A Short History of Ghost Recon - 1967 to the present.
By Budgie
Published : 11 Sept 2006

A Short History of Ghost Recon - 1967 to the present


Ghosts target enemy positions near Ramadi, Iraq in 2006

 

Well known in the Special Forces community but with little public profile outside, many legends surround Ghost Recon. Yet who exactly are they? The military doesn't officially deny the existence of a covert task force that operates behind enemy lines, but is reluctant to discuss the unit or its operations. For the first time in nearly forty years some questions can be answered and myths laid to rest in this exclusive report including interviews with current and former members of the unit.

 

The Early Years:

In the late sixties, the official task of the United States Army Special Forces was to train and equip resistance forces to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. This included living in camps and villages for months or years, among the ethnic Hmong Tribes and Montagnards in the central highlands. Green berets would learn local customs and gain the trust of these tribes before leading them on counter insurgency operations and guerrilla raids. Rumors soon began seeping out of the jungles of a top secret Green Beret unit operating deep behind enemy lines. These reports were initially confused with the Phoenix Program: notorious hit squads operating out of uniform and often including foreign mercenaries and CIA operatives. But, says "Jim" (name changed), a veteran Special Forces officer who served from 1966-1969, "While [the Green Berets] didn't mind getting our hands dirty, we didn't want to get them that dirty." It was in this environment that the Ghosts first came into being.


A Green Beret Major from that era, David M. Tasker, is now regarded as the founder of Ghost Recon. Based in a highland camp in 1967, Tasker saw the need for a conventional commando unit for more dangerous missions, yet one conditioned to live away from established supply lines and in hostile territory. The Green Berets already made the perfect recruiting pool and from his own unit Tasker began to select candidates. The men would be young, preferably unmarried, with at least a year's experience in the jungle. They weren't to get attached to the locals and says Jim, "They had to have eighty-pound balls and nerves of tungsten."

 

The Unit began to go into action after the 1968 Tet offensive. In its embryonic stage there were, depending on who you believe, between a dozen and three-dozen members. As it was unsanctioned by the Army there was probably a fluid pool of operatives outside Tasker's inner circle. It is said that the Major could have called on any of about thirty men from his and nearby camps to fill out the unit depending on the operation. They operated with conventional US weapons at first and wore the typical Tiger Stripe uniform of the era with the Special Forces patch. Occasionally captured enemy weapons would be used. The Kalashnikov rifle at that time was particularly prized for its hardiness, but in recent campaigns more modern equipment has been preferred. Work was not handed down from above. From radio traffic and local human intelligence, Tasker would create and execute his own missions.

 

These included setting up observation posts, search and destroy and sabotage. According to "Ramy" a current operative and the unofficial unit historian, "They didn't to wet work - assassinations and the like - but they did actively seek to engage the enemy and take the fight to them. The object of the Ghosts was to inflict casualties." Missions could last for days or weeks. Tasker would have three or four of his men locating and observing enemy positions such as anti-aircraft batteries, supply depots or underground bunkers. After some days of observation a larger force would be assembled to assault the target. Prisoners were sometimes taken but only high-ranking NVA officers or VC commanders were valued. The surviving rank and file who didn't manage to flee an attack were turned loose. This unconventional tactic served practical purposes: "They didn't have the facilities to process POWs and weren't interested in committing atrocities.” Says Ramy, “Also, turning the regulars loose would add to the mystique - Charlie would hear these chilling tales of a small unit of Americans taking down a camp or AA site and it would spread fear among the enemy"

 

A Ghost patrol in Vietnam, 1969

 

How did the Ghosts get their name? That's something that nobody seems to agree on completely. Jim speculates, "Sometimes the guys would use their camouflage face paint in interesting ways, making black skull motifs on green backgrounds or vice-versa. This would terrify the enemy when in close quarters and returned NVA regulars are said to have coined the term Ghosts." Ramy accepts this as a possibility but more firmly believes it is because they conducted the majority of their operations at night, using the primitive night vision technology of the time. Tasker's own diaries provide some clues: "A lot of the boys were highly nihilistic. They volunteered believing that the operations we were on were suicide missions. They'd joke that we were ghosts, already dead but we just didn't know it." Indeed casualties were severe over the first couple of years. Tasker's reports list no fewer than thirteen KIA and five rotated out due to disability. Even taking the high estimates of unit strength, almost forty men, this was a large percentage.

