Let’s be honest here: most of the people who are going to read this probably don’t have the fortitude to join the regular military. Between the combination of stress and boredom that is serving a real tour of duty in armed services, most of us wouldn’t even begin to hack it (ourselves included). Still, at least us civilians-for-life have the consolation of knowing there are elite groups out there that tower above the rank and file troops the way regular soldiers tower over us. From all around the world, small nations and superpowers alike, they stand as the most capable and disciplined of us in high pressure situations.
10. China’s People’s Liberation Army
Considering that its standing combat strength is 1.483 million, you have to be truly impressive to be the best of the best for a military force that size. China’s army has developed a particularly photogenic way to toughen their soldiers for elite units. It’s one that’s stressful just to look at in a photograph, let alone actually experience. They have to go through a 17 step obstacle course that includes swimming, climbing, and most spectacularly, leaping over or even through flaming objects. Even if you do it perfectly and are in peak physical condition, it’s a training regimen designed to really make you feel it. At one point in the exercise, potential recruits are required to submerge themselves for a full minute, and any attempt to raise their heads means a superior will dunk them again. Depriving your muscles of oxygen under such circumstances is guaranteed to cause severe aches, if not charlie horses.
We should note that despite them only placing at number 10 on this list, in 2014 Chinese special forces units dominated in an international competition between numerous nations’ special forces known as the “Warrior Competition.” What lesson can be learned from that? Perhaps it goes to show that putting soldiers through the greatest hardship doesn’t necessarily make the best soldiers.
9. India’s National Security Guard Commandos
A recurring theme of qualifying for these elite units will be potential recruits having to find their way through harsh, unfamiliar territory and given a tight schedule to return to base. Numerous organizations within India’s armed forces use this test to place would-be soldiers, particularly in the area around Bangalore. Given only a day’s worth of food and water, the pressure is beyond just the dangers of the jungle. As Times of India reported, though, that’s just an entry level test for India’s special anti-terrorist unit. Some are so determined to join the NSG that they don’t even finish their rations in the hope of impressing the people testing them.
Methods seem to vary depending on the trainer. One training method that stands out is how an Italian trainer required the potential new members to undergo beatings from locals as an endurance test. Another required the trainees have to pass target practice while drunk to simulate firing under adverse conditions. If they can endure a particularly large amount of this kind of unusual training (if not straight up abuse) then they can join the elite of the Indian elite, the Special Action Group.
8. Russia’s Spetsnaz
We in the west are so used to associating the Russian military with hard-hearted cruelty, if not brutality, thanks to a reputation earned in large part during and after World War II. A 2002 hostage situation report by the BBC really didn’t do much to change that, as it was asserted by military analyst Dr. Mark Galleoti that the priority for Spetsnaz during a rescue mission became killing the terrorists over rescuing hostages. But insight into just how difficult getting through the training and selection process for Spetsnaz could be emerged during the same report.
For starters, Spetsnaz’s training process is a staggeringly long five-year process (and if you know much about Joseph Stalin’s reign, you’d think five year plans would not be popular in Russia.) The first five months alone are designed to break the recruits, and then build them back up so that they’re willing to perform the heavily improvisational tactics the organization favors. On the bright side for Spetsnaz, the operatives get to select their own non-commissioned officers from within their ranks, instead of letting superiors make those choices during a review process that, according to Viktor Suvorov, usually only lasts five minutes.
7. Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment
In 2014, Stuart Bonner collaborated with Robert Macklin to write his memoirs chronicling how he joined the Australian SASR (as opposed to Great Britain’s, about which we’ll have plenty to say in a later entry). He told of just one aspect called Resistance to Interrogation that he underwent in May 1992. It was very similar to the notorious enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA. A white bag was put on his head, he was stripped naked and taken to a cell, then put in stress positions for hours on end and deprived of sleep. If he seemed to be dozing even slightly, he was slapped back to wakefulness for three days. He believed that the experience gave him post- traumatic stress disorder.
The Special Air Service Regiment has not been willing to disclose all of its training and selection methods, but there’s a very ominous bit of information that Harry Moffitt disclosed to ABC Perth. More people died training to join the SASR than died during operations. Considering that as of 2014 there were more than forty-eight people killed and two hundred wounded for a group with a strength that was never over one hundred people, that’s pretty costly as far as human life goes.
6. US Navy Sea, Air, Land Teams
Undoubtedly the most famous group in this list except maybe for Spetsnaz, the Navy SEALs have been central to numerous movies, particularly after SEAL Team 6 terminated Osama Bin Laden. While their thirty month average training time is only about half of what Spetsnatz requires, it concentrates a massive amount of agony into one week-long period during the first three weeks called Hell Week. It’s probably more calculated in its sadism than anything in Russian training.
