Thanks largely to film and TV, the term ‘Special Forces’ may mean organisations like the SAS or America’s Delta Force or Navy SEALs to many people.
And in fact, Special Forces units around the world, many of them modelled on US or UK counterparts, do perform a lot of the same missions as the SAS, Navy SEALs and Delta Force.
Jim Stejskal defines many of these key mission sets in his book ‘Special Forces Berlin’.
Counter Terrorism (CT)
Operations that lead to the killing or capturing of terrorists or the destruction of their networks – probably the kinds of operations that people most associate with Special Forces, thanks largely to films and television shows. What they probably imagine are operations like the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege by the SAS, something that led to CQB (Close Quarters Battle), which is to say intense gunfights are short ranges, often inside buildings.
Direct Action (DA)
These are small-scale raids or strikes in diplomatically or politically difficult situations or areas (i.e. inside enemy territory) that aim to seize, recover or capture or destroy or damage specific targets – hostage rescue or the killing or capture of enemy leaders are good examples. Counterterrorism operations are often themselves certain kinds of Direct Action missions.
Special Reconnaissance (SR)
Reconnaissance done by non-conventional forces (i.e. Special Forces) in a clandestine manner to collect or evaluate information required for strategic or operationally important reasons.
Unconventional Warfare (UW)
Involves working with a resistance or guerrilla force opposing an enemy government in an area officially controlled by that government. This often involves helping to organise, equip, train and even fight alongside such a force. An example is the work done by the Green Berets in helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.
There are also other common roles worth mentioning.
An alternative to UW is also FID (Foreign Internal Defence): the training of troops under an allied government so that they might be better prepared to battle terrorists or insurgencies (a practice itself known as COIN – Counter Insurgency.)
Some Special Forces units also perform Close Protection roles, either at home or often abroad, helping to ensure the safety of a given VIP.
And maritime Special Forces might conduct VBSS operations (Visit, Board Search and Seizure), which sometimes involve the interdiction of and then insertion of troops aboard a vessel. This might be done as part of a counter-narcotics operation, or for counter-piracy or counter-terrorism purposes.
While the mission sets largely overlap to one degree or another, what differs are the various Special Forces units – also referred to as SOF (Special Operations Forces) - that carry them out.
Often, the units look and behave similarly, though some vary in unique and fascinating ways.
And while many people may have been introduced to certain SOF units through film and television, others may know them through video games. Some of the Call of Duty games, for instance, focus specifically on Special Forces, and feature characters from different special operations units around the globe.
Thus, readers may already be familiar with some of those featured here.
It is of course impossible to comprehensively cover the world’s major SOF units in a single article, so what follows is a selection of different Special Forces organisations from a dozen countries: China, Taiwan, North and South Korea, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Poland, France, Russia and Ukraine.
Many Special Forces units around the world are based on US or British models, and one good example are Taiwan’s frogmen.
Officially called the Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol unit, or ARP, the Taiwanese Marine Corps’ Special Forces unit is essentially their equivalent of US Navy SEALs or British SBS.
As the name suggests, their main remit is long-range water-based recon, specifically across the Taiwan Strait. If China were to ever attempt to invade Taiwan, then the ARPs would go into action.
Their role would likely involve crossing the 100-miles of water between Taiwan and China during the night, clandestinely scouting for military targets, and guiding strikes onto them.
Ann Wang and Ben Blanchard have reported on the gruelling ARP selection course for Reuters, witnessing an intake of 31 get whittled down to just 15 by the end of the 10-week process.
Already trained military members, the course requires an even higher level of endurance for the aspiring frogmen to get through the hours of exercises and frequent sleep deprivation. The selection process culminates in trainees crossing a 100-metre-long strip of jagged stones on their bellies.
This, combined with stress positions and extended periods spent in cold seawater helps ensure that candidates who pass through the course are ready for the difficult conditions they may encounter during their service.
For their part, the Chinese have their own Special Forces units.
Though, Leigh Neville argues in in his book ‘The Elite: The A-Z of Modern Special Operations Forces’ that, these units are not really equivalents of their western counterparts.