 

It was fatality that would catapult the Ghosts to official recognition. In 1969, Tasker led an operation to rescue a pair of downed fighter pilots in his area. His diary lists five other names: the rest of what would become the Ghosts' typical six-man squad. Typically there was a sniper to provide overwatch, a machine gunner for cover fire and four 'fast movers' as the Major liked to call them: “assault specialists and saboteurs lightly armed with M16 rifles and carbines.” Says Jim, "The F-4 pilots were rescued from a crude stockade and over a dozen enemy were KIA. It was almost the perfect takedown. Almost..." Tasker was mortally wounded in the attack and died of his wounds en route to Da Nang.

 

This should have been the end of the Ghosts. Tasker and his men had been operating without official sanction for about eighteen months now and with the commander of a Special Forces camp KIA, the brass would surely catch wind of his covert operations and shut them down. However a forthright lieutenant offered the after-action records that Tasker had meticulously kept. According to Ramy, "Tasker had intended to present this information to the Army at the end of his tour, believing that the success rate of the Ghosts would impress the generals without hurting his career. In any case he intended to retire." The brass were impressed. They liked covert operations that also played by the rules. They were good soldiers and had no stomach for the administration's 'dirty' war. Here was a unit that proved you could get the job done without playing foul. In 1969, the unit was given the official title Special Forces Reconnaissance Detachment Golf - "G" for Ghost Recon.

 

The Ghosts were issued a shoulder patch with a grinning human skull. In their traditional six-man cells, they continued their operations under official sanction until 1973, when US combat forces were officially withdrawn from Vietnam. In the post Vietnam era there was a scramble to improve Special Forces operations. But while the wet-work continued in the CIA, the Green Berets went on training indigenous forces around the world and glamorous roles like hostage rescue and counter-terrorism were passed to SFOD-D, or Delta Force, Fifth Special Forces Group decided that the Ghosts would keep a lower profile. Ramy smiles, "While units like Delta and the SEALs prospered in Hollywood, Ghost Recon were placed in a sealed chest with a sticker that read "Break open only in the event of war."

 

Securing Navy aircraft crash site in Vietnam

 


The Eighties:

In 1983, war came. In the invasion of Granada the Ghosts were among the first units on the ground. With some veterans of Tasker's original team still leading, the Ghosts raided airfields and enemy gun emplacements and secured sites ahead of the major landing. Whereas the Ghosts had moved largely on foot in Vietnam - sometimes hiking for days through thick jungle to reach a target - their tactics had changed in training throughout the seventies to become faster, more agile and mobile so that they could be used in any theater. They inserted by parachute, zodiac and the new Blackhawk helicopter a day or two earlier than the main invasion force.

 

Credits included successfully sabotaging enemy aircraft on the ground, seizing an air traffic control tower, destroying half a dozen surface to air missile batteries with placed charges and securing a beachhead for the Marine Recon battalion's initial landing. The Ghosts gained a reputation for fearlessness and an aura of invincibility. According to one retired military intelligence official who wished to remain unnamed, the unit accounted for over sixty enemy KIA with only a couple of minor wounds sustained by its own men. Advanced night vision, more accurate AR15 carbines and Barrett sniper rifles and superior mobility, training and tactics meant that they had an advantage greater than that of their predecessors in Vietnam. After the hostilities had ended, the Ghosts stayed on a few more weeks with the stabilization force, a fist cocked and ready for action should fighting break out again. In doing so the unit started a new tradition and motto: In Primo Ex Tandem - first in, last out.

 

Ghosts were among the first forces into Granada and Panama

 

Only a few years later, in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama, the cocked fist was once again jabbed at the sternum of the enemy. By this time the force had been expanded from fewer than forty members to nearly two hundred. On the surface it retained a traditional command structure - a company with its own command and control element and the main force divided into five platoons, which was again divided into squads. However the platoons were merely administrative units: the real foundation of the Ghosts remained the six-man squad or cell. These operated independently when sent into action and seldom teamed up with other cells. Although according the retired Intel officer, the cells were trained to link up with conventional units to boost their commanders' options on the battlefield.

