The Depot

What is the most elite military unit in the U.S.?

US Army special forces soldiers standing in line firing m-4 rifles

As if interservice rivalries were not enough, within the special operations community there is jockeying for the top spot. Who is toughest? Who is more capable? What training is the hardest to complete? While special operators generally have professional respect for each other, like anything, opinions vary about what is the most elite military unit in the US?

Here’s USAMM’s list of elite military units that might help you decide what is the most elite military unit in the US?

U.S. Marine Corps Raiders, formed in 1942, provide customized military combat-skills training and advisement support for foreign forces. Marines and Sailors of the Marine Raider Regiment train, advise, and assist friendly military forces, enabling them to support their nation’s security and stability. They work in small teams to eliminate targets. They deploy scalable, expeditionary forces worldwide to accomplish special operations missions. Marine Raiders execute complex operations in uncertain environments, achieving silent success and strategic impact.

The Marine Corps also has Force Recon units, a direct-action unit and their primary responsibility is to collect information in enemy territory by providing intelligence for operations on the battlefield. As part of this force, the Marine Sniper can provide effective harassing fire from a distance and they’re capable of tracking the enemy. But don’t be fooled, these Marines conduct raids on high-valued targets and can take out the bad guys. Force Recon was formed in 1954.

Known as the “Quiet Professionals,” U.S. Army Special Forces or Green Berets make a strong argument to answer the question what is the most elite military unit in the US? Formed in 1952 at Fort Bragg, N.C. by U.S. Army Col. Aaron Bank, Green Berets have their roots in World War II when Bank worked in the Office of Strategic Services organizing, training and equipping the French resistance. After WWII, Bank saw a need to organize a mobile, adaptable fighting force that could help foreign nations friendly to the United States. Special Forces was born.

Training to become an “SF” soldier is done in six phases and takes at least a year to complete. Special Forces Soldiers are trained to perform several missions in a small-team structure. They perform counterinsurgency missions often deployed to prevent terrorist and insurgent incidents abroad. They respond to terrorist activities and train other nations’ militaries in the basics of fighting insurgents. They also perform unconventional warfare activities conducted to enable resistance movements or insurgencies to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. SF types conduct direct action missions to seize, capture, recover or destroy enemy material, or recover personnel. One of their better-known missions is foreign internal defense where they train and equip foreign allied military forces. They have also been known to conduct surveillance in hostile, denied, or diplomatically or politically sensitive environments. Lastly, on security force assistance missions, SF soldiers are called upon to train and develop the defense capabilities of friendly and developing nations. But are the Green Berets the answer to what is the most elite military unit in the US?

The U.S. Army Rangers might argue differently. Rangers are the Army’s elite light infantry, supporting other special operations forces or conducting direct action raids themselves (think Somalia 1990s). It takes about two months to complete Ranger school’s three phases: Benning phase, Mountain phase and Florida phase. The Rangers got their start long before the start of the Revolutionary War. In the mid-1700s, Capt. Benjamin Church and Maj. Robert Rogers formed Ranger units to fight during the King Phillips War and in the French and Indian War. Rogers wrote 19 standing order that are still in use today. Rangers can be spotted by their tan berets.

Pararescuemen, also known as PJs, live by their motto, That Others May Live. A lot of other organizations use this motto, but it is unique to the PJs who got their start in 1946 and saw an uptick in missions in Vietnam where they made their name. PJs are primarily charged with rescuing downed pilots, but they provide advanced life saving medical attention in a variety of missions. It takes approximately two years for an airman to become a fully trained PJ and while many are trained in SCUBA, HALO/HAHO and other special skills, most state that their medical training is the most challenging part of their training.

Combat controllers are FAA-certified air traffic controllers who manage air traffic in remote and hostile environments. They are inserted behind enemy lines and they help with target acquisition on the ground and they provide crucial air support to ground forces. Naturally, they are trained in everything from military freefall parachuting to combat SCUBA diving, as well as SERE, forward air controlling, and other special tactics.