He sees them more as Chinese versions of elite conventional infantry (i.e. perhaps like US Rangers), since their Direct Action missions might involve operations like airfield seizures. They also perform some reconnaissance roles.
It is difficult to disagree with Neville entirely, since US Rangers are essentially well-rounded, elite light infantry, receiving extensive training in various types of terrain, as well as in airborne operations. Though equally, since the one key division between conventional troops and Special Forces is that the latter tend to conduct smaller-scale, more limited raids and operations, the question often becomes just how small or limited a raid needs to be before being considered an SOF operation?
An airfield or airport attack or seizure might be done by high-end conventional troops, or by Special Forces, or by elite conventional troops in support of Special Forces, depending on the circumstances.
Thus, the issue of elite versus Special Forces, and Special Forces versus Special Forces support is also explored elsewhere in this article.
As far as the Chinese are concerned though, counterterrorism and CQB operations, which generally are considered to be more squarely within the SOF remit, are more likely to be performed by specialised police units.
One of these is the Snow Leopard Commando Unit (formerly known as the Snow Wolves.) According to Shannon Corbeil in Military.com, they were trained up to conduct CT, riot control and bomb disposal for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They have remained experts in these areas ever since.
As well as high-level CQB and counterterrorism work, the unit is also reputedly known for its martial arts and sniper skills. Furthermore, although a police unit, it further crosses over into the military domain by having trained with Russian special task force units and, according to Neville, close personal protection operations in Iraq, and possibly elsewhere as well.
Martial arts experts are also common in South Korean Special Forces, or more specifically their highly elite 707th special mission battalion known as the “White Tigers”.
Jeremy Bender explains in Business Insider that this unit sits at the top of a larger South Korean special operations pyramid, made up of seven other special ops brigades.
The White Tigers then are essentially an elite within an elite, being drawn from across the South Korean military, and with men and women both able to serve within the unit. Whatever their gender or background, all members are required to be black belts in Tae Kwan Do.
They must also conduct drills in snow and freezing rivers as part of their cold-weather training. And they are para and SCUBA trained, and prepared for helicopter evacuations, rappelling down buildings and through windows and high-speed parachute drops, among other missions.
All this would seem to indicate they are well rounded and highly trained and capable of performing the same sorts of missions as high-tier western Special Forces units like the SAS and US Navy SEALs. Appropriately enough, given the video game reference made above, there is even a Special Forces operative from the White Tigers battalion named K Song who appears amongst those in the game ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’.
North Korea is also reputed to have Special Forces soldiers, though what little details are available about them indicate that the secretive state’s intended use for them differs markedly from western models. Counter-terrorism, FID, UW or Direct Action raids are not the intended roles for North Korean SF units.
Speaking in 2018, retired South Korean Lieutenant General In-Bum Chun said their use would instead be focused on deep penetration and disruption. More precisely, the role of North Korean Special Forces in any future conflict would be to essentially push through South Korean lines and surround key positions like artillery, cutting them off from supply and reinforcement. This isolating of more rearward support units would eventually allow them to be destroyed by conventional North Korean forces coming up behind.
West Asia and the Middle East
On the other end of the scale to the highly unconventional monkey units, Israel’s Sayeret Matkal is more akin to a western Special Forces unit.
In fact, Neville relates that it was initially modelled on the SAS and uses the same motto:
“Who Dares Wins.”
He also explains that whereas it started out as a kind of special reconnaissance unit, its remit grew to encompass counterterrorist and direct-action roles as well.
In an article about the eight most elite Special Forces units in the world, the Independent points out that Sayeret Matkal’s main role is intelligence gathering. This often means operating deep behind enemy lines, so it seems it retains aspects of its special reconnaissance legacy.
One operation that saw the fusion of this kind of work with deep planning and then direct action was the 1976 hostage rescue operation in Entabbe, Uganda.
Known as Operation Thunderbolt, the background to this mission was the hijacking of an Air France flight that originated in Tel Aviv and had a number of Israeli passengers. It was commandeered by a mixture of Palestinian and German hijackers, who diverted the plane to Entebbe, Uganda’s main airport.
