Top 10 Military Specialty Schools in the United States
With the War On Terror entering its second decade, the military forces of the United States continues to operate at a high tempo. A salient factor of U.S. military forces has always been the high level of training that its members receive. It is this training that is the focus of this list. Military personnel are tasked with performing dangerous missions that require not just bravery, but a high degree of skill to accomplish. As a result, the men and women who undertake these perilous missions subject themselves to some of the toughest, and most intensive training imaginable. Tasked with testing and molding the physical, mental and emotional aspects of every trainee, these military schools represent the upper echelon of military training.
Authors Note: I am fairly certain that some readers will wonder about international schools such as the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines and the like. I fully recognize the amazing training these schools offer. However, this list is dedicated to military specialty schools within the U.S. Armed Forces.
10. Pathfinder School
Mission: Army pathfinders have the all-too-important mission of insuring that airborne assault troops reach their proper landing/drop zones. Pathfinders are the soldiers that are inserted into a designated drop zone ahead of the main assault force (up to 72 hours prior) for the purpose of marking the drop zone, initial area security, landing and drop zone surveys, etc. These soldiers are capable of calling in air strikes for targets of opportunity, and are expected to coordinate most phases involved with LZ/DZ operations (coordinate aircraft drops/movement, weather forecast, sling load ops, etc.). Operating in four-man teams, they operate alone behind enemy lines until the arrival of the main assault force.
Training: The U.S. Army’s Pathfinder School is a three-week course that is conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia. In order to attend, a soldier has to be assigned to (or en route to) a billeting slot that requires pathfinding skills, be physically qualified to participate in airborne operations, and have a GT (aptitude) score of 110 or higher. The course aims to instruct soldiers:
“How to navigate dismounted, establish and operate a day / night helicopter landing zone, establish and operate day / night parachute drop zones (DZs), including Computed Air Release System (CARP) DZs, Ground Marked Release System (GMRS) DZs and Army Verbally Initiated Release System (VIRS) DZs, conduct sling load operations, provide air traffic control (ATC) and navigational assistance to rotary wing (RW) and fixed wing (FW) airborne operations.”
Over the course of the three weeks, students will essentially learn every facet necessary to carry out a successful air assault into a specific point. While the course is not necessarily physically intensive, it is academically so, as students are required to absorb an incredible amount of information. Students will undertake their curriculum in both classroom and field environments (quite a bit of field time). Upon successful completion of the curriculum, soldiers are awarded the prestigious Pathfinder Badge, and are qualified to be assigned to one of the three pathfinder formations in the US Army.
9. Airborne School (Basic School)
Mission: Where traditional soldiers may find certain terrain impassable or difficult to navigate, paratroopers can be airlifted and dropped in any location accessible by air. This includes behind enemy lines. Additionally, the ability to rapidly deploy “boots on the ground” by air, especially in hostile environments, is a military asset that cannot be minimized. These types of combat missions require soldiers with exceptional infantry skills, not to mention the nerves and training necessary to jump out of perfectly-functioning aircraft.
Training: The United States Airborne School is located at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Basic Airborne Course (also known as Jump School) is a three-week affair with the stated purpose to: “qualify the student in the use of the parachute as a means of combat deployment and to develop leadership, self-confidence, and an aggressive spirit through mental and physical conditioning.”
The hallmark of jump school (besides jumping out of planes) is the intense physical training that is required throughout the course of the 3 week training cycle. Students are expected to be able to withstand the PT regime and successfully pass the required PT Tests along with their jump related requirements.
The jump training is broken into 3 cycles. The first cycle/week is spent learning how to land correctly while utilizing the parachute landing fall (PLF). Students will spend an inordinate amount of time jumping off platforms and learning this maneuver. Upon successful completion of learning the PLF, students move to the tower in the second cycle/week. This training will familiarize students with the parachute apparatus, proper techniques for exiting a plane, falling from extreme heights, etc. Students must successfully complete all the requirements of this phase to continue. The third cycle/phase entails actually jumping out of a plane – five times. Each student must successfully complete all five jumps to graduate. Upon graduation, students are awarded the coveted, and well-recognized, basic parachutist wings.
