The Depot

The Navy's Official Account of Operation Red Wings

Six US Navy SEALs in combat gear including Marcus Luttrell

On June 28, 2005, U.S. Navy SEALs, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson and Marcus Luttrell were scouting Ahmad Shah, a terrorist who grew up in the mountains near where they were operating. The team was inserted deep behind enemy lines at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet east of Asadabad in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan in what was Operation Red Wings.

Using the assumed name Muhammad Ismail, Shah was the leader of a terrorist cell known to Afghans in the area as the “Mountain Tigers.” Shah and his group had aligned with the Taliban and other militant groups close to the Pakistani border, but he was not associated closely with Osama Bin Laden nor was he responsible for the deaths of 20 service personnel the week before Operation Red Wings as stated in the movie Lone Survivor.

The SEAL team involved in Operation Red Wings was compromised when the SEAL team, led by Murphy, was spotted by locals who presumably reported its presence and location to the Taliban. The terrorist group set out to find the SEAL team and made contact.

A firefight erupted between the four SEALs of Operation Red Wings and the enemy force. Based on the statements from Luttrell who was the lone survivor of the engagement and would write a book which was adapted into a movie starring Mark Wahlberg, the enemy had the SEALs outnumbered. Luttrell’s initial reports in his debriefs state that the enemy force was around 20 to 35 fighters. However, Luttrell’s book states that the numbers could have been as high as 200 fighters. The Navy’s official position is that 30 to 40 fighters engaged the SEAL team.

The enemy also had terrain advantage and the bad guys launched a well-organized, three-sided attack on the SEALs. The firefight continued relentlessly as the enemy militia forced the team deeper into a ravine, according to the U.S. Navy’s summary of action detailing the events of Operation Red Wings.

All of the SEAL team members of Operation Red Wings were wounded. They bounded down the mountain in an attempt to make it to safer ground. Approximately 45 minutes into the fight, Dietz, responsible for the team’s communications, sought open air to place a distress call back to the base, but before he could, he was shot in the hand.

According to the Navy, despite the intensity of the firefight and suffering grave gunshot wounds himself, Murphy risked his own life to save the lives of his teammates in Operation Red Wings. Murphy was intent on making contact with their headquarters, but he realized it would be impossible in the extremely jagged and ravine-filled terrain his team was fighting in. With complete disregard for his own life, Murphy moved away from the protective rocks which provided him cover and he exposed himself to increased enemy gunfire by going into the open and onto ground that would enable him to transmit a call to get help for his men.

Murphy became a target for the enemy and as he was fired upon, he made contact with forces at Bagram Air Base and requested assistance for Operation Red Wings. Murphy provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point Murphy was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter, but he picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in. Severely wounded, Murphy returned to his cover position with his men and continued the battle, which is different than what was portrayed in the 2013 movie, Lone Survivor which has Murphy dying atop the ridge he ascended to in order to communicate with his headquarters.

Two Navy SEALs who participated in Operation Red Wings

The Navy’s summary of action of Operation Red Wings states that an MH-47 Chinook helicopter, with eight additional SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers aboard, was dispatched as part of an extraction mission to pull out the four embattled SEALs. The MH-47 was escorted by heavily-armored, Army attack helicopters.

Per the U.S. Navy, the additional weight of the attack helicopters slowed the formation’s advance prompting the MH-47 to outrun their armored escort. According to officials, the rescue team for Operation Red Wings opted to directly enter the battle space without the protection of the attack helicopters in hopes of landing and assisting their comrades. As the Chinook raced to the battle, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter, causing it to crash, killing all 16 men aboard.

The men of Operation Red Wings continued to fight, but by the end of the hours-long gunfight over the rough terrain, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz were killed, but an estimated 35 Taliban were also dead, according to the U.S. Navy.

Luttrell, the only surviving member of Operation Red Wings, stated he was blasted over a ridge by a grenade explosion and that he was knocked unconscious. Although badly injured, he later managed to escape, crawling seven miles for nearly a day. The movie depicts Luttrell fleeing the enemy by walking, but this is not true, according to Luttrell who evaded the enemy by crawling, despite having three cracked vertebrae, a bullet wound to the leg and shrapnel embedded in both legs, in addition to a long list of other injuries.

