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A military elite is a unit of soldiers or recruits picked for their competence and put in a special elite unit. Elite units enjoy some benefits as compared to other units, at least in the form of higher status, but often also higher pay and better equipment. Napoleon's Imperial Guard and Saddam Hussein Republican Guard would be good examples. The word elite in the military sense is fundamentally different from most other uses of the term. A social or societal elite has usually not been picked by anyone except themselves and do not necessarily make part of the elite due to their competence. Military elite units do not exercise any special leadership over other units. In the societal and social sense of the word, the elite of the military is the officer corps, not the elite units.
In the military community, it is not considered good resource management to create elite units that are expected to do the same things as a regular military unit only better, as opposed to special forces that are expected to do other things than regular soldiers. Critics argue that it creates a negative "second class soldier" feeling among the regular units; for example the grenadier and light infantry companies of the 18th and 19th century British Army. Such companies had both a weakening and demoralising effect on the other soldiers of their parent battalions, especially when these companies were detached from a number of battalions and grouped together to form ad hoc grenadier and light infantry battalions. It is also argued that an especially competent soldier does more good as an NCO (non-commissioned officer) or as just the man who sets a good inspiring example for his comrades. Conversely, some theorists point out that a more powerful unit has a disciplinary effect on the general military core.
However, most nations will maintain elite military forces for the purposes of power projection and expeditionary warfare. The limiting factor in such operations is usually the availability of airlift and sealift assets, rather than manpower, first to get forces in theatre and then to sustain them with materiel e.g. Britain in the Falklands War. Such amphibious and airborne forces, usually operating with minimal armor, artillery and logistics support will normally face enemies with superior numbers, prepared positions and interior lines of communications. Under such circumstances the additional effort and cost needed for the selection, training, indoctrination and equipping of elite formations is not only worthwhile, but essential for success.
In the narrowest sense of the word, elite units refer only to units of soldiers picked from ordinary troops or recruits to form an elite unit. However, superior units can also be created by other means than picking the most promising soldiers and recruits from regular forces. Such forces can also be created by having a completely different, parallel recruitment process with higher standards than the normal troops. Sometimes a completely different recruitment pool is used such as recruiting internationally or recruiting from a people that is thought to have superior soldier qualities. The French Foreign Legion recruits professionals internationally and British Gurkha troops are recruited from the Nepalese, a people that impressed the British with their soldierly qualities. In the very strictest sense of the word these are not elite units since the soldiers are not chosen from regular soldiers or recruits but they are usually called elite units nonetheless.
In Commonwealth militaries, some regiments may be thought of as "elite" for a number of reasons; a particularly distinguished combat record (like The Rifles), great media exposure (the Highland Regiments and the Frontier Force in British India now Pakistan) or being an "old" regiment with a long history (and often thus greater support in Headquarters since these regiments have naturally a higher numbers of senior officers), examples would include the Coldstream Guards (UK), and the Punjab Regiment in India and Pakistan. While again not strictly speaking elites, they often become superior units, since due to their reputation they attract the best and brightest recruits and cadets (who in many armies have a choice of assignment) which results in a correspondingly better performance.
Historically at times of military and technological change it would have been impossible financially to re-equip the entire army with new weapons at the same time. To maximize the benefit of new weapons, elite units may be formed, who would be superior to the regular troops because of both the new weapons and additional training and expectations. For example, in the British Army the Rifle Regiments were armed with rifles when the rest of the army was equipped with muskets; before them the Fusiliers were the first to be armed with flintlocks when the line units had matchlocks. Armies going through change may need formations familiar with new concepts and doctrines to act in the familiarization and adversary training roles. Such units will naturally perform better than their students; e.g. historically the Panzer-Lehr-Division and currently the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Occasionally a military formation rises quite unplanned to become an especially competent military unit. While raised, organized, equipped and using the same operational procedures as its peers a confluence of events, personalities and circumstances create traditions, reputations and an esprit de corps that reinforce each other to lift such units above those peers. Such formations include the original 51st Highland division and the original Desert rats and the Pakistani 25th Cavalry.
Elites within an army can also arise unexpectedly, when only a few units and formations of an army are involved in combat operations while the rest of the army is on peacetime duties, the resulting combat skills make them stand out from their peers, examples would include the 25th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Div in Vietnam, and the Indian Northern Command and Pakistani Force Command Northern Areas in Kashmir.