8. Marine Scout Sniper School
Mission: United States Marines are elite in their own right. Every Marine is trained, from the onset, to be an infantryman and highly effective with a rifle. Imagine, then, what a Marine sniper is capable of. Marine scout snipers are unique in that they undertake the dual responsibilities of reconnaissance and sniper duties. Scout sniper platoons are a battalion commander’s resource to gather intelligence, or to utilize precision fire for the suppression of hostile targets (i.e. kill bad guys). Their motto is “one shot, one kill”. Working in two-man teams, usually alone, in target-rich environments that have become the norm with America’s War On Terror, Marine Scout Snipers have their brand of skills in much demand. Trained to be unseen until it’s too late (and not even then actually), these Marines learn their trade in arguably the toughest school in the Marine Corps.
Training: The Marine Corps Scout Sniper course is conducted at four different locations (Camp Lejune, North Carolina; Camp Pendleton, California; Quantico, Virginia, and MCB Hawaii). In order to attend, a Marine must be at least a Lance Corporal (E-3) or above, have an infantry military occupation, be a qualified rifle expert, and be first-class physical fitness and swim test qualified. Additionally, a Marine has to be selected by his parent command. Once selected, a Marine will generally attend one of the four schools that is closest to his original unit. The school itself is 12 ½ weeks long, with a strong emphasis on training Marines to be the deadliest long-range marksmen in the world. This is evidenced by the first nine weeks of training that is almost exclusively devoted to shooting and qualifying – from both known and unknown distances. During this phase, students will learn the craft of determining distances, flight physics for projectiles, spotting, shooting techniques and more. There are a number of shooting qualifications in this phase, testing a student’s ability to shoot under all manner of conditions and from varying distances (1000 yards and beyond).
All of this is done under an element of directed stress, and at a hurried pace. The second phase of training is devoted to field craft. This is where students will learn how to stalk, camouflage techniques, recon surveillance training and the like.
The school is demanding, and the dropout rate is 60% or higher. Marines are expected to successfully pass each stage of qualification in order to continue with training. Failure to do so will result in being dropped. Upon successful completion, Marines are certified scout snipers, and are eligible for advance training (such as urban and mountain sniper courses), and assignment to the Fleet Marine Force as a sniper or spotter.
7. Aviation Survival Technician/Rescue Swimmer School
Mission: We forget that the Coast Guard is a valued member of America’s armed forces. Nevertheless, these brave men and women continue to serve and perform their duties at the highest levels. This is certainly true of the Coast Guard’s Rescue Swimmers. In my humble opinion, anyone that is willing to jump out of a helicopter into a storm-churned sea…at night…with swells that dwarf skyscrapers, deserves to be on this list, and any other that details the best of the best. Rescue Swimmers are the elite of the search-and-rescue efforts that the Coast Guard maintains. These are the people that are coming to get you when your ship is going doing in the Arctic Sea or some other remote place. These guardsmen place their own lives in harm’s way so that others may survive. It takes a special breed to perform these duties at the highest levels that are expected, and only the best survive the training. Their motto is “so others may live.”
Training: The Coast Guard’s AST school is located in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and is an 18-week course. In addition to this, students will have to attend a four-week emergency medical technician course in Petaluma, California. But before any of this takes place, potential rescue swimmers must attend a pre-course. These pre-courses, held at various Coast Guard stations, are 4 to 6 weeks long and feature grueling physical training (especially swimming) geared to prepare students for the demands of AST. Only about half of the initial prospects make it past this stage and attend AST. In total, a rescue swimmer will spend about a year in training. At AST, students learn how to deploy from helicopters, numerous rescue techniques, as well as receive in-depth training on the aircraft systems of the craft they will be assigned to. Upon successful completion of all of this, a guardsmen (or woman) will be rated as an aviation survival technician. This honor isn’t bestowed on everybody; the school has a typical dropout rate as high as 80%.
6. Pararescue School
Mission: These are the airmen that risk all to save those warriors who have gone down (usually pilots), especially behind enemy lines. In fact, they are the only operational unit among U.S. armed forces, that are specifically tasked with rescue operations in hostile environments. These are among the bravest and highly trained soldiers to be found, not just in the U.S. Air Force, but throughout the special operations community. Not only must they possess the necessary infantry skills to penetrate behind enemy lines, but pararescue jumpers (PJ’s) must be able to render effective medical treatment to keep their charges alive. Interestingly, until recently, this elite service was only available to enlisted Air Force personnel.
