Faceless heroes behind some of the most tense and terrifying situations, the world’s elite forces are mysterious and deadly. Their intense training and unique psychological approach to problem solving breeds men so unstoppable they’ll take on any challenge. Much of their work takes place in the shadows. Many complete missions we’ll never hear about. Governments deny their existence and some die and disappear in the strangest of circumstances. Which makes each and every special military force fascinating. Mystical martial art techniques, James Bond-style gadgets – even war trained animals feature in their secretive arsenal of weapons. Some can kill you with their bare hards. For many elite forces this is a subtle, deft and quick dispatch but one force will just beat you to death with their iron fists. If there’s one thing for certain, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of any of these nations – or their military grade hitmen.
We’ve dug deep into the murky depths of the elite special military forces to find some of the toughest, and most battle-hardened forces in the world. Read on to find out more about their secretive world, brutal training regimes and prepare to be in awe of the sheer madness of their training exercises.
15. The SAS – UK
“Many are called, but few are chosen” – a phrase used during the rigorous Special Air Service (SAS) selection process. Presumably few are chosen because they are lying broken and bloodied from the gruelling 6 month test of strength, endurance and mental agility. One of the toughest recruitment selections in the world, soldiers are abandoned in the jungle for weeks, sent on a 40 mile march and subjected to a hellish nightmare of physical and mental abuse. Even the toughest soldiers hesitate before applying. The end result? A rugged collection of Britain’s finest men who will do whatever it takes to survive. Whether it’s undercover surveillance or ‘neutralizing’ enemy forces, the SAS are at the top of their elite forces game.
14. Sayeret Matkal – Israel
A shadowy and secretive special operations group, Sayeret Matkal have achieved swift, tactical victories with little fanfare. But with a murky air of mystery shadowing Sayeret Matkal, there’s more than a whiff of the 80s primetime drama the A-Team about this group. Surviving as soldiers of fortune … If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The Sayeret Matkal. Urban myths and cigar smoking figureheads aside, official reports say there are around 200 full time commandos who are ready to strike out of nowhere when their country needs them. Whether or not they strike out of a black transit van is anyone’s guess. The Sayeret Matkal do have a secret weapon though – an adapted version of Krav Maga enables them to disarm any assailant with power and precision. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, served with them for 5 years. No mention of Faceman, Murdoch, Hannibal or BA though. Sad!
13. Special Boat Service – UK
So, you’ve survived the seemingly never ending hell that is the SAS recruitment process. Congrats tough guy you’ve made it to the big league. Queen and country are yours to defend. If you’re one of those irritating go-getting types always striving to achieve, get your name down for the SBS. After the SAS the next step is the Special Boat Service where things get aquatic. Clandestine and dangerous tasks include infiltrating enemy territory via submarine. As expert divers, the highly trained operators leave the submarine with their equipment, swim to the target, carry out a mission and dive back to their underwater base. Which all sounds like way too many outfit changes. Wetsuits, camo gear, balaclavas – not to mention weapons and surveillance tech. Maybe just book a light-hearted trip to a water park on your week off lads?
With soldiers also able to board ships from fast moving ribs, crews never see them coming. Unless they’re Tom Hanks playing Captain Phillips. Then all bets are off.
12. Alpha Group – Russia
Created by the KGB in the 70s, Alpha Group are a formidable foe. Rumours fly online about the brutal recruitment process. One of the most harrowing sees them woken in the middle of the night and flung into a dark corridor. If, like me, you need your 8 hours – this is nightmare enough. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The corridor is filled with pigs blood and entrails. We’re not talking a light spillage on the floor here. Thigh deep coagulating blood from the local slaughterhouse is sloshing in places you wish it wouldn’t. So far, so gross. Then they unleash the angry dogs. Your only option is to wade, run or flail your way to safety through the guts and gore. Apparently this gets you used to the horrors of war. As job interviews go, this is one that would probably make me give some serious thought to my life choices.
Alpha Group has become renowned for its work in hostage situations – with mixed results. The loss of 120 hostages in the 2002 Moscow crisis was embarrassing to say the least. Hostages died from a gas used to subdue militants who were holding hostages in a Moscow theatre. Oops.