Afghans eventually came to the aid of Luttrell, the lone survivor of Operation Red Wings, and according to the Navy’s summary of action on this battle, they helped him to a nearby village where for several days he was cared for. The Taliban came to the village and demanded that Luttrell be turned over to them, but the villagers refused. It should be noted that there was no battle in the village between villagers and the enemy forces as depicted in the movie, Lone Survivor. The Taliban did come in and beat Luttrell when they tried to interrogate him, but village elders chased away the enemy militias. This is also what Luttrell stated happened in his book. The added drama at the movie’s end of a fierce fight in the village where Luttrell gets shot again, is almost beheaded and his protector also gets shot, is all Hollywood fiction.

Luttrell was rescued by U.S. forces after an Afghan villager made his way to a Marine outpost with a note from Luttrell, and U.S. forces launched a massive operation that rescued him from enemy territory on July 2, 2005. But it was an emergency beacon, placed in the window of the hut where he was being kept safe that helped rescuers find him. It should be noted that according to Luttrell’s book, Army Rangers found him in the woods with his rescuer and caretaker as they were moving him to another location.

Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and for his actions under fire. Operation Red Wings and the subsequent rescue attempt that ended in the downing of the Chinook would go on to be the worst single-day U.S. Forces death toll since Operation Enduring Freedom began at that point with 19 dead and one injured. For the Navy, it was the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II.

What is the most elite military unit in the U.S.?

US Army special forces soldiers standing in line firing m-4 rifles

As if interservice rivalries were not enough, within the special operations community there is jockeying for the top spot. Who is toughest? Who is more capable? What training is the hardest to complete? While special operators generally have professional respect for each other, like anything, opinions vary about what is the most elite military unit in the US?

Here’s USAMM’s list of elite military units that might help you decide what is the most elite military unit in the US?

U.S. Marine Corps Raiders, formed in 1942, provide customized military combat-skills training and advisement support for foreign forces. Marines and Sailors of the Marine Raider Regiment train, advise, and assist friendly military forces, enabling them to support their nation’s security and stability. They work in small teams to eliminate targets. They deploy scalable, expeditionary forces worldwide to accomplish special operations missions. Marine Raiders execute complex operations in uncertain environments, achieving silent success and strategic impact.

The Marine Corps also has Force Recon units, a direct-action unit and their primary responsibility is to collect information in enemy territory by providing intelligence for operations on the battlefield. As part of this force, the Marine Sniper can provide effective harassing fire from a distance and they’re capable of tracking the enemy. But don’t be fooled, these Marines conduct raids on high-valued targets and can take out the bad guys. Force Recon was formed in 1954.

Known as the “Quiet Professionals,” U.S. Army Special Forces or Green Berets make a strong argument to answer the question what is the most elite military unit in the US? Formed in 1952 at Fort Bragg, N.C. by U.S. Army Col. Aaron Bank, Green Berets have their roots in World War II when Bank worked in the Office of Strategic Services organizing, training and equipping the French resistance. After WWII, Bank saw a need to organize a mobile, adaptable fighting force that could help foreign nations friendly to the United States. Special Forces was born.

Training to become an “SF” soldier is done in six phases and takes at least a year to complete. Special Forces Soldiers are trained to perform several missions in a small-team structure. They perform counterinsurgency missions often deployed to prevent terrorist and insurgent incidents abroad. They respond to terrorist activities and train other nations’ militaries in the basics of fighting insurgents. They also perform unconventional warfare activities conducted to enable resistance movements or insurgencies to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. SF types conduct direct action missions to seize, capture, recover or destroy enemy material, or recover personnel. One of their better-known missions is foreign internal defense where they train and equip foreign allied military forces. They have also been known to conduct surveillance in hostile, denied, or diplomatically or politically sensitive environments. Lastly, on security force assistance missions, SF soldiers are called upon to train and develop the defense capabilities of friendly and developing nations. But are the Green Berets the answer to what is the most elite military unit in the US?

The U.S. Army Rangers might argue differently. Rangers are the Army’s elite light infantry, supporting other special operations forces or conducting direct action raids themselves (think Somalia 1990s). It takes about two months to complete Ranger school’s three phases: Benning phase, Mountain phase and Florida phase. The Rangers got their start long before the start of the Revolutionary War. In the mid-1700s, Capt. Benjamin Church and Maj. Robert Rogers formed Ranger units to fight during the King Phillips War and in the French and Indian War. Rogers wrote 19 standing order that are still in use today. Rangers can be spotted by their tan berets.