Training: They refer to the training required to be become a PJ as Superman School. And with good reason, because not just anyone can be an Air Force Pararescue Jumper. In all, before becoming fully certified, a potential PJ will have undergone two years of very physical and intense training covering a wide spectrum of disciplines. The first step is the Pararescue indoctrination course. This is a “let’s see if you have what it takes” course that lasts 9 weeks. Conducted at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, students will be continuously drilled with running, swimming, weight lifting and the like. Students will be introduced to the basics of diving, military weaponry qualifications, medical treatment procedures, and other necessary techniques. A graduate of this course will have his “ticket” to continue on to the other specialty schools necessary to earn the coveted maroon beret of the PJ’s. These schools include: Airborne School, Combat Diver School, Basic Survival School, Parachutist Free Fall School, Pararescue EMT/Paramedic school, and Underwater egress training.
Only after successful completion of this training will an airman be certified a PJ. Consider this; among the entirety of the special forces community training schools, pararescue training has the highest dropout rate (about 90%). It is not unusual to have only 4-6 successful graduates out of a 100 students. These guys are the real deal.
5. Ranger School
Mission: Rangers are hardcore. These men are the Army’s elite shock troops. If there is an enemy that needs to be assaulted, and he’s entrenched within an otherwise-impenetrable stronghold – it’s the Rangers you call on to dig them out. Their motto is “Rangers lead the way.” The Rangers are the U.S. Army’s elite light infantry. They can be rapidly deployed to hot spots around the globe, and provide America with a swift strike capability. These guys can be considered the heavy hitters of the special operations community.
Training: Ranger school is a combat leadership course, and is regarded as one of the most physically, and mentally, demanding military schools in the entirety of the armed forces. The officers and NCO’s of Ranger formations are required to graduate from this training. The purpose of the school is to develop combat leadership (accomplishing the mission under the stress and hardship common to combat). This stress is replicated – physically and mentally – by the instructors, as students are pushed to the physical limits of their bodies and kept under the constant pressure of having to succeed at each stage of training. Students will train, on average, about 20 hours a day. There’s little rest and, typically, students will only eat once or twice a day. The 61-day course is conducted in three phases, at different locations around the country.
The first phase of training takes place at Fort Benning, Georgia. The purpose of the phase is “designed to assess a soldier’s physical stamina, mental toughness, leadership abilities, and establishes the tactical fundamentals required for follow-on phases of Ranger School”. In other words, they run a student ragged to see who can take it. The first three days of this training features the Ranger Assessment Phase. About 60% of the soldiers that drop out of Ranger training will do so during this period. Students are put through their paces in a variety of tests. These include: a physical fitness test, a water survival assessment, a land navigation test, and a 15-mile forced march. In addition, students will receive training in patrolling, air assault/airborne refresher training, basic demolition training, etc. Failure to pass any test will result in being dropped from the school.
The second or mountain phase of training takes place at Camp Merrill, Georgia. The emphasis in this phase is to teach students the various techniques utilized in mountainous environments. The physical tempo that began in the Benning phase is ramped up even more, with students being tasked with more leadership roles within their squads (leading patrols, etc.). The rugged terrain only adds to the physical hardships that the students will endure, as they learn such skills related to employing an infantry platoon for mountain warfare.
The third, or swamp, phase takes place at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida. This training phase is meant to teach students how to operate in a rainforest/swamp environment. Students will learn techniques for waterborne operations, small boat employment, stream crossings, and dealing with exotic wildlife (like alligators); all the while being under intense physical and mental stress. All of their training will culminate in a major exercise that simulates an assault on an island stronghold.
Upon completion of the final exercise, and evaluation by instructors and fellow students, those soldiers who make the grade are awarded with the coveted Ranger tab – a symbol that soldiers are authorized to wear permanently with their uniforms. It’s interesting to note that 90% of Army’s top echelons of officers are Ranger School graduates.
4. Army Special Forces Qualification Course
Mission: The United States Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, are perhaps the best-known outfit associated with the term “special forces,” if for no other reason than John Wayne made a movie about them. These soldiers, however, are anything but Hollywood actors. Green Berets have a number of missions they have been tasked with. These include: conduct unconventional warfare, provide internal defense training for foreign nations/groups (a primary mission of SF), special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, and direct action operations. These elite soldiers are often the guys that train the guerrilla forces that are opposing governments that the United States is not fond of (in a deniable fashion, of course). Operating in 12-man A-Teams, Green Berets are the “varsity” squad of special force operators.
