10 Most Elite Special Operations Units in the US Military

All Special Operations Units in the United States can trace their roots back to World War II. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was founded in 1942 with the mission of conducting coordinated espionage missions behind enemy lines.

The OSS missions were conducted across all branches of the US military. Though the OSS was disbanded a month after the war had ended, Military high command recognized the need for specific units to engage in unconventional and covert warfare. 

This led to the creation of the first official special forces units and their first action in the Korean war.

Members of special operations units in the military are trained in specific skills to handle highly volatile situations. All special operations units are elite in the sense that they take a specific set of abilities and require those who enlist to pass strenuous tests.

However, not all special ops are equal or require the same abilities. These are the 10 most elite special operations units in the US military.

1. US Navy DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6)

Widely known by their moniker SEAL Team 6, US Navy DEVGRU is easily the most well-known special operations unit in all of the United States militaries.

The overwhelming majority of information concerning the operations conducted by Seal Team 6 is classified and is rarely if ever, commented on by the Department of Defense or the White House.  

They, along with their counterparts in the Air Force and Army, are the primary special operations units that are tasked with handling the most dangerous and complex missions.

Together they form the branches of the Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC. Seal Team 6 was first formed in 1979 in the aftermath of the failed operation to rescue the hostages in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. 

The majority of the information surrounding the recruitment and training of potential members is highly classified, though some knowledge of the requirements has been made available to the public.

Potential recruits must be male, 21 years old or older, have served 2 deployments, and be able to obtain a secret clearance. 

2. US Army Delta Force

The Army’s contribution to JSOC, the Delta Force, was formed after a series of terrorist acts in the late 1970s. The Pentagon began to recognize the growing threat of terrorism on the global scale and realized that the US needed a special operations group to counter this threat. 

Recruitment into Delta Force is highly selective and the Army generally pulls from 75th Ranger Regiment. Special forces recruits can also be selected from other branches of the military.

The primary missions Delta Force deals with include counter-terrorism, direct action, hostage rescue, and special reconnaissance. In order to prepare the recruits for all possible missions, training is intense and inept.

On top of increased physical fitness standards, recruits must also be trained in the following:

  • Marksmanship
  • Demolitions and breaching
  • Combined skills: utilizing both marksmanship and demolitions skills in conjunction with live fire simulations 
  • Tradecraft: tactics commonly used in espionage
  • Executive protection

3. 24th Special Tactics Squadron

The 24th Special Tactics Squadron is the Air Force component of JSOC. Due to their nature as a tier 1 response group, they are trained to deal with counter-terrorism, direct action, hostage rescue, and special reconnaissance, similar to Seal Team 6 and Delta Force.

The 24th Special Tactics Squadron is a descendant of the 24th Pursuit group which served during WWII, though it was disbanded in 1944. 

The second iteration of the 24th began in 1989 with the US invasion of Panama. Afterward, the 24th began to operate regular tier 1 situations where the US had a military presence or interest.

The 24th participated in Operation Restore Hope and, due to their actions in the battle of Mogadishu, many decorations were given to airmen. The 24th has continued to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years and was instrumental in the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

4. US Navy Seals

The SEALs were formally started by President Kennedy in 1962 but their roots can be traced back to soldiers who were trained at the Amphibious Scout and Raider School in 1942.

US military command recognized the need for covert amphibious infiltration during the second world war and started the school to fill a much-needed role in the war effort. 

The unit’s missions primarily take place in maritime, jungle, urban, arctic, mountainous, and desert environments. Their orders usually revolve around gathering intelligence behind enemy lines and capturing or eliminating a high-value target.

The training requirements for the SEALs have been described as particularly “grueling” and it is renowned for its intensity.

All current active seals are members of the navy and are male, though the prohibition on female recruits has been lifted, provided they can pass the training regiment.

5. USMC Force Reconnaissance

This special operations unit was established in 1957 to further form units that provide amphibious reconnaissance. The USMC Force Recon’s primary missions include mobilizing with a Marine expeditionary force to help provide direct action or deep reconnaissance during larger operations.

The unit is trained to be able to operate largely independently while performing recon in hostile territory. Their training prepares them to perform unconventional special operations in support of conventional warfare. 

Generally, the operations that USMC Force Recon conducts are classified as either green operations or black operations. Green operations include the responsibilities of observation, identification, and reporting any and all pertinent military intelligence.

Black operations are small-scale “shock and awe” missions designed to catch an enemy off guard while the main expeditionary force conducts its own mission.

6. US Army Intelligence Support Activity

Founded in 1981, the Intelligence Support Activity operates as the intelligence-gathering arm of JSOC. Not as well known as some of the other Spec Ops units, the ISA’s primary role is to gather as much actionable intelligence as possible prior to a JSOC operation. 

The intelligence-gathering equips them with the information necessary to complete a successful mission prior to any deployment by JSOC.

Within the ISA, there are operational roles as well as support and logistics roles. The operational roles can include undercover operatives working to obtain information in sensitive arenas or behind enemy lines. ISA can also track and monitor radio communications to gather intelligence as well. 


USMC MARSOC was initiated in 2006 at the height of the War on Terror. Marine participation in US Special Operations Command had been somewhat controversial due to Marine Corp leaders feeling it was best to keep the Corp together as a whole.

Despite the controversy, US high command wanted to create a detachment force to be a part of the Marine Corp’s contribution to SOCOM. 

MARSOC is open to both males and females as long as they can complete the Special Operations Training Course. The course consists of challenging, realistic, and unhindered combat training.

It also includes SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training, explosive ordnance, communications, canine, intelligence, and joint terminal attack controller. The primary focus of their missions is counter-terrorism, information operations, and unconventional warfare.

8. US Army 75th Ranger Regiment

The US Army’s premier light infantry group, the current 75th Ranger regiment has been active since 2006. The regiment consists of a single troop battalion and three special operations groups. The regiment trains in a variety of skills to allow them to perform a multitude of mission types. 

The regiment prides itself on being able to rapidly and efficiently deploy into “Ranger Ready Forces” to respond to any situation across the globe in under 18 hours.

Outside of direct action engagements, the regiment trains to perform capture or kill missions, personnel recovery, airfield seizure, reconnaissance, clandestine insertion, and site exploitation. 

9. USAF Pararescuemen

Founded in 1946, the USAF Pararescuemen’s primary goal is to recover aircrew members who are either downed or injured in hostile environments.

Informally known as “Superman School” the training to become a Pararescuemen is among the longest special operations training in the world. It also has the highest rate of attrition at 80% choosing to leave the program. 

The training covers any potential situation a rescueman might find themselves in like special warfare, Army Airborne training, dive warfare, HALO jump training, SERE training, as well as all necessary emergency medical training that may be necessary to rescue personnel. 

The goal of being a Pararescueman can be summed up in their creed: “It is my duty as a Pararescueman to save life and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things we (I) do, that others may live.”

10. USMC Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team

An anti-terrorism unit also known as FAST (Fleet Anti Terrorism Security Teams), they are able to be rapidly deployed to any Naval or government installation around the world that needs extra security.

Their primary mission is to provide security forces to guard high-value vessels or installations, primarily ones that contain nuclear weapons or nuclear material.

One of the potential responsibilities of FAST is to provide a Recapture Tactics Team. This team’s responsibility is to provide In-Extremis Hostage rescue and Nuclear Counterproliferation.

In the event that hostages are in extreme danger, the RTT regiment of FAST will be deployed to rescue the hostages as quickly as possible or in the nightmare scenario, locate and recover a nuclear weapon that has been procured by a hostile actor. 

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