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No Pain, No Gain

Many nations in the world have extensively developed armed forces at their disposal.  Staffed by men and women trained in military strategy, tactics, weaponry and more, they serve to defend their nation and further the policies implemented by their government. In some nations, governments have certain “high value assets” within their military, known as Special Forces. Comprised of individuals who came up through the ranks of the conventional army, navy and air force (or their equivalent, depending on the country), these special forces recruit only the most elite soldiers to carry out surveillance, discreet reconnaissance and other covert operations.  Though it varies from nation to nation, and unit to unit, the selection process to join one of these elite forces is in a word – intense.

To say that joining a Special Forces unit, like the U.S. Navy Seals, is “painful” would be an understatement. A typical day trying out requires recruits to reach extreme muscle exhaustion by way of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and other hardcore exercises. Mental exhaustion, requiring them to endure many consecutive nights of sleep deprivation, is also on the agenda. Combined with training in miserable environments, like the desert and jungle, and lack of proper food quality or portions, trying out for a Special Forces unit is truly designed to take recruits to the edge and ultimately break them. Those rare, few individuals who don’t break are rewarded with a slot in one of their nation’s most elite military forces.

While most nations with developed armed forces have Special Forces units, there are a few nations known for having units that could each arguably be called “the best of the best.”

Brute Force

The soldiers of Spetsnaz – Russia’s Special Purpose Regiment – are quite possibly the most pain-loving, battle-hardened killers in the world. The brute force they inflict on each other during daily training is a telling sign of how tough they are.

For example, when they spar with each other in hand-to-hand combat, the goal is to not just train, but injure each other. Broken fingers and cracked ribs are the norm, and they only heal long enough to jump back into training and risk re-injury.  Typically, Spetsnaz teams are deployed for reconnaissance missions and close-quarters combat. In their down time, the soldiers serve as bodyguards to top level government officials. Induction into Spetsnaz is a brutal, 5-month process designed to strip away the dignity of a soldier and instill extreme toughness. There is a high level of emphasis on the sheer strength of soldiers and during combat missions, improvisation is a commonly used tactic to keep the enemy guessing. Spetsnaz also has a special unit known as Vega, which specializes in dealing with nuclear incidents.

So alluring is Spetsnaz to young wannabes that even non-Russians want to join. Frank X, 18, a recent high school graduate from Canada, believes his future is as a Russian soldier. “I’ve heard that Spetsnaz doesn’t care if you’re Russian or not – they are willing to train foreign soldiers,” he says. “I want to be one of them because they are the best. I’ve been working on my Russian language skills for 4 years. I’ve been working out, training with knives. I have saved up almost enough for my plane ticket and I am excited to get started.” Best of luck to Frank, but FYI, after researching with the Russian consulate if Canadians (or any foreigners) are actually allowed to join Spetsnaz, we didn’t come up with any encouraging news.

If any other Special Forces team can contend with Spetsnaz, it’s likely the elite commando unit of the Israeli Navy known as Shayetet 13.


Shayetet 13 has many mottos and sayings; among them are “Never Again” in reference to the Holocaust; to add some humor to their routine, “When the going gets tough, the Jews get pissed”; and a clever reference to the Israeli martial art they practice, Krav Maga, which they endearingly call “Jew-Jitsu”. But don’t let their playfulness fool you.

S-13 is an extremely formidable commando unit, with similarities to both the U.S. Navy Seals and Delta Force, who specialize in counter-terrorism and hostage rescue. They are extremely secretive, trained in dirty street-style hand-to-hand combat, and they do everything with a fight-to-kill philosophy.  Their training includes advanced infantry, maritime warfare, demolitions and parachuting.  To really bulk up their skill set, they often engage in cross training with other foreign Special Forces units, including those in the U.S. Though their missions are generally classified, perhaps the S-13 are best known for their role in Operation Spring of Youth, in which they raided Beirut and killed several members of Black September, responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes during the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics.

On a more recent – and highly dangerous – mission, Sgt. Rabin, a 5-year veteran of S-13, slid down off a Black Hawk helicopter onto a Turkish passenger ship that had been taken over. “Within seconds, I was under attack by armed mercenaries who wanted nothing but to kill me,” say Rabin. “Five of my comrades were already on the ground and wounded.” Taking charge, Rabin took out the mercenaries and pushed his injured team against a wall. He proceeded to defend them against half-a-dozen more combatants, some with guns, others with bats and pipes, until backup arrived.  For his effort, S-13 provided him with a medal of honor. Of that, Rabin says, “I accept it because S-13 gave it to me. But truly, I don’t believe in receiving a medal for saving my friends.”

As talented as S-13 members are, when it comes to use of technology on the battlefield, nobody can come close to the British S.A.S.      


The British S.A.S. (Special Air Service) recruits, all veterans of the Army and Marines, face what is known as the “Long Drag” at the end of their first week of training – s 40 mile trek over the Brecon Beacons Mountain Range, carrying a 55-pound pack. If they don’t finish in less than 24 hours, they’re history.

Potential S.A.S. soldiers are put through further hell during the “Jungle Phase” where they train day after day in non-stop rain, and the “Escape and Evasion” phase where they are given nothing but the clothes on their back and forced to go on the run and live off the land. For the few graduates that make the cut,  they enter into an elite, high tech Special Forces operation with incredible resources at their disposal. Among them, a Cybernetics system that gives them amplified hearing and sound filtration through a universal head jack and ear implant. S.A.S. units have fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam (thought the British government denies it) and many other places. Their special ability to go deep behind enemy lines is unparalleled.

Despite their technology, S.A.S., like many other military forces currently engaged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has come under fire for not sufficiently protecting its soldiers. S.A.S. soldier Paul McAleese was fatally injured in an explosion set off by the Taliban. His father John, a former soldier himself, has made it clear that there were not enough troops in the area to monitor and clear explosives. He called out former Prime Minister Gordon Brown for not protecting his son and all the other soldiers. “The military must be allowed to get on with the job, he says. “If not, Brown should sack himself now.”

Of all the Special Forces troops mentioned, and otherwise, which one really gets to claim the honor of “best of the best”?

Anyone’s Guess

There was a time when it might have been possible to single out the best Special Forces unit in the world. These days, with the level of cross-training units engage in with other special forces from foreign countries, the highly unique and specialized training that each unit receives and the individual specialties each unit is designed for, it’s hard to single one out as the best. But that certainly doesn’t stop people from trying.

Certainly, you can expect lots of biased opinion and national pride to fuel the arguments.

Spetsnaz image: