can attack such structures, he writes:
The existence of deeply buried underground facilities has emerged as one of the more difficult operational challenges to confront U.S. military forces in the 21st century. While these types of facilities are not new, they are significant when one considers the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The problem is that deeply buried facilities can be used by rogue governments to manufacture and store weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as house the critical command and control and governmental functions that are central to the successful prosecution of a war. It is unfortunate that, with the exception of nuclear weapons, the current technologies for locating and neutralizing these types of facilities may not be sufficient for holding these facilities at risk.”
The white paper, titled “Deeply Buried Facilities: Implications for Military Operations,” explains that some facilities are buried so deeply and are so protected that even our most advanced bunker buster munitions will not penetrate them. This would also hold true for weapons such as the MOAB or even nuclear weapons. One solution, the author notes, is “training military personnel to perform these missions, which is consistent with the guidance provided by the U.S. Special Operations Command that such specialized skills do not ‘grow overnight.’”
Increasingly, regimes adversarial to the United States have sought out WMDs as a strategic deterrent to American efforts at regime change, and those weapons facilities have to be protected while developing those weapons. In China, “the PLA maintains a robust, technologically advanced underground facility (UGF) program. Given its NFU [No First Use] nuclear policy, China assumes it might have to absorb an initial nuclear strike while ensuring that leadership and strategic assets survive,” a recent DIA report concluded.
Another country that has been tunneling underground for decades is North Korea, building their own hardened nuclear weapons facilities. As far back as the 1970s, the North Koreans had an entire underground airfield dug into a mountain. At the time, “Military planners envisioned parachuting an entire Korean Special Forces brigade on top of that mountain in order to breach the underground facilities and capture it. The enemy was so well dug in that their base would even survive an atomic blast. The mission was understood to be a one-way trip for those involved. Most of the mission planning consisted of suicidal or near-suicidal missions into North Korea or operations that were designed to defend the south and push the Kim regime back to the 38th parallel.” Today, North Korea maintains a series of underground nuclear weapons complexes, tunnels, and bunkers.
Underground facilities that are constructed by tunneling into the side of a mountain are considered impenetrable even by nuclear weapons if they are under 2,000 feet of earth, which means they have to be accessed by tunnels in some fashion. Much of Iran provides terrain suited for these types of facilities in the Zagros or Alborz mountain ranges. Iran claims that many of their underground missile bases are 1,640 feet deep, but this claim remains in dispute. Today’s GBU57A Massive Ordnance Penetrator, dropped by an American B2 or B52 bomber, can penetrate 200 feet of reinforced concrete or 125 feet of rock.
Due to these challenging defenses, U.S. special operations forces would have to have boots on the ground to penetrate and destroy such facilities. “The target list would likely include Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, the INTC near Isfahan (especially the UCF), and the unfinished HWR and heavy water production facility near Arak,” a Rand Corporation report stated. The target set would also have to include a number of secret enrichment facilities scattered across the country.
The strike packages designed for Iran involve an elaborate game of chess that has to take into account Iran’s retaliation, as they are likely to strike back against Israel using Hezbollah in Lebanon. The regime change camp in the United States was likely so adamant about toppling Assad in Syria, and advocated for CIA covert operations in order to achieve this goal, because it would cut off Hezbollah’s logistical lines stretching from Iran into Syria, and then into Lebanon. With that conduit closed off, Iran would have one of its major proxy forces largely disabled.
Another concern for defense planners is that Iran will launch ballistic missiles into Saudi oil fields located just across the Persian Gulf. Such an attack would instantly disrupt global oil markets, which is why the Saudis have attempted to develop their own “iron dome” type of missile defense shield around its oil infrastructure, the details of which remain highly classified. This was another reason why the Trump administration was reluctant to shut down any arms deals with the Saudis, despite their intelligence service brutally murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi at their embassy in Turkey. These arms packages are part of America’s strategic balancing against Iran. Ballistic missile defense systems have been provided to the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and now Saudi Arabia with the recent sale of THAAD missile defense systems.
With these risks mitigated as much as possible, it then becomes a question of what type of strike package is deployed. The initial pre-assault fires and strategic strikes against Iran by U.S. and Israeli airpower was described to NEWSREP as something that would make “shock and awe in 2003 pale by comparison.” American bombers would fly thousands of sorties over Iran, with Israel contributing what airstrikes it could as well. American submarines off the coast of Iran would also be called upon to fire cruise missiles at selected targets.