Here, they were welcomed and protected by the country’s dictator Idi Amin and a number of his soldiers. The hijackers separated the Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish passengers who they used as hostages, demanding the release of Palestinian or pro-Palestinian militants being held by Israel.
The rescue operation was, as much as a Special Forces mission can be, a textbook case of clever and daring elite soldiering.
The mission was supported by paratroopers and other members of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) from the Golani Brigade, who performed a kind of Special Forces support by helping secure the airport and runways. Meanwhile, Sayeret Maktal operators themselves inserted into the airport, incredibly, by pretending to be the President, Idi Amin.
Arriving in disguised C-130 cargo planes at the same time the Ugandans were expecting a cargo delivery, they drove a black Mercedes Sedan that looked just like the president’s off one of the C-130s to confuse the guards. Other Sayeret Maktal operators posed as his security detail in jeeps.
Together, they drove up to the airport terminal where the hostages were being held and two guards challenged those in the Mercedes. They were shot dead by the Sayeret Maktal operators, alerting the hijackers and their Ugandan allies. The 29 Sayeret Maktal operators then rushed into the airport terminal and shot dead the eight hijackers, while others took on the guards and demolished eight MiG fighters so they would not be able to pursue the Israeli commandos and hostages back to Israel.
Three hostages were killed in the operation, as was the Sayeret Matkal mission commander, Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the future president of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the operation was otherwise largely a success, leading to the liberation of the hostages and the flight crew – again, an almost textbook example of a successful direct action, counter-terrorist and hostage-rescue operation.
Going from actual operational history to speculation, it has been reported that training for Pakistan’s elite Special Service Group (SSG) requires the completion of a 36-mile march in 12 hours and a five-mile run, with full gear, in just 20 minutes.
However, this is physically impossible. Running miles in 20 minutes requires one to complete five consecutive four-minute miles. Only one man – Daniel Komen – has ever managed to even run two consecutive four-minute miles, making the idea that anyone can run five somewhat ridiculous.
Though, there is still a useful by-product to this kind of misinformation. It helps demonstrate some of the inherent difficulties in reporting on Special Forces, especially those in far off places. By necessity, much of what they do is obscured from public view, and one can only ever get a partial picture. One aspect of this is that there rumours about various Special Forces units that will turn out, on closer examination, to be untrue.
Having said that, from what information is available, it is clear that Pakistan’s SSG must be very good.
According to Corbeil, only 5% of those who enter the training pass out at the end. The training consists of a commando course lasting 25 weeks, which is not far off the 32-week course Royal Marine Commando course, the longest infantry training course in NATO. It has a failure rate of about 40%.
SSG members also get airborne training and hand-to-hand combat instruction, and they have an anti-terrorism remit, putting them well within Special Forces territory. In fact, this counter-terrorism function goes back to the 1972 Munich terrorist attack and the decision to incorporate the Pakistani Army’s Musa Company (a combat diving unit) into the SSG, and have it trained up by the SAS to perform a counter-terrorism role. Before that, the group had been trained by US Green Berets as well.
In fact, from what Neville says of the unit, it seems that the “group” part of Special Service Group is key, for it is really a tight collection of slightly different kinds of elite units. It contains eight battalions of commandos who are also airborne trained and so might be thought of as being akin to US Army Rangers (i.e. well-rounded, high-end light infantry.) It also has a special signals company; a counter-terrorism company; and a combat diver company, with the Special Service Group Navy (SSGN) having its own counter-terrorism unit.
This overlap between the SSG and SSGN where combat diving and counter-terrorism is concerned, as well as the signals specialists within the SSG makes it seem more akin to an umbrella grouping. It could perhaps be thought of as bit like having the SAS, SBS, Special Reconnaissance Regiment and 18 Signals Regiment all serving within UKSF (UK Special Forces), along with Paras and Royal Marine Commandos in the SFSG (Special Forces Support Group.)
Like Sayeret Matkal, SSG has been involved in a number of counter-terrorism operations including on hijacked airliners.
In one operation, in 1980, SSG operators disguised themselves as ground crew before storming a hijacked Indian Airlines plane. Like Sayeret Matkal’s airport mission, it was hugely successful, leading to the capture of all five hijackers and the release of all 45 hostages.
