Special forces been around for longer than we thought. Ancient nations that were engaged in warfare required elite soldiers to conduct their most dangerous missions and important battles. From the Pharaoh’s Finest to the Companion Cavalry that fought for Alexander the Great. Ancient commandos are still having their stories told today.
It was World War Two when what we think of today as special forces started to come to fruition. The SAS were formed and started completing commando raids in the North African desert. They destroyed the Luftwaffe airfields and escaped without the Germans knowing what had happened.
The general public didn’t know much about these elite forces until May 1980. On 30th April 1980 six terrorists entered the Iranian Embassy in London and took 26 hostages. Six days later the SAS stormed the Embassy on live TV to end the siege.
Fast forward to today. We see regular books written from former special forces soldiers, some say at a cost to the secrecy and tactics of the units. There are many documentaries and films produced to tell the stories of great missions and heroes.
Countries are now developing their own special forces units. Most are based on the SAS who are still thought of by experts as the leading military unit in the world. Even more so when it comes to counter terrorist missions, hostage rescue and infiltration and intelligence gathering.
It’s subjective as to which is the best special forces unit. They aren’t going to be competing against each other with set rules to establish a winner. Some units are developed to focus on hostage rescue. Some units are largely used for intelligence purposes.
There will be long debates about who is the best and I’m not here to try convince you. You make up your mind with your own opinion. Is it the unit that has great success with a tiny budget compared to others? Is it the highest number of successful missions? You decide.
Here is a look at 19 of the best special forces and elite military units in the world today.
Joint Task Force 2 (JTF) – Canada
JTF2 are relatively young compared to many others special forces units. Developed in 1992 from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), they had a little over 100 members within a year. They’ve served regularly since.
JTF2 focus on counter terrorism including hostage rescue and direct action missions. Allies praise JTF2 on their work in global situations including Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Bosnia they conducted missions including hunting down snipers in sniper alley in two-to-four man teams.
According to Sean M. Maloney, in his book he claims they were sent to Southern Afghanistan in 2001 without the Prime Minister’s permission. This would have been unheard of in other countries but Canada tend to keep their military involvement under large hats. A hat so large in fact that the man in charge of the country didn’t even know what they were doing.
JTF2 use a combination of Colt Canada C7 and C8 rifles. The P90 for a pdw and an M40 sniper rifle for the long-range kills. Add an MP5A3 submachine gun and Sig Sauer pistols and they’re armed to the teeth with personal weapons.
EKO Cobra – Austria
EKO Cobra are Austria’s elite counter terrorism unit. Made up from their Federal Police they’re the main unit to conduct special operations. They originated in 1978, inspired after the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and are around 450 strong.
Armed with mostly Austrian weaponry shows the faith they have in their manufacturing. They use the Steyr AUG assault rifle and the Steyr SSG 69 sniper rifle.
Wearing all black they can be a fearsome sight with their own insignia that separates them from the Federal Police.
GIS – Italy
The Gruppo di Intervento Speciale (GIS) are known as the Special Intervention Group in English. They’re an elite counter terrorism unit that is within the Italian military police. They are kept back for the highest risk operations such as hostage rescue and storming hijacked aircraft.
Weapon wise you name it they probably use it. Scar rifles, M-249, M4 Carbine, MP5’s, it’s all there in their locker so don’t get on the wrong side of them. They’ll be smashing your door down and ripping your face off.
US Army Rangers
The US Army Ranger School produces top-notch soldiers. Within this unit are the elite 75th Ranger Regiment that were formed in 1986. Prior to this Rangers have seen successful action in most campaigns. As far back as the American Revolutionary War in 1775 they fought and won many battles.
In more recent times they have conducted operations in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, both Iraq wars and Afghanistan. Busy guys if I do say so myself.
They conduct themselves by following their official mission statement, or Ranger Creed as it’s known.
From the Ranger Handbook:
- Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my Ranger Regiment.
- Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier.
- Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one hundred percent and then some.
- Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress, and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.
- Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
- Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.
- Rangers, lead the way.
US Army Special Forces (Green Berets)
The Green Beret’s are another of the USA’s special operations military units. The have five primary missions that they’re tasked with; unconventional warfare, direct action, counter terrorism, special reconnaissance and foreign internal defence.
They’re considered one of the best special forces in the world by many.