With airstrikes underway, American special operations soldiers would infiltrate Iran to secure oil fields and WMD sites. Navy SEALs are expected to be assigned the job of securing oil infrastructure since this is something accounted for in their training. Delta operators are expected to be assigned missions to sabotage the electrical grid and conduct so-called decapitation strikes against high-value targets. Other JSOC elements would carry out the raids against hardened deeply buried targets, such as the aforementioned underground facilities.
This is a mission set that JSOC has examined closely for decades, with their operational techniques being updated as the National Command Authorities issue them additional tasks. For instance, during the 1990s, Colonel Gaddafi was developing an underground chemical weapons manufacturing plant near Tarhuna in northwest Libya. The underground CW facility was ostensibly designed to survive any sort of airstrike short of a nuclear weapon being dropped on it. For years, JSOC and Delta Force were tasked with the operational planning in case they ever got the green light to take out the facility, to which then-Secretary of Defense Mike Perry had publicly alluded.
The plan was to infiltrate Libya using U.S. Marine Corps hovercraft, coming across the surf, up the beachhead, and then into the Libyan desert before driving vehicles the final leg of the journey to Tarhuna. From there, engineers would use mining equipment to drill deep underground until they penetrated the chemical warfare facility. An explosive slurry would be poured down the hole—flooding the buried structures—which would then be detonated. The plan was refined multiple times, but was never executed as Gaddafi agreed to halt construction. Such was life for Delta Force, and they were given their next assignment almost immediately to begin planning for the 1994 invasion of Haiti.
JSOC’s counter-proliferation mission and HDBT mission set has evolved with time, developing capabilities that would no doubt be utilized if it ever comes to war with Iran or North Korea. At one time, their mission would simply have been to destroy or defuse enemy weapons of mass destruction. As far back as 1982, Delta participated in a training mission called Gold Junction in which operators assaulted an aircraft and an air traffic control tower, and secured a tractor trailer loaded with a simulated improvised nuclear device or IND. The following year, Delta took part in two more exercises at the Nevada Test Site and the Idaho National Energy Laboratory in which Delta Force Squadrons secured simulated INDs.
In the 1990s, additional requirements were issued to Delta from the National Command Authorities. Now it was not enough to secure and defuse the weapon, the operators also had to secure it and carry it out, exfiltrating the device. Delta Force began experimenting with a whole new set of gear to fulfill these requirements, using small cranes to move 900-pound warheads, developing specialized exhaust systems for ATVs that could be driven through underground tunnels, and coming up with custom-made Draeger re-breather systems designed for operators to conduct long endurance work in contaminated air.
Another requirement came down regarding the destruction of chemical weapons reactors, one that some unit members thought was patently absurd. Now they were being asked to disable chemical weapons reactors—basically giant lined vats—but without spilling any of the actual chemicals inside. They had previously detonated test shots which successfully punctured chemical reactors in training scenarios, but this seemed like an over-the-top request. And yet, with a lot of trial and error, the unit members cracked this nut as well and met the new requirement.
Meanwhile, squadrons from Delta, as well as SEAL Team Six, have cycled in and out of isolated training facilities around the country to prepare for the HDBT mission if the White House orders them to execute it. One early nuclear warhead recovery exercise saw Delta tasked with making entry into a deep underground tunnel system owned by AT&T, where they were tasked with securing and removing a 900-pound warhead that, of course, had the pit, with fissile material, removed.
The question as to why the mission set shifted from destroying or disabling the warhead in place to recovering it can only be speculated upon, but if the United States successfully captured a so-called “loose nuke” that fell into terrorist hands, that weapon could then be dismantled by scientists at Oak Ridge or Los Alamos labs, the fissile material analyzed, and then a determination could be made as to where it originated.
JSOC operators continue to train for such scenarios at NTS, where Delta’s Special Entry Troop gets a lot of hands-on experience breaching underground fortifications. One such NTS facility where this is done is in P-Tunnel, which runs underneath a mountain. Deep underground, operators conduct full mission rehearsals. “Everything they did down there, none of it was administrative. They had to figure out the charges, place them, time them, and then get the operators far enough away that they don’t get killed,” a source told NEWSREP on the condition of anonymity. Recovered training warheads are moved out of the complex, often times carried by stretcher for the final leg up onto the ramp of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter.
As well-trained as JSOC operators must be to carry out the HDBT mission set, there is still a high degree of strategic uncertainty as to whether or not the United States would be able to disable Iran’s WMD facilities through a combination of airstrikes and special operations missions. Many of the enrichment sites are hidden and would require extremely good intelligence information to locate.