Another anti-terrorism unit of note in the Middle East is Iraq’s Golden Division, or the CTS (Counter Terrorism Service.)
In a brilliant real-life example of FID (Foreign Internal Defence) operations in action, the CTS was set up after the US invasion of Iraq, selected from many of the best in Iraq’s security forces who were then trained by Green Berets. They were then dispatched to carry out ant-terror raids and intelligence-gathering missions.
In more recent years, this has made them the ideal counterforce for ISIS. CTS commander General Talib Shaghati al-Kinani explained in the Independent that when ISIS killed the family of one CTS member “... he decided to infiltrate Isis. He grew a beard and dressed like them. After staying with them for a week he blew up the whole place. The heroes of the Golden Division did many things”.
“Many things” includes the recapture of Mosul, which was a huge operation and led to 40 or perhaps 60% casualties among the CTS. Retired US Army Special Forces colonel David Witty has noted the absurdity of this, comparing it to the idea of sending the SAS to clear a city.
It has also been reported that CTS members were given US Army Ranger training, which would seem to indicate they might be more like high-end, elite light infantry, rather than Special Forces.
Once again, though, the line between this and the more limited, specialised, counter-terrorist raids typically done by Special Forces can get blurry. US Rangers have performed supporting roles for US Special Operations raids, like the one conducted by Delta Force at the outset of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Also, the mere existence of what is essentially Britain’s equivalent force, the SFSG (Special Forces Support Group), demonstrates how easily this line often turns into a grey area between elite conventional troops and Special Forces operators.
Raids and the CQB no doubt frequently required inside urban centres and buildings when fighting ISIS terrorists means the Golden Division must be somewhere between an SFSG and a Special Forces-type unit.
This would seem to be the more conventional side of the Golden Division, as much as one can call Special Forces units conventional, that is. The less conventional side of the group is that they are reported to wear skull designs on their masks and balaclavas.
Whatever helps in the fight against ISIS.
Unfortunately, whereas the aforementioned examples of missions conducted by Sayeret Maktal, the SSG and CTS all ended in success, not all Special Forces operations always go this well, of course. The record of Egypt’s Task Force 777, though, seems to be considerably worse than most.
Neville describes its two counter-hijack operations, conducted in 1978 and 1985, as unmitigated disasters.
The first, in 1978, saw Egypt’s main counter-terrorism force deployed in the wake of the killing of an Egyptian newspaper editor in Cyprus by Palestinian terrorists. They took a number of hostages aboard an airline to facilitate their getaway and Task Force 777 was sent in with the intention of pulling off an operation similar to that of Sayeret Matkal at Entebbe in Uganda the previous year.
There was apparently no coordination between the Egyptians and the Cypriot authorities, however, and the operation went forward just as the latter were negotiating to secure the release of the hostages.
Furthermore, when Task Force 777 members showed up, the Cypriot forces around the hijacked plane mistook them for terrorist reinforcements and opened fire on them. Several Cypriot National Guardsmen and Task Force 777 members died in the ensuring gun battle.
The counter-terrorist operation against Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) hijackers in 1985 was an even bigger disaster. They had commandeered an EgyptAir flight and landed at Malta, where Task Force 777 operators attempted to storm the airliner.
As Nivelle explains, the explosive charge used to blow a hole in the top of the aircraft killed several of the hostages when it went off. Chemical smoke grenades thrown into the cabin then confused the situation further, leading the Egyptian Task Force 777 operators to shoot dead a number of hostages by mistake due to poor visibility. The terrorists themselves then threw grenades, which killed even more hostages. By the end of the operation, 50 of them lay dead.
Task Force 777 was disbanded afterwards, but later re-established. They performed another mission in 1998, this one a visit-board-search-and-seizure mission (VBSS) in which a commercial ship in the Suez Canal fired shots at the Egyptian Coast Guard. This operation, though far less dangerous, was thankfully not a disaster like its previous two anti-hijacking missions.