Combat controllers work with all special operations forces like Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Delta, etc. They specialize in calling in air strikes, setting up a landing site and attacking and converting an enemy airfield into a U.S. airfield. At that point, they work as air traffic controllers.

Tactical air control parties, or TACP (pronounced “tack p”), manage close air support (think A-10) and artillery often behind enemy lines. TACPs usually are assigned or attached to Army units. They are a part of the unit they are assigned to support and they call in air strikes in support those units. They are on the ground, fighting alongside of their Army brethren, only they are performing duties as a forward air controller.

The most unique Air Force special operators are the folks who wear the grey beret. They definitely could be who comes to mind when someone asks what is the most elite military unit in the US? But again, it depends who you ask. SR types used to be known as special operations weather team airmen, but in 2019 the Air Force announced they would have a new name and mission and now they are known as special reconnaissance airmen and their focus has shifted from specialized weather analysis to multi-domain reconnaissance and surveillance. SR airmen deploy from airborne, maritime, or land-based platforms deep behind enemy lines to collect and exploit key information, develop targets, and tilt the battlespace to favor U.S. forces. SR airmen surveil and prepare the battlespace to provide global access, air, space, and cyberspace superiority.

The missions of the Navy SEALs (sea, air, land) includes direct action warfare, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism and foreign internal defense. Established in 1962, SEALs are a nimble maritime force designed for unconventional warfare. They conduct insertions and extractions on air, sea or land to accomplish covert, special operations/warfare missions around the world. They capture or kill high value enemy personnel (they’re the guys that put a cap in Bin Laden). They collect information and intelligence through special recon. They perform small unit direct actions against military targets. They conduct underwater recon or demolition of manmade and natural obstacles prior to amphibious landings. SEALs are inserted by parachute, submarine, helicopter, high-speed boat, foot patrol or combat swimming. According to the Navy, it takes about 30 months to become a fully trained SEAL. Do SEALs answer the question, what is the most elite military unit in the US?

Delta Force is not just a Chuck Norris action movie. It is a very real U.S. military special operations unit and likely the military’s worst-kept secret although you can be standing next to a Delta operator and never know. Known as the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta SFOD-D, commonly referred to as Delta Force, Combat Applications Group, the unit, Army Compartmented Element, or Task Force Green, depending who you are, Delta is an elite Army special operations force under the control of Joint Special Operations Command. The unit performs counterterrorism missions, hostage rescues, direct action missions, and special recon. Delta is a Tier 1 unit usually tasked with the most complex, classified and dangerous missions. Most Delta operators are chosen from Army Special Forces and Army Rangers, but some hail from other special ops units. Delta was formed in 1977 by Col. Charles Beckwith. Although most Delta operators will never be publicly recognized, Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart both earned the Medal of Honor posthumously for their actions in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.

The term “operator” when referring to American special ops personnel comes directly from the Army’s Special Forces. In 1952, ten years before the SEALs were established and 25 years before Delta was founded, SF was using the term “operator.” All qualified Special Forces personnel had to agree to the Code of the Special Forces Operator and sign the pledge. In 2006, the Navy added Special Warfare Operator as a rating and these days most people in special operations are known as operators.

What is the most elite military unit in the US? You be the judge, but in our opinion, all of these folks are bad asses.

Comments on this post ( 12 )

  • Apr 25, 2024

    Activity, task force Orange is the secret tier 1 group under the JSOC umbrella, “Joint special operation command” that is considered to be the hardest to join. They are made up of Delta, Devgru, and all the other top tier one best of the best. Little is known about " The Activity" but they are known to be the first ones to go into the warzone and gather Intel. They are the true meaning of ghosts.

