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.

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  1. Rigoberto Rivas on

    The Navy Seals are a Tier Two Socom Team and on Par With Green Berets and Then is 75th Rangers and then is Force Recon. This order is totally wrong. The Rangers Have a Tier One Unit now too.

  2. Foggydogbreath on

    I’m sorry. Any list with Airborne school on it should be questioned. And, what about sniper school? That’s no picnic.

    Airborne training was the easiest school I’ve ever attended. The physical requirements are minimal — basically, they’re a joke. That’s not to say Airborne school is not good training, it’s just not difficult. Hell, I had women training along side me. I think the longest run we did was two miles. As a Marine, I’d never run less than three miles during daily PT, so two miles was like a vacation break.

  3. Can somebody tell me , can you become a rescue swimmer in the US when you’re from belgium , some people say yes and some people say no , or do i need to get the american nationality first? and how do you get it and how long does it take? please help me 🙁

  4. Can somebody tell me , can you become a rescue swimmer in the US when you’re from belgium , some people say yes and some people say no , or do i need to get the american nationality first? and how do you get it and how long does it take? please help me 🙁

  5. Only read the top 5, pretty accurate but a few things I noticed I thought worthy of pointing out. The first of which is that although the SEALs are the “poster boys” for the special operations community, 1st SFOD-Delta attachment is in fact regarded higher than the SEAL teams. So regarding this list, Delta should actually be above SEAL. On the flip side of that argument, this article failed to mention Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) aka SEAL Team 6, which would be the Navy’s version of Delta’s equal. That being said, 1st SFOD-Delta and DEVGRU being each others Army v. Navy equals, the SEALs equal in the Army would actually be the Special Forces, nicknamed “Green Berets”. Therefore Army Special Forces or the “Green Berets” should actually be listed higher than Marine Reconnaissance. Now if you were looking for an “equal” for these Tier 1/2 Army/Navy units you might have mentioned Marine Special Operations Command also know as MARSOC. Also, under the Army SF there was a comment saying they are “probably the best known outfit associated with the term “Special Forces”, if for no other reason then that John Wayne made a movie about them” is severely incorrect, seeing as the US Army Special Forces is the ONLY unit deemed “Special Forces” as all the rest are consider Special Operations. So when referring to Special Forces, you are in fact referring to US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and when referring to other units such as SEALs, RECON, or Rangers, they are Special Operations Units operating under SOCOM or JSOC (Special Operations Command / Joint Special Operations Command). Lastly, the Rangers I believe you intended to refer to on this list are the men of The 75th Ranger Regiment, who operate under the Joint Special Operations Command and are the REAL Rangers that people intend to speak of of when talking about US Army Rangers. Ranger School, as you said, is a LEADERSHIP COURSE and not an induction into The 75th Ranger Regiment. Although Ranger School is indeed an extremely grueling and prestigious school, it will earn you a Ranger TAB but NOT an induction into a Ranger Battalion and will not earn you the right to call yourself a US Army Ranger. To do this you must attend RASP or Ranger Assessment and Selection Process, formerly known as RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program). ONLY THEN will you earn your Ranger SCROLL and your TAN BERET inducting you into The 75th Ranger Regiment and the privilege to fight for this prestigious special operations unit.

    • Lee Standberry on

      Great comments Dave! I would only make note of a couple of things. First, you mention the ranking of the various special operations units. I actually did that on a different list, as this one just focuses on the schools that many of these operators attend at one point or another. In this regard, Delta training and selection may in fact be more grueling than that of the SEAL’s, but there is not very much public information about it to make an accurate comparison. And it should always be noted that i have a Marine Corps bias that I freely admit to 🙂

  6. SAS don’t get trained, they get tortured, considering most SAS are hardened paratroopers, and still most fail. The US no doubt has the most powerful army, but the training in a lot of the forces is weak. I mean, you have women paratroopers. No woman has ever passed our paratroopers selection, and never will. Training doesn’t start until you prove you will not break… in the US, your paratroopers simply go to jump school. All said and done, the British army is one of the best trained in the world..

    • Lee Standberry on

      Well Ricky, in regards to Paratroopers – women in the army are able to be jump qualified, but they cannot serve in line units, such as infantry. They can only serve in support units. I haven’t looked at their TOE lately, so i’m assuming this is still true. Plus, you really can’t compare airborne troops to the SAS. Essentially, airborne (while having a dedicated mission centered around vertical insertion) are not special forces and SAS is. SAS is more comparable to Rangers or perhaps SEALs

      • I’d think that SAS is more comparable to Delta. I could be wrong but it is my understanding that Beckwith came up with the idea for Delta after spending time training with the 22nd SAS Regiment.

