The concept of highly trained military units being capable of performing unconventional missions dates back to the 11th century B.C. Chinese military strategist Jiang Ziya described the need to recruit motivated warriors for specialized elite units in his treatise the Six Secret Teachings. Over the ensuing centuries, numerous countries employed specialized units in a variety of unconventional roles, including reconnaissance, surveillance, sabotage, and counter-insurgency operations.
Roman fleets utilized small, camouflaged ships with handpicked crews that performed scouting missions and commando-style raids. Muslim forces were specially trained to pass as Crusaders to gather intelligence, capture vessels and launch raids. In turn, the Knights Hospitaler, a group of warrior monks, were formidable on offense and stalwart in the defense. Japanese ninjas were used for espionage and as assassins or bodyguards.
Modern Special Forces
In the 19th century, nations began to deploy formalized units, such as the British Army’s Gurkha Scouts.
The Second Boer War saw the creation of the Lovat Scouts, excellent sharpshooters who wore camouflaged ghillie suits that have become the staple of snipers everywhere. The evolution of Special Forces took a dramatic step forward during World War II. In addition to airborne and glider forces, specialized units that would make their mark included British Commandos and Special Air Service, American Rangers, Italy’s Decima Flottiglia MAS and the German Jager Battalion. These units conducted reconnaissance missions and raids deep behind enemy lines.
Today’s Elite Soldiers
After WWII, new organizations such as the American Green Berets, Russian Spetsnaz and Israeli Unit
101 were created to their meet their country’s military needs. The U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition
Teams from World War II have been transformed into today’s elite SEAL teams. Other units like the
Special Air Service will likely take on more roles as warfare continues to evolve.
An infographic by the team at The Logo Company.