    — Tom

  • Feb 05, 2024
    I would not include Air Force units in this ranking. I have seen them perform in exhibition competitions and they were last by a long way, in everything, from firearms usage, to swimming, running, obstacle courses and parachuting to a target ground target. And, they get personal awards, high level personal awards highest level 20 times as often as the Navy and Marine Corps personnel receive them. At least that is what Navy Times reported in a Head Line article about this subject from about 2000. I do not doubt the potential capabilities of the Air Force, Special Forces, personnel. It is just they do not train to the same intensity and minimum physical requirements levels that you see with Marine, Navy, and Army Special Forces. Also Delta Forces have members from the other three service branches.


    — kevin wethington

  • Oct 25, 2023



  • Oct 23, 2023

    I personally am in awe of each one of you. I’ve always liked watching movies and television shows like the Green Beret and The Unit( and the Band of Brothers was a great favorite of mine. Even though I am a woman these things have always interested me. But I understand that these shoes represent real people and it saddens me that such things have to happen. You special force people are just all so skilled and just intrigue me with all the things you can do. Thank you so, so much for your service. Our country owes so much to all of you!!

    — Debbie Cardwell

  • Dec 15, 2022

    Keep up the good work. Semper Fi

    — Carl Waters

  • Aug 06, 2022

    After I was selected Honor Graduate at USAF AZR school, they asked me if I wanted to go to Ranger school in Phan Rang Vietnam. It was heavy weapons and small unit tactics from a small encampment outside of the air base. They took all the physical training, except the hand to hand, and crawling around in mud and just taught us the base parts, from rifle to mortars and shoulder fired.

    The intention was to be sent back to our base units and train others in those skills. My first night on duty we received incoming rockets, but after that nothing. They didn’t see the need for further training since we were in peace talks to end the war.

    Unfortunately our enemy no longer comes from overseas, but from down the street. White supremicists attacking our capitals and schools and even walmart. There is no training for that.

    — Dennis Lurvey

  • Jul 23, 2022

    US Army 75th Ranger Regiment …. I assume when you said Rangers, this group is included, if not: In a nutshell: This elite infantry unit, a.k.a. Rangers, is a Special Operations unit headquartered at Ft. Benning, GA. The unit comprises a single Special Troops Battalion and three special operations battalions, specially trained with a variety of skills needed for several different specialized missions. These three light infantry battalions can be rapidly deployed and take turns rotating into the “Ranger Ready Forces,” where they are in constant readiness with the ability to respond to any crisis, anywhere in the world, in less than 18 hours.


  • Apr 25, 2022

    Absolutely fabulous and overwhelming the feeling that all those people have this passion in their lives to sacrifice for us the rest of the world!!! The reality that someone already is training hard and gives their best and on top of it they are willing to sacrifice their lives for all of us,….is beyond words can describe!!! They are training hard and so dangerous to be able to fight against the evil and whatever is coming against us and is out there in the dark,but knowing that those guys and special elite teams exist is absolutely awesome and give us a great feeling of safe and hope! Thank you God for creating those wonderful people with absolutely beautiful and precious hearts and souls. Their dedication for us,The people, beyond words can describe! May God bless you all and give you strength to complete all of ur missions and come back home safe and keep us safe in same time. We love you and pray for your safety and that God will bless you forever with whatever you need for your lives.

    — Mirela

  • Jun 02, 2021

    Well a lot of overlaps in the Special ops communities, but “without “ any of these groups, many required ops would be missed. From a a former recon support unit.

    — b palermo, USMC, ret.

  • May 10, 2021

    I’m overwhelmed of the capabilities of all ranks of our military and GOD BLESS those who prove it, and those who stand to the TEST, and those who have FALLEN! Regardless of rank or what you belong to you are all bad ass and you are all my brother and sister. From fellow veteran, RGP.

    — Ron Peterson

  • Apr 19, 2021

    In terms of adaptability and diverse skills, no debate, army special forces…

    — SOF Junkie

  • Apr 12, 2021

    Going to Ranger school doesn’t make you an army ranger

    — Tom Beatfoot

Leave a comment