Task Force 777’s hostage rescue missions contrast with those of the Polish Special Forces group known as GROM (or JW GROM), which means thunder in Polish and stands for Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno Manewrowego. Shannon Corbeil and Military.com provide a translation: Group for Operational Maneuvering Response.
It is effectively a top-tier Special Forces unit comparable to Delta Force or the SAS or SBS and was formed in 1990 in the wake of Operation Bridge, a mission to help Soviet Jews threatened by Hezbollah to enter Israel safely. However, it can trace its lineage back further to the Silent Unseen Polish parachutists trained in the UK in World War 2 to drop into occupied Poland to oppose the Nazis.
These days, GROM is a counter-terrorism unit that has expanded into other roles such as reconnaissance and Foreign Internal Defence (FID.)
Neville details one of their counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan in 2012 in which GROM operatives conducted what he refers to as a textbook hostage-rescue operation. Following a failed suicide bomb attack on Afghan government officials in Paktika Province, several hostages ended up in the custody of terrorists inside a building.
GROM operators posted snipers outside, then assaulted the building in two teams of four, blowing in a side door with a grenade launcher before rushing inside. Whereas one insurgent did open fire on them, stun grenades disabled him and allowed the GROM operators to kill him. They likewise moved swiftly on other terrorists, getting to and killing them before they could set off their suicide vests. The hostages were then rescued.
When looking at European Special Forces units, one country often seems to stand out among others: France.
The main Special Forces unit most would probably think of here is probably the French Foreign Legion.
However, while elite, the Foreign Legion is more of a high-end conventional force, more akin to the Paras or Royal Marine commandos than say the SAS. Indeed, the Foreign Legion has infantry, mobile troops (cavalry), engineers and paratroopers.
Instead, a truer example is Commando Hubert, which has been described as the French equivalent to the SBS, or the American DEVGRU (Seal Team 6.)
Its roles certainly indicate it is essentially the French counterpart to these other units, since it conducts counter-terrorist operations, particularly with a maritime focus (i.e. on ships.) This might see it doing direct action raids or hostage rescue as well as underwater special operations, which presumably means things along the same lines as the SBS, like underwater recon and surveillance.
From the British perspective, it is also interesting to understand the unit in its larger context. The SBS grew out of the Royal Marine commandos and is now its own Special Forces unit, while the various commandos have their own specialities.
Likewise, Commando Hubert is similarly situated, though within the French Navy. It has seven commandos, of which Commando Hubert appears to be an elite counter-terrorist force and within which sailors can only serve after having spent some time in other commandos. Once in Commando Hubert, sailors get intense training in combat diving and underwater ops.
Finally, the French also have the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, or Group D'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (or the GIGN.)
In a strict military sense, it is difficult to know whether to think of the GIGN as a highly elite police SWAT unit, or as a kind of counter-terrorist SAS-like unit that operates within France. The Gendarmerie is a branch of the French military that conducts security and counter-terrorist and police duties within France, so in a way GIGN might be thought of as a kind of elite domestic military unit.
Whether they are thought of as police or elite soldiers though, there is no question the GIGN is on the same level of expertise and professionalism as units like the SBS and SAS when it comes to conducting counter-terrorism operations. In fact, former SAS officer Tim Collins has been quoted as saying the GIGN is among the best counter-terrorism units in the world.
The training for the GIGN consists of weapons handling, including sniper training, hand-to-hand combat, diving, EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), and parachute drops that include HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening.) It seems like one could not get a better counter-terrorism training course.
In terms of how they operate, GIGN members were filmed and described conducting CQB (Close Quarters Battle) training by NBC News. Protected by body armour and bullet-proof shields, the GIGN can be seen packed tight, advancing cautiously in a line into a training building they practice clearing of terrorists. Described as a python bristling with automatic weapons, the GIGN operators move in a smooth, quiet fashion down each corridor and into every room.
Peering around a corner with a camera projected ahead of his shield, when the leader spots a terrorist suspect, a stun grenade and quick gunfire follows: “BANG! The python’s path was clear. It continued forward”.
An accompanying video shows them also throwing stun grenades into each room as they pass, then a small cluster of around three operators breaking off and advancing into each room as needed. The point man has a protective bullet-proof shield, backed up by a few comrades who fire their weapons at targets as required.
