Special forces or special operations forces are highly trained military units that are well equipped to perform unconventional or unorthodox covert missions concerning a nation’s security interests.
There have been many accounts of unique forces throughout the history of warfare, which specializes in covert operations rather than conventional combat. For instance, the Romans used fast, small, and camouflaged ships with specially trained soldiers for scouting and commando operations.
Then, during the War of Crusades, Muslims deployed many camouflaged ships to gather intelligence and raid passing enemy ships. In Japan, ninjas were recognized as a special force.
It is clear that they are no ordinary military units, and so is this list. Below, we have compiled 16 most dangerous special forces in the world based on their training, weapons, and achievements.
16. GIS – Italy
GIS in desert camo for overseas operations | Credit: Massimiliano Mariani
Nickname: “Leatherheads” (Teste di cuoio)
Role: Counterterrorism, law enforcement
Initially established as a tactical counter-terrorism unit for the Italian military police in 1978, the Special Intervention Group gradually become one of the elite special forces in the country. Over the years, the unit has taken part in numerous counter-terrorism operations and high profile dignitary security details.
This special force unit is renowned for its marksmanship. A GIS sniper team usually includes two operators, who carry Mauser 86SRs, and one scout or a guard, who carries a semi-automatic rifle, Heckler & Koch PSG1.
GIS, along with other Italian special forces units, namely 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment and COMSUBIN, have been deployed in the Middle East and Afghanistan for multiple rescue and special operations.
15. Special Service Group – Pakistan
Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited the Headquarters of Pakistan Army’s elite SSG | Credit: Business Recorder
Motto: I am valiant (Man Janbazam)
Role: Unconventional warfare, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense
Special Services Group or SSG Pak was formed in 1956, by uniting two Pakistani regiments, namely 19 Baluch and 312 Garrison Company. Their initial training and field tactics were based on the US Special Forces methods with whom they closely operated during the Cold War against the Soviets.
The operation Gibraltar, which led to the Indo-Pak war in 1965, was the first major deployment for SSG. They have also executed multiple counter-terrorism operations inside Pakistan borders. SSG conducts periodic joint exercises with the Chinese military and interacts with other foreign special forces on a training field.
They are equipped with an array of high-end, modern weaponry like Steyr AUG, M4 Carbine etc.
14. EKO Cobra – Austria
An officer of the EKO Cobra handling a rifle during an airborne operation | Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Type: Police tactical unit
Role: Counterterrorism, law enforcement
The EKO (Einsatzkommando) Cobra is Austrian counter-terrorism, special operations unit formed in 1978 as a response to the 1972 Munich Olympics attack.
EKO Cobra, a semi-autonomous body, is under the direct control of the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior. It has been involved in many hostage rescue operations. It’s the only counter-terrorism unit to register a successful rescue mission of a hijacked aircraft in mid-air in 1996.
Most of the weaponry used by EKO personals are Austrian made, such as Glocks and Steyr.
13. MARCOS – India
HAL Dhruv helicopter of the MARCOS on Navy day 2013 at Kochi | Credit: Indian Navy
Motto: “The Few, The Fearless”
Role: Amphibious warfare, direct action, counter-terrorism, combat search, and rescue
MARCOS, formerly known as the Marine Commando Force, is the elite special force unit of the Indian Navy. It is solely formed for regulating various special operations, including underwater warfare, counter-terrorism, special reconnaissance, and unconventional warfare. After establishing in 1987, MARCOS gradually gained necessary warfare experience.
The unit actively participates in high octane training exercises with special force units of other countries such as US Navy SEALs, the British Special Air Service (SAS), and Russian special forces.
They acquired a very distinctive name from terrorist groups, who call them “Dadiwala Fuji,” meaning the “Bearded army,” because of their bearded disguise in civilian areas.
12. New Zealand Special Air Service – New Zealand
NZSAS Headquarters Troop with the squadron’s mascot (1955) | Credit: NZ History
Motto: “Who Dares Wins”
Role: Direct action, unconventional warfare, counter-terrorism, special reconnaissance
New Zealand Special Air Service or NZSAS is the “premier combat unit of the New Zealand Defense Force.” Its responsibilities lie in performing special tasks and counter-terrorism operations.
NZSAS was formally established in 1955, but its roots can be traced back to the legendary Long Range Desert Group, a Commonwealth unit, which operated in the North African desert during World War II.