Smaller more detailed tasks are also performed such as hostage rescue, counter-narcotics but also peacekeeping.
SF have military skills that are more advanced than most. They work as a tight unit in small groups and often spend a long time, if not their whole careers in the unit.
After completing the “Q” course training they can work towards the advanced skills and specialise as a Combat Diver, Sniper or Free Fall Parachutist. These are skills that were put so finely on display by Rambo who was a former Green Beret in the films.
John Rambo isn’t much of a “quiet professional” though which is how US Special Forces are often known.
Royal Marine Commandos – UK
Bootnecks don’t come under special forces but this is a list of not just the best special forces but elite military units as well and elite they are.
With links dating back to 1664 they’re older than many countries. Wearing the coveted green beret they tour the world smashing up the bad guys. They rarely have a year off from operations and are trained to fight in all conditions from desert to jungle to arctic.
They have the longest basic military training in the world with a large drop out rate. The SBS (see below) often recruit the best from the Royal Marines for their ranks.
MARCOS – India
MARCOS, short for Marine Commandos are another young unit coming in to existence in 1987. In that time they have progressed and built a fearsome reputation as a fighting force. They focus on the usual special operations missions that involve direct action, hostage rescue, counter terrorism, amphibious warfare and more.
Nicknamed by the terrorists as “Dadiwala fauj” which translates as the “Bearded Army” because they grow top class beards when in civil areas, their skills are improving year on year.
In recent years they’ve been heavily involved in anti piracy activities off the Somali coast, the Gulf of Adenthe and the Arabian Sea.
With an average drop out rate of 90% they’re a tough military unit that only the best can join.
Special Air Service (SAS) – UK
The British SAS/ are probably the most respected and highly thought of special forces unit in the world. When people think best special forces they think SAS. Developed in the Second World War by David Stirling. He wanted a team of well-trained troops that could conduction secret missions deep behind enemy lines.
They have served all over the world from Borneo and Northern Ireland to the Falkland Islands and Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iranian Embassy siege was when the world got to hear about them in the mainstream media for the first time.
In Iraq they led many raids and the background behind these raids is covered in Task Force Black. Many other special forces units are heavily based on the SAS make up and they have some of the longest, toughest training in the world. The Brecon Beacons is the environment for their many long marches with heavy bergans during the hills phase with a very high drop out rate due to the fast timings required.
Close quarter skills are developed in the famed killing house where they use live ammunition. This is to ensure practice is as close to reality as possible.
GIGN – France
After the Munich massacre GIGN was developed mainly as a hostage rescue unit should a similar event occur in France. They’ve rescued over 600 hostages since it’s formation in 1973 (they became operational in 1974) so they have plenty of experience in this field. They’ve also completed over 1800 missions.
GIGN focus on counter terrorism, hostage rescue, special operations and less active roles such as surveillance, training and protection of sensitive sites such as embassies in nations that are experiencing trouble or war.
They have a training program that takes fourteen months to complete and sees approximately 7-8% of people successfully complete the process. Don’t think this is a breeze.
Delta Force – USA
1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta are mainly known as Delta Force. They are a part of the US Army that conduct special operations. They have a Navy equivalent called DEVGRU that are often referred to as Seal Team Six.
Joint Special Operations Command control both DEVGRU and Delta Force as the elite units of the US forces.
They are based on the British SAS with regards to structure and tactics and have a low pass out rate for training like many other special forces units. Paul Howe, a former Delta operator explained how 12-14 people passed the course from his two classes that contained 240 men.
They were established in 1977 in a situation that rang with echoes of many other special forces units that came in to existence after numerous terrorist attacks during the decade.
SSG – Pakistan
The Special Services Group (SSG) are a large elite force. They consist of eight battalions of 700 men so plenty of numbers to kick some ass.
They’ve been involved mainly in operations and activities in past Indo-Pakistan wars but also according to reports, saw action in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war.
In more recent times they’ve been active against terrorists along Pakistan’s western borders with Afghanistan. Fighting Islamist extremists in Pakistani cities keeps them busy.
Unlike some special forces that allow you join direct from civvie street the SSG require at least 2 years minimum military service and then conduct and pass the nine month SSG course.
Spetsnaz – Russia
Spetsnaz are well known as being the special forces group for Russia but there is a smaller sub unit of Spetsnaz called Alpha Group that is their main effective unit. Many people think they’re called Spetsnaz but Spetsnaz is an umbrella term for the whole of the Russian special forces.
