What do Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, Charlie Sheen, Demi Moore and Steven Seagal all have in common? At one time or another they have all portrayed special forces soldiers on the big screen and satiated the public’s love of action movies that involve elite military forces. In the world of the military, perhaps no one group fascinates us or takes hold of our imagination more than the special-forces. On top of the ‘regular’ military forces, most nations have an elite group of service personnel who are held to a higher standard of requirements and training. Some of these groups are well publicized and have been covered in the media recently. Others aren’t as well-known with only allegations or myths surfacing over the years to provide any clue of their existence.
Whether emerging from the water to silently take out guards, storming a plane to rescue the hostages and eliminate the hostage-takers or slipping through the lines to sabotage enemy bridges and roads, special-forces take on some of the hardest missions and live some of the most secret lives in the military world. Who is the best? It’s a difficult and near-impossible question to tackle as each nation’s special-forces are built to do different jobs, including counter-terrorism and hostage rescue to reconnaissance and assault missions. That said, the requirements to get into the force in question, past operations and reputation can all help assess who some of the more deadly special-forces around the world are.
The following list looks at 10 of the top special-forces currently deployed in the world. Unfortunately it can only have 10, although there are many that should be on this list. The big names are all here and a few may surprise you. However, don’t let popularity in the media fool you. Just because you haven’t heard of them or recognize them from movies or video games, doesn’t mean the forces listed below are not elite and deserving of a place on this list. In any event, we guarantee you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of any of these groups.
10 GIGN – France
Starting off our list are the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN) from France. The GIGN, like many European special-forces, trace their origins back to the hostage massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The French had also experienced a prison mutiny the year before in which hostages had been taken and murdered. The result of these experiences contributed to the creation of a force which today stands at around 400 members. Specializing in anti-terrorist and hostage rescue, the GIGN have seen their share of action. Past operations have included rescuing 30 school children held hostage in Djibouti, capturing war criminals in Bosnia, battling Somali pirates and, of course, the dramatic assault and hostage rescue of passengers aboard Air France flight 8969 in Marseille in 1994.
9 SSG – Pakistan
In 1956, the Pakistani Army created its own special forces known as the Special Services Group (SSG). This force was modelled on the British SAS and US special-forces and its size remains highly classified. Selection for this force is rigorous and only 1 in 4 recruits end up making it through the nine-month training, airborne school and extensive hand-to-hand combat and physical conditioning elements. The SSG is trained for a variety of environments including mountain, desert, jungle and underwater. During the early Cold War, SSG forces trained and served alongside US special-forces. It is alleged some of these forces served in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s. India alleges that SSG forces have attacked their soldiers on more than one occasion in volatile border regions shared by the two nations. More recently, the SSG has focused on local anti-terrorist operations, taking part in ending the 2009 attacks on the Lahore police academy and rescuing the hostages of another 2009 attack on the Pakistan Military Headquarters.
8 Sayeret Matkal – Israel
This Israeli special-forces unit is focused on reconnaissance, anti-terrorism and hostage rescue outside of Israel. Sayeret Matkal was formed in 1957 to fill a void in Israel’s special-forces and is made up of candidates selected for their high physical and intellectual characteristics. Candidates undergo eighteen months of training which includes basic infantry school, parachute school, counter-terrorism training and reconnaissance related training. The force has taken part in many large scale operations since the 1960s. The most famous of these, Operation Entebbe/Thunderbolt, demonstrated the determination and reach of Sayeret Matkal to the world. The operation came to be after several Palestinian and pro-Palestinian terrorists had taken hostages onboard an airliner which was flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Many hostages were released but over 100, mainly Israeli and Jewish hostages, were kept in the airport terminal building. A group of around 100 Israeli commandos, including an assault force of Sayeret Matkal assaulted the position, killing the terrorists and freeing almost all of the hostages.
7 EKO-Cobra – Austria
As a result of the attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Austria created the Einsatzkommando Cobra for anti-terrorist operations. The force is made up of 450 men who have served in the Austrian Federal Police Force. Training, like every special-force, involves several months of specialized courses focused on marksmanship, languages, hand-to-hand combat and tactical and assault training. Of course, only those who pass strict psychological and physical testing qualify for the full training. In order to be as diverse as possible, extra specialized training often follows this ‘general’ training and focuses on things like explosives, diving and sniping. While EKO-Cobra hasn’t had any sorts of operations like the Sayeret Matkal, they have ended a hostage taking in Graz-Karlau prison in 1996 and are the only counter-terrorist team to end a hijacking while the plane was in mid-flight. In this instance, in 1996, four Cobra members were on a flight when a hijacker demanded the plane be diverted. Needless to say, the hijacker picked the worst flight to make his move and was subdued by the Cobra members.