Since their establishment, NZSAS has been deployed in Malaya (1955), Thailand (1962), and Borneo (1965). They played a crucial role in the Vietnam War alongside the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. Back in 2009, the New Zealand Special Air Service conducted counter-insurgency operations in Kabul with the help of the Afghanistan Police.
11. JTF2 – Canada
A member of the JTF2 participates in a demonstration in Manitoba | Credit: Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press
Motto: “Deeds not words”
Role: Counter-terrorism, special operations
Joint Task Force 2, or simply JTF2, is Canada’s special operations unit known for its secretive nature. It was instituted in 1993 solely for counter-terrorism purposes. However, it has evolved since then and incorporated other responsibilities.
The group has multiple successful deployments in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Their operations in Afghanistan were so secret that even the then Canadian Prime Minister was unaware of the fact that the JTF2 was involved.
JTF2 was believed to have conducted joint operations with British SAS and SBS during the Libyan civil war in 2011.
10. GSG 9 – Germany
GSG 9 operators rappel on a German building | Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Type: Elite tactical unit
Role: Counterterrorism, specialized law enforcement
On 5th September 1972, a group of terrorists operating under the name ‘Black September’ (Palestinian terrorist organization) disrupted the Summer Olympic Games held in Munich as they abducted and killed 11 athletes along with a German officer.
The situation was extremely critical since the German police had neither prior training nor equipment necessary for counter-terrorism operations. A year later, the German government commissioned the Border Protection Group 9 or GSG 9 to thwart any similar situation in the future.
Since their formation, GSG 9 has been deployed in numerous counter-terrorism and hostage rescue operations both at home and abroad. They are also known for developing new tactics and methods for such missions.
Most of the weapons used by GSG 9 are either German or American manufactured.
9. GIGN – France
GIGN operators during a demonstration in June 2018 | Image Courtesy: Bruno Domenjod
Type: Elite police tactical unit
Role: Special operations, counter terrorism, law enforcement
After the Munich massacre in 1972 and a prison mutiny in Clairvaux the year before, the French government felt the need for a permanent solution to terrorist attacks and hostage situations. As a result, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group was formed in 1974 under the French Armed Forces.
The organization is renowned for its swift responses and special combat capabilities in hostile situations, hostage rescue, and anti-terrorism operations.
GIGN displayed these qualities in one of the most daring hostage rescue missions, in which its operatives successfully rescued a hijacked Air France flight carrying more than 200 passengers by killing four terrorists in 1994.
The central assault unit of GIGN consists of four platoons, each with twenty-four operators. Other units carry intelligence gathering and surveillance in a supporting role.
8. JW GROM – Poland
US Navy SEALs and GROM and US Navy SEALs warfare team practicing boarding skills in Poland | Credit: GROM
Nickname: The unseen & silent; The Surgeons
Role: Counter terrorism, unconventional warfare, direct action
JW GROM, meaning “thunder,” is Poland’s finest counter-terrorism unit and one of the five special-forces operating under Poland’s Special Troops Command. It was established in the year 1990. During its initial years, GROM took inspiration from other elite forces like British SAS, American Delta Force, and SEALs.
From 1991 to 2004, JW GROM has been involved in more than twenty different counter-terrorism and peace missions all over the world, including Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti and the invasion of Iraq.
7. Sayeret Matkal – Israel
Image credit: IDF
Nickname: “The Unit”
Role: Counter terrorism, hostage rescue, special reconnaissance, direct action
Sayeret Matkal is a special force unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) modeled after the British SAS. The united was created after the Qibya massacre and subsequent dismissal of Unit-101, IDF’s only dedicated special-force at that time other than the Navy’s Shayetet 13.
The Operation Entebbe in 1976, demonstrated the reach and capability of Sayeret Matkal to the world. About a hundred Israeli commandos, including Sayeret Matkal operators, stormed Uganda’s Entebbe airport on July 4 and rescued more than a hundred hostages kept in a highjacked grounded plane.
6. Special Air Service Regiment – Australia
SASR candidates take part in team-building exercises | Image credit: LAC Leigh Cameron
Nicknames: “Snake eaters,” “chicken stranglers.”
Role: Counter operations, Special reconnaissance
Unlike most of the special forces, the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) is an integral part of the Australian Army rather than its Navy. Established in 1957, the SASR draws early experiences of the Australian Services Reconnaissance Department Unit, which were disbanded soon after World War 2.
SASR operators are trained to conduct far-fetched covert and surveillance missions with small teams, and at the same time, for conducting raids in large groups. Over the years, SASR has been involved in various peacekeeping and anti-terrorist operations both domestically and overseas.
