The Air Force has both ground and air special operations programs for both enlisted and officers alike. In the Air Force, officers have the option to become warfighting special operators in the Special Operations Command by pursuing career paths such as the Special Tactics Officer (STO), Combat Rescue Officer (CRO), and pilots flying a variety of special operations capable fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. For more details, see the Air Force Special Operations Command.
What Is a Special Tactics Officer?
The STO is directly responsible for planning and directing pilot and personnel rescue and combat air control missions. Special Tactics Officers are work directly for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and specialize in controlling combat search and rescue/personnel recovery, battlefield trauma care, fire support air assets for special operations and tactical weather observations and forecasting. The enlisted airmen under the Special Tactical Officer's command are the Air Force Pararescue, Combat Control Technicians, Tactical Air Control Party (TACP), Combat Weathermen, Survive, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE). The missions support joint and combined air, ground, and military conventional and special operations as part of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
How to Become an STO
Officer Candidates/Cadets and Officers who apply for Air Force Special Ops programs face a competitive challenge just to get the opportunity to attend the assessment and selection program. Typically, Special Operations enlisted operators outnumber the officers 10 to 1, so just by the numbers alone, it is very competitive for the officer seeking to serve in Special Operations. However, the competition is high due to the complexity of the missions, the physical, mental, and leadership strains that the positions take on the officers. Therefore, the screening and selection has to require above average candidates in every category.
If you are a highly qualified candidate at the Air Force Academy, Air Force ROTC, Air Force Officer, or other service branch member seeking to transfer to become an Air Force Special Tactics Officer, here is the process you must endure:
Phase 1: The first step is to submit an application package to the Air Force Special Operations Selection Committee. Candidates have to apply for Phase 1 Selection first which is a board of STOs who think the application is good enough to pass Phase 2. A solid resume (grades, leadership roles, work experiences), above average Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST) scores, a letter of recommendation from your commanding officer, and anything that distinguishes you from your peers is critical for a successful phase 1.
About the STO — PAST: STO PAST is a challenging test — probably the most challenging of all entry-level military tests:
1500m swim plus a 25m underwater swim, 3-mile run, Pushups, Situps, Pullups
Here are the fitness standards however the minimum standards will make Phase II selection more challenging for you, and you will perhaps not get assignment to Phase II depending upon the competition of the applications.
The first part of the test requires the applicant to score at a minimum 12 pull-ups, 75 sit-ups, 64 push-ups in 2 minutes period. Then you will run 3 miles non-stop for time with a minimum standard of 22 minutes. Then the applicant dresses for the pool and swims underwater for 25 meters. Then the next event is the 1500m swim non-stop — any stroke except backstroke (with or without fins) in under 32 minutes.
These are minimum standards but with a highly competitive program, often higher than average scores will open the door for you to attend the Phase 2 Selection Program. Some recommendations from previous candidates are the following:
20+ Pullups, 100 situps, 100 pushups, sub 20 min 3-mile run and a sub 27 min 1500m swim.
Being in the kind of conditioning that warrant these scores will also give you a solid foundation for Phase 2 Selection Training. To improve your scores from the minimum standards to the above average/competitive standards will require running and swimming 5-6 days a week and doing strength training for your upper body every other day. On days in between the upper body lifts and calisthenics workouts, you should consider some lifting and leg exercises to build a strong core in preparation log PT; fireman carries, ruck marches, and other load bearing activities.
Phase 2: A week-long assessment and selection program in Hurlbert AFB in Florida which will require a week of running, rucking, swimming with and without fins, pool skills and drills like treading and drownproofing, and of course plenty of physical training (PT).
Routes To Get To Phase 1 and Phase 2:
Officer Candidates Cadets from AFROTC / USAF Academy Cadets: Cadets should submit a Phase I package before 12-18 months before their projected commissioning date. USAFA cadets should apply in their Second Class year.
Inter-service Transfers: Officers in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps can join the Air Force if released from the branch of service. If you are in a different service than the Air Force, you should reference AFI 36-2004 Inter-service Transfer of Officer. You should submit your STO application to the ST Phase I selection board before a service transfer is approved. A successful completion or selection of Phase II does not mean you will have the transfer into the Air Force.
Officer Training School: Only enlisted members who desire to attend officer training school and become a STO are eligible for pre-officer phase II selection. Applications from civilian candidates will not be considered. Civilians are encouraged to enlist as combat controllers and apply to Phase I and OTS at the appropriate time in their careers if they prefer to become officers in the Special Tactics Career Field.
For Active Duty, USAF Special Tactics Officer Selection is open to Captains and below (0-3 and below.)
If you fail Phase II or were not selected, you may apply the following year again.