What is a Paramilitary?


A paramilitary is an organisation whose structure, tactics, training, subculture, and (often) function are similar to those of a professional military, but is not part of a country’s official or legitimate armed forces.

Paramilitary units carry out duties that a country’s military or police forces are unable or unwilling to handle. Other organisations may be considered paramilitaries by structure alone, despite being unarmed or lacking a combat role.

Refer to Militia and Gendarmerie.


Though a paramilitary is, by definition, not a military, it is usually equivalent to a light infantry force in terms of strength, firepower, and organisational structure. Paramilitaries use:

  • ‘military’ equipment (such as long guns and armoured personnel carriers; usually military surplus resources),
  • Skills (such as battlefield medicine and bomb disposal), and
  • Tactics (such as urban warfare and close-quarters combat),

that are compatible with their purpose, often combining them with skills from other relevant fields such as law enforcement or search and rescue. They rarely use extensive military equipment such as artillery and armed military aircraft.

In peacetime, paramilitaries are often assigned to protect high-profile sites, such as government facilities, infrastructure, airports, seaports, or borders. They may also be tasked with roles of VIP protection or counterterrorism. Depending on the organisation the paramilitary operates under, they may also be reassigned until they are needed again; for example, members of a police tactical unit may be assigned to standard patrol duties until requested.

A paramilitary may fall under the command of a military, train alongside them, or have permission to use their resources, despite not actually being part of them. In some instances, paramilitaries may train members of an actual military in tactics they specialise in, such as arrest procedures.


Under the law of war, a state may incorporate a paramilitary organisation or armed agency (such as a law enforcement agency or a private volunteer militia) into its combatant armed forces. The other parties to a conflict have to be notified thereof.

Some countries’ constitutions limit freedom of association by prohibiting paramilitary organisations outside government use. In most cases, there is no definition of paramilitary, and court decisions are responsible for defining that concept.


Depending on the definition adopted, “paramilitaries” may include:

Military Organisations

  • The auxiliary forces of a state’s military or government, such as national guard, presidential guard, republican guard, state defence force, home guard, and royal guard forces.
  • Private military company and mercenary forces.
  • Irregular military forces, such as militias, militants, partisans, resistance movements, freedom fighters, rebel groups, guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists.

Law Enforcement

  • Semi-militarised law enforcement units within civilian police forces, such as police tactical units, SWAT, Emergency Service Units, and incident response teams.
  • Gendarmeries, such as the Dutch Royal Marechaussee, Egyptian Central Security Forces, European EUROGENDFOR, Turkic TAKM, and Chilean Carabineros de Chile.
  • Border troops, such as the Australian Border Force, Indian Border Security Force, Bangladeshi Border Guards Bangladesh, and Turkish village guards.
  • Coast guards.
  • Security forces of ambiguous military status, such as internal troops, railroad guards, or railway troops.
  • Branches of intelligence agency tasked with law enforcement or security operations:
    • CIA Special Activities Centre Special Operations Group and Global Response Staff.
    • Tactical branches of the American FBI, DEA, ATF, and ICE, among other federal agencies.
    • Federal Protective Forces.
    • NASA Emergency Response Teams.

Civil Defence

  • Fire departments in many countries are often organised like paramilitaries despite being unarmed.
  • Belgian Civil Protection.
  • Singapore Civil Defence Force.
  • Australian State Emergency Service.
  • Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces.
  • Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.


  • Armed, semi-militarised wings of existing political parties:
    • The Italian Fascist Party’s Voluntary Militia for National Security.
    • Weimar paramilitary groups, belonging to political parties in the Weimar Republic:
      • The Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung and Schutzstaffel.
      • The Monarchist German National People’s Party’s Der Stahlhelm.
      • The Communist Party of Germany’s Parteiselbstschutz.
    • Sinn Féin’s Irish Republican Army.
    • Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
    • African National Congress’ UMkhonto we Sizwe.

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