At least one operational plan for dealing with Iran involves a conventional military invasion after the initial air campaign and JSOC missions, one that would involve the largest amphibious landing operation since D-Day in 1944. Conventional military forces would then surround and secure Iranian oil infrastructure, choking off the regime from the some 30 billion dollars in revenue they make in oil sales per year. From there, Tehran would likely be left to figure out its new political destiny, as the main hold-up over executing this plan from an American perspective is that there is no end game. There is no shadow government in waiting in Iran, operating in secret, waiting to install a democracy.
Up until 2012, Special Operations Command was running a massive training exercise directed against a simulated target country named “Nari.” The backronym is so obvious that it was likely intended to send a message to the Iranian government about America’s military posture. In 2013, the plan for a joint American-Israeli regime change operation in Iran was brought to President Obama’s desk. He declined and opted to pursue the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPOA) instead, commonly known as the Iran Deal. In 2018, Special Operations Command was given an even bigger leadership role in the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction mission (CWMD).
But it isn’t just special operations units that are training to fight below ground. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 82nd Airborne Division is reportedly being told to prepare to assault massive underground complexes with battalion- and brigade-sized elements. This was further confirmed by reporter Matthew Cox, who wrote that the Army has begun an “accelerated effort that funnels some $572 million into training and equipping 26 of its 31 active combat brigades to fight in large-scale subterranean facilities that exist beneath dense urban areas around the world.” As one of the SOF truths states, most special operations require non-SOF assistance. It is also true that the higher tier a special operation unit is, the more likely it is that they will require support from the lower tiers.
The U.S. Army’s investment in developing these capabilities and refining operational techniques is understandable given the difficulty of the mission and the likely casualties. Last year a Powerpoint slide emerged and caused quite a stir in the Special Forces community. The slide shows a plan for an extremely watered-down form of the Special Forces Qualification Course. However this slide does not show an abbreviated training plan that the Special Warfare Center intends to implement, but something more chilling. It shows the contingency plan to rapidly create more Special Forces soldiers in the event that today’s Special Forces groups are wiped out and destroyed in a massive conflagration overseas.
NEWSREP asked USASOC Public Affairs if they had any comment on the above slide, but they did not respond.
Trump vs. Iran
In 1980, a then 34-year-old Donald Trump was interviewed by Rona Barret in Manhattan. She asked him what he would do to make America a better country. Trump answered that America should be “a country that gets the respect of other countries.”
“Is respect the most important thing, in your opinion?” Rona asked.
“Well, respect can lead to other things,” Trump replied. Interestingly, this younger Trump was much more thoughtful and circumspect than the man who is currently president. When watching the interview it is clear that he thinks about what he wants to say before he says it.
“The Iranian situation is a case in point,” Trump continued. “That they hold our hostages is just absolutely and totally ridiculous. That this country just sits back and allows a country, such as Iran, to hold our hostages to my way of thinking is a horror, and I don’t think they are doing it to other countries.”
“Obviously, you are advocating that we should have gone in there with troops et cetera, and got our boys out,” Rona commented.
“There is no question in my mind, we should be an oil-rich nation. I believe we should have done it. I’m very disappointed that we didn’t do it. I don’t think anyone would have held us in abeyance. I don’t think anyone would have been angry with us and we had every right to do it at the time. I think we lost the opportunity,” Trump said, likely referencing Operation Eagle Claw as the lost opportunity.
Indeed, the Carter administration had attempted to rescue American hostages held inside Iran. Operation Eagle Claw was in full swing with Delta Force operators conducting mission rehearsals, Green Berets from Detachment A in Berlin collecting intelligence information in Tehran, and Major Carney of the U.S. Air Force secretly flying to an empty expanse of desert to take soil samples and bury infrared lights to establish a clandestine airfield at what would become a staging ground for the rescue mission called Desert One.
Even after Eagle Claw failed, almost certainly unknown to Donald Trump at the time, Operation Honey Badger was already underway, which was a second planned mission to rescue the hostages. But after the failure at Desert One, the hostages were moved and security around them increased. The element of surprise had been lost and the second effort was never authorized by the White House.
After talking about Iran, Trump was then asked if he would like to become president one day. In the 1980 interview, he said that he didn’t have those ambitious but that “one man could turn this country around. One proper president could turn this country around. I firmly believe that.”
President Trump comes from a business background and understands that profit can be made by doing business that others have been unwilling to do. Now in the Oval Office, he likely sees unfinished business in places like Iran as something that he can resolve where other presidents failed, which would be a feather in his hat if he can pull it off.