On four hours of sleep, aspiring SEALs have to spend five and a half days constantly coated in mud in the cold, performing training exercises on coastal environments, paddling, doing extreme exercises, fighting to just stay awake, etc. All the while, their trainers try to coax them to quit or mock them by having coffee and donuts in front of them. Less than 25% of the few already selected get through it, and they still have more than two years of slightly easier training to get through. Unusually for this sort of situation, there is emergency medical staff on hand at all times. No doubt this is a big contributor to the fact that relatively few people have died during SEAL training, such as two that drowned in a swimming pool in Virginia in 2015.
5. Israeli Shayetet 13
Israel’s relationship with its neighbors, particularly Palestine, make it probably the single most controversial nation in the world and one which will never feel safe in our lifetimes. So their best anti-terrorist unit is, naturally, held to ridiculously high and dangerous standards even for a country where spending time in the military is mandatory. Over the course of a twenty month period they must go through training in everything from diving under extremely cold conditions with no visibility, to paradrop operations, to demolitions.
Having undergone all that, those who qualify are then assigned to air, sea, or land operations based on which one they did the best in. Most significantly, before even being officially allowed into the ranks of S13, trainees are sent out on real coastal raiding missions, just about the worst possible circumstances under which to have a bad first day. Still, like the SEALs, Shayetet 13 is considerate enough that they have personnel on hand at all times to offer emergency medical and psychological care, so hopefully they’ll be able to prevent at least some cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
4. South Korean Special Warfare Command
For people that hate the cold, just looking at a photo of these soldiers going through the mountain ordeal they must endure to join the Special Warfare Command is really uncomfortable. Then you consider that this training course near Pyeongchang goes on for ten days. While there they can look forward to temperatures of 22 degrees below and constant snow as they perform exercises outside, not even wearing shirts. They don’t just run in weather like that, either. They have to do things like sit-ups or even wrestle each other in that snow. If that doesn’t get them cold enough, they throw the snow up onto themselves in great handfuls. They only seem to get to put tops on when they do marksmanship training in frozen rivers.
Compared to all that, the demand that everyone needs to have a black belt in Tae Kwan Doe seems almost like the easiest prerequisite in the world, doesn’t it?
3. UK’s Special Air Services
Perhaps being stuck in the jungle as a trainee for the National Security group sounds much worse than being stuck in the mountains of Wales, but the sheer elaborateness of the SAS selection process, known as the Endurance, is on a whole other level. Aspiring members of the SAS are dumped in the middle of nowhere and told to cover forty miles in twenty hours while carrying a sixty-pound weight and rifle, with no sustenance except a bottle of water. Also, their uniform and boots are specially chosen to not fit them. If they encounter any police on the way, the armed services will attempt to capture and disqualify them. For the group that can even reach the target in the allotted time, they get to look forward to having to perform a four mile run in half an hour.
These training methods became world news when in 2013 three trainees, Craig Roberts, Edward Maher, and James Dunsby, all died while undergoing the Endurance. It was an unusually hot day, but the deaths were unfortunately not that unusual for the test. The International Business Times reported that 125 potential inductees died between 2000 and 2015. Few groups are so deadly just when initiating members.
2. Pakistani Special Services Group
Turns out that as grueling and sometimes fatal as the SAS’s Endurance is, Pakistan puts trainees for its special forces through an endurance run on an even harsher timetable. After two years service in the regular Pakistani armed forces, a service member is eligible for SSG selection if they score 100 on an aptitude test. During an eight month training period, soldiers are repeatedly required to cover thirty-six miles of territory in only twelve hours. Even the Endurance only required an average constant speed of two miles per hour instead of three. Then, they have to run five miles in forty minutes with a full pack.
At the end of the eight months it switches from exhausting to dangerous. SSG members have to perform seven paradrops. Five of them during the daytime, and two at night. Bear in mind that skydiving at night is about ten times as likely to injure someone as doing it during the day. If someone can get through that, they’ve made it…almost: they’re at the Advanced Commando Course, where they have to spend roughly another half of a year doing commando training before they join the SSG. And if they join that organization, they can’t leave until they’re expelled for health reasons.
1. United Kingdom’s Gurkhas
Nepalese people who apply for this British military group are usually driven by a desperation from being born to poverty that few in the other groups know. So even before they begin any sort of official military training, they are subjected to punishing tests before they can so much as attempt it. The initial tests sound lowkey and reasonable, with only needing to do eight hundred meters in two minutes, or twelve pull ups.
Then, as reported by The Telegraph, comes something much harder than even anything the SAS has to deal with. Recruits are required to run five kilometers while wearing a twenty-five kilogram weight. Those five kilometers come with a four hundred meter rise in incline and involve going over extremely rocky and dusty terrain, which would be really taxing for lots of people to cover in a few hours, let alone in the only forty-eight minutes those potential recruits are allotted. Considering that living conditions and career opportunities are improving in Nepal like most of the rest of Asia, it’s hard to imagine Nepalese people are going to put up with that much longer.
Dustin Koski wrote half of a book about fairies turning into monsters, which probably isn’t quite hardcore enough to get him into one of these units.