The Ghosts parachuted into Panama a night ahead of the invasion and, with guidance from some of the still-serving jungle warfare experts from the early days in Vietnam, trekked through unforgiving bush to remote military outposts and SAM sites. Some estimates have put the number of Ghosts in country at more than half their strength but Ramy, a better source, puts the figure at only about six or seven cells: "By this time the command structure remained at Fort Bragg, manipulating operations from afar. The Ghosts did exceedingly well, sustaining only a few injuries (several from parachuting into the jungle) for dozens of enemy KIA." Half a dozen SAM sites and AAA batteries were destroyed, an enemy motor pool was put out of action and several aircraft disabled on the ground. The Ghosts were instrumental for the first time in 'painting' targets - using infra red and laser technology to guide Stealth fighters and other warplanes to their targets. In one instance a convoy of over a dozen vehicles was taken out with the cell responsible moving in on foot to 'sweep up' the remnants in what was reported to have been a vicious firefight. One still-serving veteran of Panama identified only as "Buzz" concurs with Jim's earlier assessment: "We don't mind getting our hands dirty."

 

Operation Desert Storm:

By the late eighties recruitment and training had been formalized. “It’s almost embarrassing,” Begins Buzz, “In the seventies all the members came from Special Forces. Those who passed training but were considered too hot-headed to hang around learning local customs when they could be off fighting bad guys ended up in Ghost Recon.” Adds Ramy, “It really was a clearing house for guys who liked blowing stuff up more than eating snakes.” Then when the Army had finished codifying what the Ghosts would be used for, the unit started taking in ‘failed’ Delta applicants as well. This wasn’t the rogues’ gallery it sounded like. “Although the Ghosts aren’t the proverbial ‘best of the best’ we are still among the best.” Says Ramy somewhat modestly, “However those who show a greater flare for commando-style activities such as sabotage are routed out of the Special Forces and Delta selection and invited to join the Ghosts.” Invitations now are also extended to exceptional soldiers from elite conventional units such as the Ranger Battalion and Airborne Divisions.

 

When Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 US forces went on alert. Within weeks ground forces were streaming into the Arabian Peninsula for deployment. But within days of course, the Special Forces were already inside Iraq. Linking up with Kurdish rebels in the north, the Green Beret A-Teams set about preparing their hosts for a guerrilla campaign against the Iraqi forces. They brought the Ghosts with them. As the A-Teams were getting to know the locals and the terrain, the cells set about identifying targets and preparing for the coming attack.

When the order to begin the attack came in January 1991 the Ghosts sprung into action. Ghost cells painted targets, planted charges at SCUD sites and military airfields and created havoc at military outposts with sniper fire and other harassing and distracting techniques. Often they worked with the hardy Peshmerga rebels to assault enemy positions. Sometimes the cells would march independently into the desert for deep infiltration missions in search of the elusive mobile SCUD launchers. Sadly this is where the Ghosts' lucky streak ended, as four members from one cell and a number of Kurdish rebels were killed in a friendly fire incident when a stray bomb hit their position; several others were killed or permanently wounded behind enemy lines in separate operations. Says Buzz, "Those were dark times but we were strong enough as a unit and as a family to get through it."

At the end of the first Gulf War, the Ghosts had accounted for over a hundred enemy KIAs as well as half a dozen SCUD launchers and more than a dozen AA and communications sites. In keeping with the tradition of first in last out, several cells stayed on to train with the Kurdish Peshmerga and more returned throughout the nineties to maintain contact. Ramy's wry smile confirms it: "They knew they'd be back to finish the job one day."

 

An unnamed Ghost sniper in Kurdistan, Iraq, 1991

 

The Clinton Years:

Operation Restore Hope, to protect the starving masses of Somalia from rapacious warlords outlived its instigator and carried over to the next administration. The Ghosts were again among the first in country, preparing the way for the ground invasion. They were also instrumental in combating the various factions, particularly in outlying desert towns where a new threat was emerging from Islamist militants. Following the 1993 street battle in Mogadishu that saw the loss of eighteen American service personnel the Ghosts pulled out with the rest of the US forces. They still had their eye on the Islamists however - particularly those with connections to Afghanistan and the emerging Taliban.

But surprisingly, Europe was the next flashpoint, when the former Yugoslav republics dissolved into civil war. In 1995-96 the Ghosts sent cells to paint targets once again as NATO forces bombed Serb SAM and AA sites. They were also involved in rescuing downed pilots and destroying lost equipment. Frequently in and out of the country from forwarding bases in Italy, the Ghosts raided deep into enemy territory and accounted for dozens of enemy deaths and millions of dollars in destroyed enemy hardware. While no Ghosts were killed by enemy fire, tragedy struck again when all members of a six-man cell were killed in a helicopter crash, which also claimed the lives the crew.