Training: The Army Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) or Q course is divided into 4 phases and can take between 55 to 95 weeks to complete, depending on a student’s aptitude in certain military specialties (especially a foreign language). The first phase of the SFQC is assessment and selection, and takes place at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. This is the phase that will determine if a soldier will be eligible to remain in the SFQC. Lasting 24 days, this training is very similar to the first phase of training found at Ranger School (many SF candidates happen to be Ranger qualified, and ALL SF students must be Airborne qualified in order to begin the 2nd phase of SFQC). Students in the first phase will endure intense mental and physical training that is designed to test their mettle along SF attributes (known as the “Whole Man”). The training will include numerous land navigation courses (timed, in all weather, over rugged terrain), team endurance (carrying telephone poles and jeeps), swim assessments, IQ tests, foreign language tests, and the like. Obviously, failure to pass any test can result in dismissal from the course. Upon successful completion of the first phase, students are then evaluated by the training cadre. Students must be selected by the final selection board to continue training. Those that are not selected are given the chance to try again at a later date.
The second phase of training takes place after selected students determine their SF military occupational specialty, which SF group they want to serve with, and what foreign language they want to specialize in. Once all of this is decided, the second phase begins, which is 18 – 24 weeks of intensive foreign language study. Students will need to gain a sufficient mastery of a foreign language to obtain a minimum rating on the Oral Proficiency Interview. This phase, and the remaining training phases, take place at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Upon successful completion of phase two, students will head back into the field for phase three. This phase focuses on small unit tactics and survival skills. This phase lasts 13 weeks (including the three-week Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape [SERE] school). This phase teaches students how to conduct raids, ambushes, patrols and other small unit operations. This also includes how to plan such missions. Further, students will spend a good amount of time executing these plans in the field.
The fourth phase of instruction will find students branching off into training that is geared toward their specific military occupation within the SF. These are: weapons sergeant, engineering sergeant, communications sergeant, and medical sergeant. For officers, the occupational designation is detachment commander. Specialty training takes 16 weeks (48 weeks for a medical sergeant). Finally, after completion of their specialty training, there is a four-week exercise – called Robin Sage – that puts all of a student’s skills to the test in a realistic exercise. Upon successful completion of this very extensive training, students are awarded Green Berets, and usually assigned to an operation SF A-team.
3. Basic Reconnaissance Course
Mission: Marines are special, and Recon Marines are a special kind of special. These Marines are trained to be the eyes and ears of larger Marine combat formations and provide “special operations” capabilities. If you need a small team of men to infiltrate enemy territory, recon the area, blow up a few targets, and maybe take down a bad guy or two, force recon is exactly what you need. It’s interesting, but they don’t really have an equivalent – in terms of primary mission and purpose- among the other services. Until recently, their mission was solely related to near and deep reconnaissance of the battlespace for larger Marine forces. However, with the pressure to field a Marine component for the Special Operations Command, Marine force recon units have been restructured to provide support that goes beyond Marine-specific operations. Nevertheless, these are the Marines’ most highly trained operators – on par (in my humble opinion) with any other special operations unit in the armed forces. They are jump, scuba, jungle, mountain, SERE, etc. qualified, and capable of performing just about any mission that they are tasked with. Their motto is “swift, silent, deadly.”
Training: To this day, the Marine Corps are the redheaded step-child when it comes to military funding. As a result, the Marine Corps lacks the ability to build and maintain its own dedicated facilities for reconnaissance training. As a result, after their initial reconnaissance training, Marines are sent to various military schools (some of which are on this list) that are maintained by other branches of the armed forces, to round out their training.
Nevertheless, becoming a force-recon Marine begins with a two-day selection process conducted at Camp Pendleton, California. The first day begins in the pool, where candidates must complete a 25-meter underwater swim and rifle retrieval (sometimes cement blocks are used instead). Next, it’s the tower drop and 30 minutes of treading water. Generally, other survival techniques (such as flotation) are required. Once this is completed, candidates must perform and pass (1st class) a Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test. The second day entails running an obstacle course several times (with instructors judging how you go about completing the course). Finally, candidates are required to complete a 10-mile run (in combat gear, including a rucksack) over hilly terrain and sand. Failure to keep up, or to pass any stage of testing, will result in being dropped from selection. Upon successful completion (including the psych tests and subsequent interviews), candidates are usually sent to an MART (Marines Awaiting Recon Training) platoon, located at Camp Pendleton.
Candidates will spend anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months in a MART platoon, depending on slots that are available at the Basic Reconnaissance Course, and the fitness level of the individual Marine. This stage of training is all about physical conditioning, and the Marines will get plenty of it during their time in an MART.