Spetznaz were created in 1974 like many other units, a good chance of the reason being due to the Munich Massacre again. They played a large part in the ten-year Soviet-Afghan War but now spend a large part of their time dedicated to fighting terrorists.
They’re a badass unit with Russians who we all know have super human strength. They bend metal frying pans with their hands for fun so I’ll leave it to the terrorists to piss them off.
GSG9 – Germany
GSG9 are another unit formed in the 70’s, this time in 1973. They’re 1800 members strong and focus on counter terrorism and hostage rescue like many others.
From 1972 to 2003 they have completed over 1500 missions but amazingly they’ve discharged their weapons on only five occasions.
The German unit require two years military service before allowing you to join. This ensures standards and skills are kept high fighting terrorism. This is where they’ve spent much of their time in recent years.
Parachute Regiment – UK
The Para’s are an elite force of the British Army. They were formed back in 1940 to conduct operations during World War Two and have seen active duty in every decade for a while.
They done great work in the Falklands in 1982. The 2nd Battalion battling courageously and winning a vital fight during the battle of Goose Green.
The Para’s don’t gain as much publicity at the Royal Marines but they do quality work destroying the bad guys on a regular basis. They’re highly skilled in the world of military warfare.
Navy Seals – USA
Navy Seals are the Navy’s primary special operations force. They’re one of the best special forces by being trained to fight on sea, air or land. With their ability to work and smash the enemy up in any sort of environment they have seen regular action and played vital parts in all recent wars including Iraq and Afghanistan.
SEALs conduct missions all over the world, they were the unit responsible for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. This raised the profile of Navy Seals even higher as one of the respected elite forces.
In recent years Navy Seals have featured in films including Lone Survivor and American Sniper. This has not only increased the Navy Seal profile but also encouraged more volunteers to the unit.
Shayetet 13 – Israel
Shayetet 13 is the veteran force of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). The Israeli unit were formed in 1949 but they were kept a state secret for a long time. They wear the insignia of the Navy instead of their own badges.
Shayatet 13 had many missions fail for a long time before they started being successful. During the Six Day War they had six divers captured and taken prisoner with no damage to the enemy infrastructure along with other failing missions.
They’re split in to three units, with each of them being company sized. The soldiers use the M4 Carbine but like most elite units they’re trained to use many different weapons for each situation.
Recruits partake in training for 20 months before passing out in one of the longest and toughest training courses in the world.
Special Boat Service (SBS) – UK
The SBS are the sister unit of the SAS. They complete the same training as the SAS but then go on to complete a further period of training to focus on maritime skills including long swims, diving, canoeing and more which is conducted in bad weather on the British south coast.
The Special Boat Service were founded during the Second World War. The SBS get most of their members from the Royal Marines but all military unit members can apply.
They fought extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq but large detailed reports of their missions are not available due to the government not commenting on special forces matters.
JW Grom – Poland
JW Grom are the counter terrorism unit from the Polish special forces. They’ve only been active since 1990 so are one of the younger units but are still full of soldiers trained in many areas such as sniping, parachuting and frogman skills.
Grom conduct training with some of the best special forces in the world that keeps their skills sharp and have tough psychological tests and training before they can pass the course.
Missions in recent years include both Afghanistan and Iraq where they helped out the coalition during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
French Foreign Legion – France
Now these bad boys have experience. Formed in 1831 they have nearly two centuries of missions behind them. In the past they were known for being the unit where people ran to join when they were looking for an escape, to start a new life after maybe losing everything, doing something bad, whatever, it gave people a fresh start.
Not any more. They get recruits from 140 countries so that’s some serious pulling power.
They’re awesome soldiers. They’ve fought in battles all over the world and have training with brutal punishment as Simon Murray explains.
Many of their soldiers are there with nothing to lose and this can give a man an extra level to rise up to when in battle against an enemy that could have a family in the back of his mind.
They complete long marches in desert conditions including the famous Kepi Blanc march of 31 mile (50 km), a 2 day march (25 km pr day) in full kit. Ouch.
Well that’s 19 and it was hard to decide. There needs to be honorable mentions to the Special Reconnaissance Regiment – UK, FGNE – Spain, BOPE – Brazil and Kopassus – Indonesia.