11. Special Services Group – Pakistan
To show their commitment to defend Pakistan, new recruits to the SSG sign their contracts in blood. Cutting their thumbs, the papers are stamped and SSG members will do anything to carry out a mission. Including give their lives. I’ve been reluctant to give half an hour’s overtime in most jobs I’ve worked, so fair play to them. During the 2009 GHQ operation, two SSG commandos gave their lives to save unarmed hostages. It’s this type of bravery and commitment that sees the SSG regularly ranked in the top 10 elite forces in the world. Their training – just like the other groups on this page – is a period of hell, which for the SSG involves lying semi-naked in deep snow. Either that or they were making snow angels during some well-earned down time.
10. Navy SEALs – USA
Copied the world over by wannabe GI Joe’s who spent hours fiddling with their toy soldiers as a child. The Navy SEALs set the standard for elite groups around the globe. And with good reason. Their training is so formidable it actually switches up their brains. The SEALS – Sea-Air-Land operators – are so intensely and precisely tuned to battle that their brain cells change the way they process fear. That’s some serious next level shit right there. We’re not talking 6 weeks of hypnosis and you’ll quit smoking, we’re looking at running into blazing buildings, infiltrating enemy territory and taking a bullet for your buddies kinda stuff. Hardcore to the max, SEALs even have their own war dogs. Able to open parachutes, the dogs regularly SKYDIVE with handlers or perform solo drops.
To truly get a feel for the ‘tude of the SEALs, check out this formidable guy. Bill Shepherd, a Navy SEAL who became an astronaut, was asked what he did best in his astronaut job interview. His answer? “Kill people with a knife.” Just the kind of chap you’d like to be wedged in a metal box with for a week or three, huh?
9. Groupe d’intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale – France
Top recruits from the French police battle everything from drug dealers and organised crime to nuclear threats. A lighter mission might see them shadowing a couple of well-heeled VIPs on a trip abroad. Quite the mixed bag on a typical work day.
The selection stage takes three months, but one documentary following a group of intakes saw 120 hopefuls decimated by the process, leaving just 18 plucky volunteers left to battle on. Things take a pugilistic turn towards the end when professional boxers are drafted in. Pummelled and beaten down, the recruits must keep getting up to continue fighting. Just the thing to prepare you for dealing with those ever-demanding VIPs and their constant requests for steamed vegetables and coconut water.
Created in the 70s, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group were France’s reaction to the hostage crisis at the 1972 Games in Munich. Woefully unprepared, Europe needed an elite force who could storm buildings, release hostages and take a punch like a pro.
8. Green Berets – USA
Sign up for the Green Berets and you might expect all sorts of soldier-based antics. “Slap on my war paint and get me trained to Solid Snake levels of stealthy, shooty combat please.” Is something you might say on your first day in the job. And while you will be trained in every aspect of combat, just like a regular soldier, the Green Berets have another major role to play. They LOVE to talk. The berets like nothing more than furtively accessing an inner compound to sit down and chew the fat with a village elder. Sent deep into enemy territory they work with local people, tribes or rebel fighters to topple the enemy. You see, although Solid Snake could resolve the world’s problems single handedly, the Berets know it takes a village. A village armed to the teeth and ready to sort out the problems of its country without needing outside help.
As the USA’s most adaptable elite force, the Green Berets can be found killing insurgents one minute or teaching groups of rebel fighters to kill more effectively the next. America’s first line of defence around the globe their core SERE training – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape – helps them stay one step ahead of enemies. Often working alone, Beret’s work outside Geneva Convention jurisdiction, meaning they can be killed or tortured on sight if discovered. If your Metal Gear Solid approach was just to run in, guns blazing – maybe give the Berets a miss, eh?
7. NAVSOG – Phillippines
Line up the shots lads, we’re going on an 18 mile swim! Not what you’d expect to hear on a tough and sadistic military training exercise.
Look, we all like a drink now and then. Some of us could be drinking right now while we’re writing this. But most of us don’t compare with the twisted minds at the Philippines NAVSOG recruitment centre. During selection they like to ply their potential recruits with hard booze. Restricting their sleep to just a couple of hours they then get them blind drunk before assessing how they handle their drink. Apparently this prepares the recruits for coping with extreme situations in every circumstance. It’s unclear whether recruits have to deploy tactics to avoid drunk dialling, side-swerve a regrettable one night stand with their housemate, stop themselves oversharing or worst of all mixing their drinks. But they do have to do an 18 mile swim. Whilst cripplingly over hydrated with hard liquor. Called the Hell Blast it’s one of the final stages before the applicants become fully fledged sabotage agents ready for unconventional warfare. Their motto “first to respond, last to leave” presumably refers to the bar.
