Special forces are highly trained and highly selective military units created to perform unconventional or unorthodox covert missions in defense of a nation’s security interests. They assess potential threats, take out strategic targets, and conduct hostage rescue missions, often in the world’s most dangerous and unfriendly locations. A mystique has grown around many of these units, which have been the subject of documentaries and action movies. (See which ones are featured in some of the best action movies of all time.)
Given the clandestine nature of their activities, and the fact that the tasks between the units can vary, these forces cannot be ranked. But we know from media accounts and some declassified materials which ones are the best of the best in the world.
To determine 20 of the world’s top elite special operation forces, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed lists of such units from RankRed, Spec Ops Magazine, Edudwar, Business Insider, and the veteran-led digital publisher The Mighty. Further information on the type of unit and their principal roles was taken from the unit’s website or from Wikipedia,.
The original special forces date at least from the Roman Empire, which used small, speedy, camouflaged boats with specially trained soldiers for scouting and commando missions.
Many of today’s special forces have their origins in World War II. These include the U.K.’s Special Boat Service and Special Air Service. The SBS is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Navy Seals. The Special Air Service is known by its famous motto, “Who dares wins.” They gained worldwide fame in 1980 when they overtook terrorists holding hostages at the Iranian embassy in London in less than 20 minutes, killing six terrorists and capturing one, without hostage casualities. (These are the biggest ransoms ever paid.)
Other specialized units were formed in the 1970s, in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics tragedy and an upsurge in terrorist activity. These units include Austria’s EKO Cobra, GSG 9 of Germany, and GIGN in France.
Speaking of the Munich incident, Israel’s Shayetet 13, created in 1964, has been involved in nearly every major Israeli war and many covert operations. Those included the “Wrath of God” mission in which Shayetet 13 operators raided Lebanon in 1973 and killed many of those involved in the planning of the attack at the Munich Olympics.
The United States has three special forces on the list. United States Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets; Delta Force, acclaimed for its skill in capturing or killing high-value targets and breaking up terrorist cells; and the Navy SEALs, who were involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the mission to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
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