6 Delta Force – USA
The full name of this group is the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. In addition to counter-terrorism operations, Delta Force can also take part in hostage rescue, raids, reconnaissance and less covert direct action operations. The group was formed in 1977 as a result of an increasing number of high-profile terrorist operations. Since then it has been composed largely of soldiers who have served in US special-forces like the Green Berets or Rangers. To be considered for training, potential candidates must be male, at least 21 years old, score highly on an aptitude test and be between the rank of corporal and master sergeant. A series of grueling physical and mental tests follow with the aim of weeding out the weakest. Allegedly, this testing means less than 1 in 10 make it through to the 6 month-long training course. Delta Force operations remain highly guarded secrets but you can bet they are in the vanguard of any US-led operation.
5 JTF2 – Canada
Created in 1993 and expanded to several hundred members following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 is an elite counter-terrorism and special operations unit. Composed of military personnel from the Canadian Forces, JTF2 undertakes a range of operations. They have been known to escort VIPs and provide site security at events like the 2010 Winter Olympics. More covertly, they have operated in many world hotspots, whether it be rescuing hostages in Iraq or hunting down Serbian snipers in Bosnia. The force’s time in Afghanistan is largely guarded but it is known they were involved before most ground forces arrived and worked beside other special forces, like the US Navy SEALs. Their operations were so secret that even the Canadian Prime Minister was unaware the force was involved in Afghanistan during the early days.
4 Alpha Group – Russia
What about the Spetsnaz? Well, to keep it simple, any list which gives ‘Spetsnaz’ as a distinct force is just plain wrong as that term is a general name for all Soviet/Russian special-forces. Within the Russian special-forces, Alpha Group is as bad as they come. This force started out in the mid-1970s and came to fame during the invasion of Afghanistan during which members of Alpha stormed the Presidential Palace in Kabul, killing everyone in the building. In 1985, a group was dispatched to Beirut to try and rescue four Soviet diplomats. When the diplomats were killed, Alpha Group allegedly hunted down relatives of the hostage takers and returned them to their families in much smaller pieces to send a message to would-be terrorists. It apparently worked for over 20 years. Domestically, Alpha has been involved in most of the major anti-terrorist/hostage operations in Russia such as the Moscow theatre siege of 2002 and the Beslan school siege in 2004. Both events demonstrated the rather heavy handed nature of the Russian special-forces as hundreds of hostages were killed during operations.
3 Shayetet 13 – Israel
Another Israeli special-forces group, Shayetet 13 is associated with the Israeli navy. Created in 1948, this force has taken part in every major Israeli operation and war conducting everything from hostage rescue and counter-terrorism to intelligence gathering and boarding. Training is 20 months long and pushes candidates under the most stressful psychological and physical testing before specialized training even begins. You name the specialized type of training and odds are the members of Shayetet 13 have done it – whether it be parachute training, demolitions, underwater warfare or cold/dark training. Operationally, Shayetet 13 members have recently been involved in a number of high profile operations involving boarding ships and seizing weaponry bound for Gaza. Their most notable operation was after the 1972 Munich Olympics when they were used to hunt down and eliminate those responsible for the attack on the Israeli athletes.
2 Navy SEALs – USA
You knew these guys were going to have to show up sometime. The SEALs are an American special-forces group created in 1962 which have achieved near mythical status. This in part is thanks to Operation Neptune Spear – the mission in which SEALs flew into Abbottabad, Pakistan in May, 2011 and killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. The SEALs are elite and the physical and mental strength required to make it in this force is ridiculously high. Training takes over a year and most applicants can’t even get past the physical qualification test which involves a lot of swimming, push-ups, sit-ups and running, all accomplished in a very strict time limit. Get past that and you enter general training. Pass that and you move on to SEAL qualification training which then opens the door to specialized training. All of this ensures that SEAL members are physically and mentally as tough as nails and capable of undertaking the most difficult operations in the world, wherever that may be.
1 SAS – Britain
What’s this, a group rated higher than the SEALs? Indeed. The British Special Air Service was created in 1941 as a force which could operate behind German and Italian lines and support resistance movements against the occupation forces. Understandably, the force is made up of British military personnel with the most coming from the airborne forces. Physical requirements are harsh and require a lot of marching with full packa. This culminates in a 40 mile march with a full pack that must be finished in 20 hours. Candidates must also be able to swim two miles in an hour and a half and run four miles in 30 minutes. After this, you get dropped in the jungle to learn survival and navigational skills, after which you endure survival practice. The final test is a 36-hour interrogation session meant to break the candidate’s will. The handful who make it through this get transferred to an operation force for further training. Not convinced this is ‘better’ than the SEALs? It may help you to know that the SAS is also trained by MI5 and MI6 security and intelligence services to undertake counter-espionage operations. It’s like having a SEAL and James Bond all rolled into one.