        • Lee Standberry on

          at SeanP – you’re right, I took a look at SAS’s mission orientation and perform operations probably more associated with Delta. However these days, especially with US special forces falling under a joint command (or at least units tasked to a joint command), you have all of these guys doing cross branch operations that fall outside of the scope of their normal mission orientation. Take for example Marine Force Recon. Their mission is clearly defined as near and deep recon operations in support of larger Marine formations. Now they can be tasked with training rebels somewhere (traditionally a Green Beret type mission).

        • But with the most current wars that we’ve had, USMC recon haven’t been doing much more of their school-trained recon missions than regular infantry-related patrols.

          The training is hard…but the individual doesn’t always turn out ideal in the end.

  7. I read this thinking it might surprise me. But no, American military training is not that great. Our paratroopers in the UK go through similar selections as your special forces. Put the gruelling SAS selection in the mix and there is no contest.

    • My country isn’t the USA. Our Special Forces are called Joint Task Force 2. One thing is difficult to factor out of this and that is the tendency of each country to discount the abilities of your allies. The British are legendary in this regard but it will take us (and the Australians and New Zealanders) a long time to forget the incompetence of the leadership you provided about a hundred years ago.

      It can be argued that the emphasis on special forces is out of proportion to the actual results they produce on the battle field.

      • Lee Standberry on

        @ Johnny Canuck – two points. First, I’ve had the distinction of working with officers and troops for other countries during my time in service – notably Australian and British (don’t recall any Canadians, but who knows). So I would agree that often we can become nation centric in our views of the capabilities of other nations – though i’m not one of those people. I fully recognize – as i’ve stated elsewhere – what other military formations are capable of.

        Secondly, I totally agree with your second point. Media coverage these days would have one believe that special forces alone are the predominant formation engaged in combat operations. The fact of the matter is that there are a whole lot of other people active in making even special forces operations successful. This includes (as you mentioned earlier) intelligence, logistics, and even direct and indirect support from regular forces.

    • Lee Standberry on

      UK paratroopers (and Royal Marines, SAS and the like) receive excellent training. In fact, in terms of training, leadership, dedication and overall effectiveness; I would rate UK military forces among the best in the world – especially considering the small size of your nation. That said, the US military has a far longer reach and more lethal bite than our brothers in arms across the moat that is the Atlantic ocean.

    • I don’t see the point of bickering over this sort of topic. The United States And England are allies, so why does it even matter if one country has a better Special Operation Forces. Also most american Special Operations Forces are based on the British S.A.S. (ex. Delta Force) so their missions and training are going to much similar. So quit acting like schmucks

  8. The article begins with a reference to the length of the War on Terror. I suggest that the very premise of the war cries out for review given the degree of success achieved using the incredibly talented and committed forces that have been assigned to it. I don’t oppose the objectives, just the premise that it must be approached only as a war. America is a multi-dimensional nation and has contributed tremendously to many facets of life in the modern world. I worry that you have too narrow a focus in your response to the violent islamo-facist conspiracy. My own country contributed aggressive military forces to Afghanistan for about seven years. The size of that effort pales beside the history of our participation in two European wars but it has consumed most of the public support that was generated by the attacks in 2001.

    Your specialized military forces are among the best in the world but you also have many superlative training schools that provide more than just boots on the ground. I was hoping for some insight into other areas such as intelligence analysis, remote sensing, precision weaponry and small unit leadership skills. The strongest invisible Ninjas in the world can’t help you if you can’t find your enemy. The true heroes in the bin Laden saga were the intelligence analysts who doggedly ran down millions of leads over some ten years. Seal Team 6 didn’t find the target, they simply delivered the coup de grace at the end of a very long process.

  9. so the American government is really trying to cover their bases with propaganda, eh? Even the internals must be realizing that the military is a terrible profession

  10. And each one is highly regarded and respected in every branch and are usually exempt of the cross-branch bashing.

  11. I was at a meeting at the Coronado base on the last day of BUDs Hell Week (incidentally, the next class was checking in that same day). It was unreal. After I left, they lit off smoke bombs on the beach–you could see it all the way across the bay.

    • Uh, I think he was just one terrorist. The war on Terror will never end. There will always be another terrorist, or terror group. Once all of Al Qaida is killed, there will be another group, then another, then another. Too many people are making too much money and too much power is being accumulated by those in power that they will find a reason why we are always in danger. Greater danger than yesterday… Requiring greater expenses…

    • Lee Standberry on

      They are considered para-military operators and outside the scope of the U.S. Military (though most of its operators were or are military)

  12. Very well written and interesting list. For anyone who enjoyed this I would recommend “Surviving the Cut”.
    I don’t believe that there are currently new episodes being made but you can likely find reruns of these great documentarys on The Discovery Channel or

    • There is some good info but a lot of wrong information as well. The Rangers are not as high and the underwater training is toughest in the PJ schools and that is a proven fact. Force Marine recon is also too low. I am not going to get into the facts but hello Hollywood is the name of this article and not the facts.