Pararescuemen, also known as PJs, live by their motto, That Others May Live. A lot of other organizations use this motto, but it is unique to the PJs who got their start in 1946 and saw an uptick in missions in Vietnam where they made their name. PJs are primarily charged with rescuing downed pilots, but they provide advanced life saving medical attention in a variety of missions. It takes approximately two years for an airman to become a fully trained PJ and while many are trained in SCUBA, HALO/HAHO and other special skills, most state that their medical training is the most challenging part of their training.

Combat controllers are FAA-certified air traffic controllers who manage air traffic in remote and hostile environments. They are inserted behind enemy lines and they help with target acquisition on the ground and they provide crucial air support to ground forces. Naturally, they are trained in everything from military freefall parachuting to combat SCUBA diving, as well as SERE, forward air controlling, and other special tactics.

Combat controllers work with all special operations forces like Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Delta, etc. They specialize in calling in air strikes, setting up a landing site and attacking and converting an enemy airfield into a U.S. airfield. At that point, they work as air traffic controllers.

Tactical air control parties, or TACP (pronounced “tack p”), manage close air support (think A-10) and artillery often behind enemy lines. TACPs usually are assigned or attached to Army units. They are a part of the unit they are assigned to support and they call in air strikes in support those units. They are on the ground, fighting alongside of their Army brethren, only they are performing duties as a forward air controller.

The most unique Air Force special operators are the folks who wear the grey beret. They definitely could be who comes to mind when someone asks what is the most elite military unit in the US? But again, it depends who you ask. SR types used to be known as special operations weather team airmen, but in 2019 the Air Force announced they would have a new name and mission and now they are known as special reconnaissance airmen and their focus has shifted from specialized weather analysis to multi-domain reconnaissance and surveillance. SR airmen deploy from airborne, maritime, or land-based platforms deep behind enemy lines to collect and exploit key information, develop targets, and tilt the battlespace to favor U.S. forces. SR airmen surveil and prepare the battlespace to provide global access, air, space, and cyberspace superiority.

The missions of the Navy SEALs (sea, air, land) includes direct action warfare, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism and foreign internal defense. Established in 1962, SEALs are a nimble maritime force designed for unconventional warfare. They conduct insertions and extractions on air, sea or land to accomplish covert, special operations/warfare missions around the world. They capture or kill high value enemy personnel (they’re the guys that put a cap in Bin Laden). They collect information and intelligence through special recon. They perform small unit direct actions against military targets. They conduct underwater recon or demolition of manmade and natural obstacles prior to amphibious landings. SEALs are inserted by parachute, submarine, helicopter, high-speed boat, foot patrol or combat swimming. According to the Navy, it takes about 30 months to become a fully trained SEAL. Do SEALs answer the question, what is the most elite military unit in the US?

Delta Force is not just a Chuck Norris action movie. It is a very real U.S. military special operations unit and likely the military’s worst-kept secret although you can be standing next to a Delta operator and never know. Known as the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta SFOD-D, commonly referred to as Delta Force, Combat Applications Group, the unit, Army Compartmented Element, or Task Force Green, depending who you are, Delta is an elite Army special operations force under the control of Joint Special Operations Command. The unit performs counterterrorism missions, hostage rescues, direct action missions, and special recon. Delta is a Tier 1 unit usually tasked with the most complex, classified and dangerous missions. Most Delta operators are chosen from Army Special Forces and Army Rangers, but some hail from other special ops units. Delta was formed in 1977 by Col. Charles Beckwith. Although most Delta operators will never be publicly recognized, Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart both earned the Medal of Honor posthumously for their actions in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.

The term “operator” when referring to American special ops personnel comes directly from the Army’s Special Forces. In 1952, ten years before the SEALs were established and 25 years before Delta was founded, SF was using the term “operator.” All qualified Special Forces personnel had to agree to the Code of the Special Forces Operator and sign the pledge. In 2006, the Navy added Special Warfare Operator as a rating and these days most people in special operations are known as operators.

What is the most elite military unit in the US? You be the judge, but in our opinion, all of these folks are bad asses.