A paramilitary is an organization 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.[1] Paramilitary units carry out duties that a country's military or police forces are unable or unwilling to handle. Other organizations may be considered paramilitaries by structure alone, despite being unarmed or lacking a combat role.

Legion of Frontiersmen, Edmonton Command, 1915 – a nationalist paramilitary group not officially affiliated with the Canadian Army
SWAT team, Washington State Patrol, 2013 – a modern example of a paramilitary in law enforcement


Though a paramilitary is, by definition, not a military, it is usually equivalent to a light infantry or special operations forces in terms of strength, firepower, and organizational structure. Paramilitaries use "military" equipment (such as long guns and armored 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 organization 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 specialize in, such as arrest procedures.


Under the law of war, a state may incorporate a paramilitary organization 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.[2]

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


Generaloberst von Falkenhorst with the sisters of the Lotta Svärd, a Finnish voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation for women, in the summer of 1941

Depending on the definition adopted, "paramilitaries" may include:

Military organizations

Law enforcement

USAF Security Forces tactical team during a training exercise at Travis Air Force Base, 1995

Civil defense


See also


  1. "paramilitary". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. June 2011 [online edition; original published in June 2005]. Retrieved 2011-09-13. Designating, of, or relating to a force or unit whose function and organization are analogous or ancillary to those of a professional military force, but which is not D regarded as having professional or legitimate status.
  2. "Customary IHL - Section B. Incorporation of paramilitary or armed law enforcement agencies into armed forces". Retrieved 2013-07-27.

Further reading

  • Golkar, Saeid. (2012) Paramilitarization of the Economy: the Case of Iran's Basij Militia, Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 38, No. 4
  • Golkar, Saeid. (2012). Organization of the Oppressed or Organization for Oppressing: Analysing the Role of the Basij Militia of Iran. Politics, Religion & Ideology, Dec., 37–41. doi:10.1080/21567689.2012.725661
  • Üngör, Uğur Ümit (2020). Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-882524-1.
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