This is very much in line with the SAS mission in 1980 launched to neutralise six gunmen in the Iranian Embassy, and although we cannot know the exact details of these kinds of missions today, these kinds of reports do give a general sense of how they play out.
Given the increase in terrorism in France in recent years, the GIGN is obviously an important and vital part of the response.
Interestingly, the GIGN featured in the news in 2016 not because of a terrorist incident, but because of an armed robbery. The situation involved armed men holding up a McDonalds in eastern France. They got the cashiers to hand over 2,000 Euros but, as it turned out, they had picked the wrong McDonald’s outlet to mess with. Unbeknownst to them, there were 11 armed GIGN members, with their weapons, eating a meal inside. The GIGN operators waited for the robbers to finish up, then followed them outside and accosted them, shooting one and injuring him when he was foolish enough not to surrender.
Evidently, as well as stopping terrorists, the presence of elite counter-terrorist Special Forces units can have its side benefits too.
Russian Special Forces, meanwhile, have possibly the least conventional Special Forces, even by the normally abnormal, unconventional nature of Special Forces.
They have been reported as carrying out extreme acts and training practices, like boxing matches that involve them repeatedly punching each other in the face, and quasi stunt shows where they might be whacked with long poles, held steady while concrete blocks are placed on top of them and then smashed with a sledgehammer, and even dragged behind a truck, like Indian Jones in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
Though there is a dark side to all of this as well.
It would appear from a 2005 case about the savage beating of a 19-year-old military trainee in Russia that some of these extremes may be part of a wider Russian military culture of out-of-control violence. The trainee in question, Andrey Sychyov, was so badly beaten and neglected by his superiors that he had to have his legs and genitals amputated. And his was just the worst of a number of cases, with eight other trainees having been beaten up at the same time.
Though beyond the excesses, as one would expect, there also appears to be a high level of elite soldiering within Spetsnaz. While the term is not directly comparable to any particular western Special Forces unit -- with it referring instead to specialist troops across the Russian military and FSB who might be thought of as elite commandos – evidently, many Spetsnaz troops still perform at a very high level comparable to their western counterparts. The former Green Beret Mark Giaconia observed and worked alongside Russian Spetsnaz in the Balkans and has noted they have a high degree of professionalism.
And in fact, the Russians also have a kind of GIGN-like unit themselves, known as the Alpha Group. It too has an anti-terrorism remit.
Ukraine also has Spetsnaz units. Neville explains that these days that means two regular Army Spetsnaz units, a naval unit – the 73rd Special Naval Centre – which is an elite maritime force that also specialises in counter-terrorism, as well as several police Spetsnaz units organised regionally.
Similarly to their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian Spetsnaz have three 14-member groups. These are organised into two 42-member companies within each Spetsnaz detachment. There is also further support from light vehicles organised into a transport platoon.
As for weapons, they use Stechkin APS fully automatic pistols and suppressed AK-74s are also commonly used.
Spetsnaz versus Spetsnaz action may even have occurred in Ukraine in 2014 in the Donbas region following the Russian annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian paratroopers and a small force of Spetsnaz were sent to secure Donetsk Airport from Russian volunteer forces, who Neville points out may themselves have actually been Russian Spetsnaz disguised as ‘Little Green Men’.
As 2022 rolls on, one can only hope that events will not lead to Russian and Ukrainian Spetsnaz encountering each other on the battlefield again.
There are, of course, many more Special Forces units from around the world. Australia and New Zealand both have their own versions of the SAS; Germany has the famous GSG9, a police counter-terrorism unit; and Canada has the Joint Task Force 2 (JST2), a tier-one unit thought to be on the same sort of level as the SAS or US Delta Force.
Those are just some of the examples of units not examined here, though those that are help give an insight into the kinds of core missions generally carried out by Special Operations Forces around the world, as well as some of the interesting variants on these overlapping core missions.
No doubt, in an age of terrorism and increasingly complex modern warfare, Special Forces will continue to remain relevant and necessary in many countries, and they will continue to evolve to meet new challenges.