Fast forward to 2019
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump ran on the promise that he would pull the United States out of the JCPOA, the Iran Deal, claiming that the Obama administration made a horrible decision in agreeing to it and that Iran was violating “the spirit” of the deal. The Iran Deal had served to curb Iranian nuclear development but had inflamed the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia. In May of 2018, the Trump administration officially withdrew from the agreement and imposed harsher sanctions on Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency maintains that Iran has been in compliance with the JCPOA all along.
Other chess pieces have been moved by the Trump administration that make the likelihood of war with Iran much more probable than it was just a few years ago.
For instance, the Trump administration has stated that U.S. military forces will remain in both Syria and Iraq in order to counter Iran. National Security Advisor John Bolton has long been an advocate of regime change in Iran and has recently been having meetings in the country of Georgia, in part to try to secure the use of an airfield there for American air power to launch from in the event of a war with Iran. America’s tiptoeing around the Erdogan regime in Turkey is also partly related to the military’s need of Incirlik Airbase as a staging area for strategic strikes against Iran.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, seen as an impediment to regime change in Iran by many, was pushed out of the administration over a proposed military withdrawal from Syria, one that in retrospect appears to be a pump fake more than anything as the White House quickly reversed course. Was the proposed shift in policy really just a provocation to remove a troublesome Secretary of Defense? Oddly, the Republican president said on national television that Mattis was “sort of a Democrat.”
Behind the scenes, other covert programs continue. The New York Times recently published a piece about how the CIA covertly insinuated itself into Iran’s supply chain for ballistic missile parts, slipping defects into their logistics network that caused missiles to fail. Two years ago, NEWSREP sat down with a source in South Korea who had visibility on how U.S. special operations prepares for war with North Korea. When asked if the United States had any actual human intelligence assets in North Korea, he replied that he highly doubted it, but then again, if you look at all the failed North Korean missile launches you have to wonder. The publication of such information in major newspapers may very well represent a controlled leak of false or half-true information as a deception campaign to make the Iranians wonder what is really going on and doubt their own military capabilities.
NEWSREP’s own sources have indicated that numerous joint covert intelligence operations are run by the CIA in tandem with the Saudi intelligence service, the Mukhabarat. During the 1980s, the CIA was covertly funneling arms to the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. The Saudi government agreed to match whatever support America was offering, with the total yearly cost of the operation reaching upwards of a billion dollars at one point. This relationship continues to this day with the Saudi intel service not just matching, but surpassing, whatever amount of money the CIA pumps into anti-Iranian activities. These operations are said to be funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
JSOC is also involved in planning and executing intelligence operations inside Iran, all of which have to be blessed by the CIA. JSOC is known to be more aggressive and less risk-averse than the CIA, but more often than not the intel service will clear the military to go forward with their plans.
MEK is no longer the only proxy force operating in Iran, with an apparent spin-off of the now-defunct Jundallah group conducting attacks against the Iranian military. They call themselves Jaish ul-Adl, the Army of Justice. It is unlikely that the United States would sponsor this group, but the Iranians have very publicly accused Saudi Arabia of being their puppet master. In 2017, Jaish ul-Adl killed nine Iranian border guards and, in 2019, launched a suicide attack against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, which killed 27.
Meanwhile, President Trump has positioned himself as a staunch ally of Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, while also making threatening gestures on social media toward Iran. How much of this is bluster and how much is genuine is difficult to discern, but there also exists a real possibility that the United States and Iran could stumble into war accidentally because signals (such as the above tweet) are misinterpreted as legitimate escalations.
For her part, CIA director (DCI) Gina Haspel appears unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the past. In testimony to the Senate in 2019, DCI Haspel stated that Iran was still in compliance with the JCPOA, undermining President Trump’s narrative. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Daniel Coats concurred with her assessment. As a career CIA officer, Haspel would not want to see herself or her agency fall into the same trap that it did when the United States invaded Iraq under false pretenses about weapons of mass destruction. President Trump fired back on social media, claiming that his intelligence chiefs need to go back to school because they are wrong about Iran.
While President Trump continues to make overtures of using military force against Iran, it certainly remains to be seen if he will green light JSOC and the rest of the military to topple the Iranian regime. DOD training exercises take place to train for such an eventuality and operational plans are routinely updated. For the soldiers partaking in these training exercises, the scenarios can feel quite real, but strategically America may be nowhere near actually mounting such an attack against Iran.
But deep underground, America’s secret soldiers are preparing for the worst—and standing by just in case.
Featured image courtesy of DVIDS, Jessica DuVernay