In these two cases it can be argued that units with more modern weapons or units that just happen to be better than others are strictly speaking not elite units since they do not consist of individuals picked for especially high competence but are recruited just like other units. However, sometimes the words "elite unit" are somewhat sloppily used to simply imply "unit that is better than other". Major Reid-Daly of the Rhodesian Selous Scouts detested the word elite:
We do not consider ourselves an elite group of men, nor do we think we are of the highest calibre. It could cause the men to imagine themselves better than they really are and this could in turn lead to recklessness. We are simply just trackers out to do a job.
US military the term "elite" for forces for covert missions which require better trained soldiers who are more disciplined and mentally and emotionally stronger.
Politically elite military units
Historically many elite forces have been created and maintained as much for political reasons as for military ones. The leaders feel they need something more politically reliable than ordinary units and create elite units, hoping that the privileges, the extra political indoctrination that such elite forces are typically given and the pride in belonging to an elite will make them more loyal. The German Waffen-SS is an atypical example of such a force evolving as it did into a war fighting force.
Typically since the days before the Roman Praetorian Guards such forces have been used as a loyal and militarily competent counterweight to the nations' other military forces, to protect the incumbent leadership from coups and putsches. For example Saddam Hussein had the Iraqi Republican Guard to keep the normal military in check and the Iraqi Special Republican Guard to keep an eye on the Republican Guard.
...From the beginning of the new Islamic regime, the Pasdaran functioned as a corps of the faithful. Its role in national security evolved from securing the regime and eliminating opposition forces to becoming a branch of the military establishment...[and its] independent military power acted as a check on any possible coup attempts by the armed forces....
....the Pasdaran, under the guidance of such clerics as Lahuti and Hashemi-Rafsanjani, was also "to act as the eyes and ears of the Islamic Revolution" and "as a special task force of the Imam Khomeini to crush any counterrevolutionary activities within the government or any political usurper against the Islamic Government." Over the years the IRP's leadership used the Pasdaran to eliminate opposition figures and to enhance its own position. Using the Pasdaran as a springboard to more important positions, Pasdaran leaders could always obtain access to the Revolutionary Council and Khomeini. For example, President Khamenehi and Majlis speaker Hashemi-Rafsanjani were both former commanders of the Pasdaran. Library of Congress Country Studies, Iran, Special and Irregular Armed Forces.
At times such forces become so powerful that they are completely beyond control of the government, or can even become kingmakers who control the head of state. The Praetorians auctioned off the Empire to the highest bidder; the Streltsy first supported and then tried to depose Peter the Great, and the Janissaries repeatedly deposed and installed Ottoman sultans in the 18th Century.
In other instances, e.g. Iraq's Republican Guard, such forces have become little more than social clubs for the societal elites and those seeking advancement through the political system, capable only of bullying unarmed civilians and intimidating the regular military, often failing militarily when tested.
Elites in the military
Many noble families in Europe were founded by warlords or military leaders from the migration period and the Middle Ages. Early modern kings encouraged, or in some cases required, their junkers or gentlemen or other well-born men to continue this tradition as military officers. For many years the British Army, together with the Church, was seen as the ideal career for the younger sons of the aristocracy, those who would not inherit their fathers' titles or estates. Although now much diminished, the practice has not totally disappeared, the slang term 'Rupert' being used to describe such blue-blooded, usually British public school educated, officers.
The military has always been seen as a means by societal elites to acquire wealth, prestige and power, for example Julius Caesar. Even in modern democracies there are those who aspire to political power who see a few years in military service as essential to a political resume. The majority of United States presidents and most presidents of Mexico, for example, have been former officers.
As a very practical form of displaying patriotism it has been at times "fashionable" for "gentlemen" to participate in the military, usually the militia, to fulfill societal expectations. It has been said that the title "Colonel" was the ultimate fashion accessory for a Southern gentleman.
- Companion cavalry
- Devil's Brigade
- Ever Victorious Army
- Imperial Guard
- Jaguar Warrior
- Persian Immortals
- Polish Hussars
- Praetorian Guard
- Sacred Band of Carthage
- Sacred Band of Thebes
- Spartan Army
- List of special forces units
- Soviet Union & Russian Federation
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Varangian Guard
Politically Elite para/Military
- Emperor's Royal Guard and Dark Troopers from Star Wars
- Covenant Elite, a fictional alien race and the human counterpart the Spartans in the video games Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo Wars
- Shi'ar Imperial Guard from the Marvel Comics universe
- Space Marines (Adeptus Astartes) from the tabletop miniature wargame Warhammer 40,000
- Sardaukar from the Dune universe
- Task Force 141 in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series consisting primarily of Capt. Price, MacTavish and Ghost.