When space becomes available, candidate Marines will advance to the Basic Reconnaissance Course, located at the Marine’s School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton. During this 65-day course, Marines will endure 16-hour training days, that are intended to acclimate them to the conditions related to amphibious warfare. Marines will undergo intensive training in weaponry organic to amphibious warfare units, techniques for calling in naval, air, and artillery gunfire, and operational doctrines associated with amphibious reconnaissance. Students will train equally during the night and day times. Further, students are expected to master the skills necessary for operating behind enemy lines. Students will be trained on helicopter and small boat operations/insertions. Finally, there is an emphasis on small-unit training as well. Upon successful completion of this phase of training, Marines are eligible to continue in the pipeline. This training will include time at the U.S. Army’s Airborne School, Marine Corps Combat Diver Course and usually level C SERE School. In total, Marines will spend about 1 to 2 years training to become a fully-certified reconnaissance Marine.
2. Delta Operator Training Course
Mission: Clouded in secrecy and innuendo, there has been more speculation about Delta operators and their training than hard fact. As such, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t add to the mythos. Actually, over the years, there has been a bit of solid information regarding these secretive operatives. Without much doubt, they are America’s premier anti-terrorist operators.
Training: Take into consideration that the majority of soldiers who make up the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta (AKA Delta Force or The Unit) come from the ranks of other special force units (about 70% from the 75th Ranger Regiment), meaning that they have already been trained to an nth degree. Delta selection, and training, takes these warriors to the next level. After a grueling selection regimen (similar to other special forces’ weeding-out processes), and subsequent selection by Delta evaluators, a soldier will undergo six months of training, dubbed the Operator Training Course (OTC). Information regarding where this course is located, and the precise details of the training, is guarded. What is known is that this course features training that will develop soldiers into the finely-honed anti-terrorist specialists that Delta requires. Soldiers will be drilled in marksmanship, demolitions, espionage trade craft (how to make dead drops, surveillance, etc.), executive/VIP protection techniques, intensive hostage rescue techniques and much more.
The exact details of their training routine are classified, as are much of Delta’s activities in general. Nevertheless, with the training that is necessary to even be considered for the Unit, not to mention the additional six months of training that is required upon selection, this special forces unit is one of the most difficult to join.
1. Basic Underwater Demolition Course
Mission: SEALs are currently the poster boys of the Special Forces community – and with good reason. It was SEAL Team 6 that recently took down Osama bin Laden. Not to mention the dramatic SEAL takedown of some pirates that were holding hostages, with SEAL snipers taking out two pirates in a life boat simultaneously, from the fantail of a Navy warship, while underway! These are the guys that really inspire Hollywood. While maritime operations are their forte, don’t assume these men are confined to the water and the beach. As the bin Laden raid shows, they can operate wherever they are needed – sea, air, and land (hence their nickname).
Training: Sailors who hope to become Navy SEALs will spend about a year in training to earn the title, and join the ranks of a team. Every sailor must successfully complete the Basic Underwater Demolitions course (24 weeks long), a parachutist training program (such as the Army’s Airborne school), and the SEAL Qualification Training Program (which is about 28 weeks long).
BUDs is essentially where it all begins. The training is broken down into three phases at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California. The idea is to find out who has the mental and physical fortitude to be a Navy SEAL (as well as the required leadership and teamwork characteristics). The first phase, covering physical training, lasts about seven weeks and culminates with Hell Week. Most candidates will drop during this phase of training, which features such activities as surf torture and running miles (with a team of other candidates) carrying a rubber boat. The physical (and mental) pressure is kept at a high tempo, with very little rest in between. The dropout rate is about 70% to 80%, with at least one class failing to graduate anyone!
The second phase of training lasts eight weeks, and focuses on diving. The qualifications for this stage of training are exacting, and will test a sailor’s waterborne skills to the maximum. This stage of training, due to safety reasons associated with diving, is performed under less physical and mental stress than the previous phase. Students will learn various diving techniques, usage of dive equipment and vehicles, etc. Failure to complete this stage will result in either being recycled, or dropped from the program. The third phase of training in BUDs features land warfare training, and takes about 10 weeks. This phase has sailors learning the finer points of small-unit tactics. Successful completion of all three phases of BUDs only means that a sailor is allowed to move to the next phase of his training to become a member of the SEAL fraternity.
BUD’s is one of the most demanding courses that an individual can embark upon. And it’s only the beginning for sailors wanting to become Navy SEALs.