Alongside war-fighting during conventional conflicts, the regiment is also tasked with maintaining a specialist counter-terrorist capability. SASR’s other responsibilities include training indigenous forces, recovery of Australian citizens, and humanitarian assistance.
5. Delta Force – USA
Delta Force bodyguards provide close protection to General Norman Schwarzkopf | Credit: Staff SGT. Dean W. Wagner
Nicknames: CAG, Task Force Green
Role: Counterterrorism, special reconnaissance, hostage rescue, direct action
Delta Force, also known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, is a U.S. Army unit for counter-terrorism activities. It was formed in 1977, after multiple terrorist attacks in the mid-1970s.
The idea of such a unit was suggested by Charles Beckwith, a Special Forces officer, who had served as an exchange officer with the British Army’s Special Air Service (22 SAS Regiment) during the Malayan Emergency. He proposed a highly adaptable and autonomous force that specializes in covert missions.
In an interview, former Delta Force operator Paul Howe stated about the high attrition rate of his Delta selection course. Out of his two classes totaling 240 candidates, only 12 to 14 completed the course.
4. Alpha Group – Russia
Vladimir Putin (Russian Prime Minister) shakes hands with Alpha officers during a visit to Chechnya | Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Nickname: Alpha Group (Alfa)
Role: Counter-terrorism, law enforcement, hostage rescue, direct action
Some of you might be wondering what about ‘Spetsnaz’? Well, you should know that Spetsnaz is a general term used for all the Soviet/Russian special forces.
Alpha Group, officially known as Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center, was established by the Soviet KGB in 1974 to carry out paramilitary and covert operations. It’s now committed to counter-terrorism activities. The Alpha Group operators are considered as one of the most aggressive in the world.
During the Soviet era, the Alpha Group took part in armed interventions in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Baltic region. Domestically, it has taken part in almost every major anti-terrorist/hostage operations, including the Moscow theater siege in 2002 and the Beslan school siege in 2004.
3. Shayetet 13 – Israel
Shayetet 13 Operatives during training | Credit: Israel Defense Forces
Nickname: HaShayetet (The Flotilla)
Role: Special operations, sabotage, counter-terrorism
Shayetet 13 is a veteran special force unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. Established in 1948, Shayetet 13 has carried some of the most dangerous counter-insurgency missions. Perhaps the most notable of them occurred in 1972 when they successfully eliminated those who were responsible for the attack on the Israeli athletes during the Munich Massacre.
Over the years, Shayetet 13 has mastered their abilities in maritime intelligence gathering, maritime hostage rescue, counter-terrorism act, sabotage, and boarding. It is often compared and at par with the likes of Britain’s Special Boat Service and US Navy SEALs.
2. Navy SEALs – The United States
Officers participating in a training program with SCAR rifles | Credit: U.S Navy SEALs
Nickname: “The Teams”
Role: HVT raids, counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, counter-narcotic operations
This distinct American Special Forces was created in 1962 as a part of the Naval Special Warfare Command and the United States Special Operation Command. Although one can trace their roots from World War 2, the Vietnam war of 1961 saw the actual birth of the modern-day SEAL.
In the last few decades, Navy SEALs have been deployed in active war zones, including the Iraq invasion in 2003. Operation Neptune Spear was, without a doubt, the greatest achievements of the Navy SEALs.
Their training methods are incredibly harsh, and often described as ‘brutal.’ An average SEALs candidate spends more than a year in a remarkable physical and mental training program before getting enlisted.
1. SAS – United Kingdom
SAS patrol in North Africa during World War 2 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Nickname: “The Regiment”
Role: Counter-terrorism, reconnaissance, special operations
The Special Air Service (SAS) is one of the oldest and perhaps the best special forces that serve Britain. It was formed in 1941.
The Special Air Service is composed of three units: 22 SAS Regiment (the regular unit), 21SAS (Artists)(R), and 23 SAS the reserve unit (reserves). 22 SAS regiment has four active squadrons: A, B, D, and G. Each squadron contains more or less 65 men, categorized into four troops. Each troop has a separate headquarters section that is guided by a captain.
British SAS played a significant role during the War in Afghanistan. During a joint rescue operation with U.S special forces, code-named Jubilee, the SAS operators successfully rescued the hostages without any casualty from Badakhshan Province in Afganistan.
The importance of the British SAS can be judged by a single fact that many of the powerful special forces overseas were initially based on SAS principles. One good example is the American Delta Force.