6. MARCOS – India
If you somehow manage to bust your way through a three day fitness test and 5 week long ‘hell week’ selection process, you’re just a fraction of the way towards being in the MARCOS. The Indian Navy’s Marine Commandos undergo up to three years of training to become part of this elite force. Their recruits are the stuff of legend – with stories of them completing the Navy SEALs recruitment process with ease and missions that defy odds see completion without casualty. One operation saw a group of MARCOs swim 12kms in Sri Lankan water to blow up a harbour. Once the explosives detonated local forces opened fire. MARCOs managed to not only return fire but to also keep swimming and get the whole troop back to safety.
5. GROM – Poland
The first rule of the Polish GROM was to not talk about GROM club. The second rule? I think we all see where this is going. A super-secretive elite group, it ran for three years before the Polish government would admit the GROM existed. GROM or Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno Mobilnego stands for Operational Mobile Response Group, which is quite a dull name for an elite group of cold killing machines. With their own special brand of martial art – a mix of karate, jujitsu and more than a few high kicks – the GROM will use literally anything to kill you. Garrotes or piano wire are handy, but if they can’t lay their deadly hands on that then all bets are off.
4. JTF2 – Canada
Canada’s silent killers are faceless ghosts in the country’s military. They go to places they can’t talk about and complete the missions no-one else will. All without too much of a fuss. Tactically sharp as a razor, they describe themselves as a scalpel, not a hammer. Precision is the order of the day. Created to combat the growing threat of terrorism, a JTF2 recruit must face a series of gruelling psychological and physical tests before they can get their hands on the coveted position, and the 6-figure pay check that comes with it. Whatever they are doing, it seems to be working. The JTF2 are proud to boast that they’ve yet to fire a single shot on domestic soil. Whether they’ve killed anyone with their bare hands is, of course, another matter.
3. Storm Corps – North Korea
So we all expect North Korea’s elite group to lean towards the cray-cray. Am I right? This formidable bunch must accept every order from Kim Jong-un or, presumably, pay the ultimate price. The crazy comes in the interpretation of the line ‘killing someone with their bare hands’. This is almost folkloric in the murky underworld of special forces. Austin Powers parodied it with his legendary ‘judo chop’ – and most people assume a secret agent can kill you with just one expert deployment of a Vulcan grip. But there’s no Spock-style finger fiddling for the North Korean’s. Hell no. Instead they punch trees 5,000 times. For a month. Broken, bloodied and rancid they then start hitting jagged metal for extra lacerations. Finally to add a festive tequila twist, they pop their hands into a big pile of salt. Wounds healed, their fists are now like the wooded tree stumps they’ve been relentlessly pummelling. Being hit by one of those fists is like taking a rock to the face. It’s not going to end well. Of course, if anyone asks you don’t know anything about Storm Corps. North Korea or Austin Powers. It’s best to keep all angles covered, two could save your life, the other could save you from embarrassing film references we’d all rather put behind us.
2. GIS – Italy
Another group created to counter the growing threat of terrorism, the GIS – Gruppo di Intervento Speciale – is part of the Italian Military Police. Known for their marksmanship – the elite group has its own sniper team. As well as top level gun skills the recruits train in martial arts and Thai boxing, explosives and … photography. Wasn’t expecting that one. Whether the GIS are honing their selfies on Instagram or … perhaps more likely … they need to be able to use photography to capture significant data. Be honest though. Who amongst us wouldn’t follow a GIS Insta feed? Group shots of the GIS lads training, perhaps a view through the night vision specs and a glimpse into the thrilling world of this elite service would have us sharing and liking every post.
1. MI-6 – UK
Spies, espionage, Q style gadgets and a James Bond agent around every corner. Based in London at MI-6 headquarters, the only thing the top brass deny is that there are any James Bond-esque agents, but then again, they would say that wouldn’t they. The British Government wouldn’t even admit MI-6 existed until 1994. What we do know is that they do have agents that operate around the world. The official line is that they gather intelligence. Whatever they actually get up to, it’s all done with a very British sense of humour. A crack team of MI-6 hackers once replaced bomb making guides with cupcake recipes on al-Qaeda websites.
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