Operations in Europe were renewed in 1999 when referendum results in Kosovo resulted in an invasion by the Yugoslav forces under President Slobodan Milosevic. To prevent atrocities against civilians, NATO again launched attacks against Serbian forces. Now integrated under the new Special Operations Command (SOCOM) based in Florida, Ghost cells were at the forefront - spotting targets for air attacks and sabotaging communication links or convoys. In one particularly daring incident one six-man cell struck a SAM site with a shoulder launched missile, then mopped up the accompanying crew and guard platoon with small arms fire. Not a single Ghost was hurt in the firefight and the M136 rocket launcher has since become a preferred method of sabotage, allowing the Ghosts to avoid the risk involved in sneaking up to a target and planting charges.

 

Ghosts assault an enemy position in devastated Kosovo, 1999

 

There has been talk that Ghost Recon was involved in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, and in the hunt for Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda after the attack on USS Cole and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. All sources deny this. Other operations such as the War on Drugs and the operation that ended in the death of Colombian cocaine czar, Pablo Escobar are often falsely linked to the Ghosts. Says Ramy, "Our operations have always been strictly military. Even in Vietnam we didn't involve ourselves in political or economic targets; assassinations, interrogations or counterintelligence." In other words, their business is with war, and only a real war will do. Jim confirms, "We have never operated in peacetime. We leave the nasty stuff up to the guys with ninety-pound balls."

 

The 21st Century:

Yet September 11 ushered in a new kind of war for the Ghosts. Says Ramy, "We were never that interested in counter terrorism before, we were always a gloves-off kind of solution. But now the terrorists had declared open war, we were happy to oblige." Buzz agrees: "After 9/11 SOCOM had to rethink how they used a lot of forces. They decided to let us off the leash a bit." Ghost cells were quickly inserted into Afghanistan in October 2001, again on the backs of A-Teams linking up with local resistance forces. "This time," Ramy explains from his own experience, "We were the spear point. We let the A-Teams do most of the spotting and drink tea with the locals. We went on aggressive search and destroy missions based on their Intel."

 

Indeed the Ghosts were responsible for perhaps hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda KIA in their most intense fighting since Vietnam, reportedly with far fewer casualties now that their training and technology far outstripped that of the enemy. Cells were used to attack Taliban command and control structures and capture or kill enemy commanders. They saw particularly intense fighting around Kandahar and in support of conventional forces at Tora Bora. While the hunt for Osama bin Laden has so far been unsuccessful, the Ghosts have been responsible for the arrests or deaths of many of his top lieutenants and are always on standby should the Intel provide his location.

 

The Ghosts besiege a Taliban fort – Afghanistan, 2002

 

Returning to Iraq in 2003 they once again linked up with their Peshmerga friends and involved themselves with targeting missions, assaults on enemy observation and artillery positions and clearing the area for the famous parachute drop of the 173rd into northern Iraq. Operations have continued into the transformation of Iraq from dictatorship to democracy, but the road has not been easy due to ongoing civil unrest. Nevertheless, the Ghosts' record has been exceptional according to classified reports. Says Buzz, "As long as we keep generating results, they keep sending us back."

The Ghosts have since been involved in the seemingly endless mop-up missions against the remnants of the Taliban and the insurgency in Iraq. In a break from unit tradition, probably due to greater SOCOM integration, Ghost Recon have been increasingly involved in operations in areas not considered war zones such as the Philippines. The unit remains at strength and still operates in small cells, but is increasingly working with other US Special Forces, the SAS and conventional units as roles and opportunities converge on the modern battlefield. Casualties are again reportedly light, but figures are hard to come by these days - a practical security concern in an ongoing conflict.

Yet Ghost Recon is also on standby for the next conflict. Ramy refuses to divulge number: "I can't say how many cells we have in reserve and how many are currently engaged, but if something comes up, we'll always have the manpower." The Command structure of the Ghosts has become paradoxically more independent since integration into SOCOM. Access to raw Intel has allowed them to plan and execute targets selected by unit commanders, harking back to the early years in Southeast Asia. Some say trouble is brewing in former Soviet republics, others that the Horn of Africa will once again flare up. Still others at Tampa have a watchful eye on nearby Cuba as her long serving dictator ails. As always the men who wear the skull patch on their shoulders will be first in. Ramy smirks, "Some swear to this day the eerie grin of skull is the ghost of DaveTasker - smiling down on his boys as they continue to fight the good fight."

 

Operations continue in Iraq and Afghanistan