U.S. Military Special Operations Forces

Each Special Operations Force Has Its Own Training Requirements

Special forces training
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Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ask a group of service members from all branches of the U.S. military to debate which special operations group is the best, and they'll still be arguing about it hours later.

That's like asking which is the better doctor, a brain surgeon or a heart surgeon. Each is best in their specific specialties.

What Are Special Forces?

Special operations forces are military personnel who are primarily trained for specific types of missions. If one wished to attach explosives under the water line on an enemy ship, the special operations force with the most training and experience in underwater combat operations would be Navy SEALS. On the other hand, if one needed to deploy a highly trained light infantry force well inland and behind enemy lines to destroy a significant military target, you can't do much better than a company of Army Rangers.

Let's take a look at United States military special operations groups.

US Army Special Forces

It's quite common for the layman (and the media) to refer to all special operations forces as "special forces." However, there is only one real special forces, and that's the U.S. Army Special Forces, sometimes referred to as the "Green Berets." The other elite military groups are more properly referred to as "special operations forces," or "special ops." It may interest you to know that many Special Forces soldiers don't like the nickname Green Beret. The first Special Forces unit in the Army was formed on June 11, 1952, when the 10th Special Forces Group was activated at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The primary mission of the Army Special Forces is to teach in the middle of combat missions. They go right into combat situations with military members of friendly developing nations and teach them technical fighting and military skills, as well as helping them resolve human rights issues during combat operations.

However, like all special operations groups, that's not all they do — that's just what they do best. When not teaching foreign military groups how to sneak up on the enemy and kill them without dying themselves, Army Special Forces have four other missions that they do very well: unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism.

  • Unconventional warfare. This means they are capable of conducting military and paramilitary actions behind enemy lines. Such actions could include sabotage or helping convince rebel leaders to fight on their side.
  • Special reconnaissance. Because all Special Forces soldiers are qualified in a foreign language, they are experts in many aspects of reconnaissance. They can intermingle with the local population and discover information that would be impossible with other types of "recon."
  • Direct action. This refers to short strikes or small-scale offensive actions in hostile environments. This may involve seizing, destroying, or capturing objectives.
  • Counter-terrorism. Special Forces personnel may be tasked with counter-terrorism operations, which as the name implies involves operations that would prevent terrorist attacks from happening, such as by finding and eliminating a terrorist cell.

Until relatively recently, one could not enlist into the Special Forces. One had to be in the rank of E-4 to E-7 (for enlisted members) just to apply. That's still the requirement for those who are already in the service that want to apply for Special Forces. However, in the past year or two, the Army initiated the 18X (Special Forces) Enlistment Program. Under this program, an applicant will be trained as an Infantry (11B) Soldier, then sent to jump school (parachute training). He will then be guaranteed the opportunity to try out for Special Forces. This means he will have to complete the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) program, which has a very high wash-out rate, even for experienced soldiers.

If, by some chance, the wet-behind-the-ears recruit can make it through SFAS, he must graduate the Special Forces Qualification Course, which (depending on the exact Special Forces Job he is training for) is between 24 and 57 weeks long. Finally, he must learn a foreign language at the Defense Language Institute. Depending on the language, this training can take up to a year. If he fails any part of this training and selection process, he is immediately reclassified as 11B Infantry.

The Army knows that the vast majority of those who sign up on the 18X Special Forces Enlistment Program will fail. However, lots of young high-school recruits walk into the Army Recruiting Office, hoping to make this elite group. The 18X programs give the Army a fairly significant pool of volunteers who will ultimately become infantry troops.

The Army has five active duty Special Forces groups and two National Guard Special Forces groups. Each group is responsible for a certain part of the world. The seven groups and their areas of responsibility are:

  • First Special Forces Group (SFG) at Ft. Lewis, Wash., responsible for the Pacific and Eastern Asia
  • Third SFG at Ft. Bragg, N.C., responsible for the Caribbean and Western Africa
  • Fifth SFG at Ft. Campbell, Ky., responsible for Southwest Asia and Northeastern Africa
  • Seventh SFG at Ft. Bragg, N.C., responsible for Central and South America
  • Tenth SFG at Ft. Carson, Colo., responsible for Europe
  • Nineteenth SFG (National Guard)
  • Twentieth SPG (National Guard)

Army Rangers

The 75th Ranger Regiment is a flexible, highly trained, and rapidly deployable light infantry force with specialized skills that enable it to be employed against a variety of conventional and special operations targets. Rangers specialize in parachuting into the middle of the action to perform strikes and ambushes, and to capture enemy airfields.

Maj. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, U.S. Army Liaison with the British General Staff during World War II, submitted proposals to Gen. George Marshall that "we undertake immediately an American unit along the lines of the British Commandos" on May 26, 1942. A cable from the War Department quickly followed to Truscott and Maj. Gen. Russell P. Hartle, commanding all Army Forces in Northern Ireland, authorizing the activation of the First U.S. Army Ranger Battalion.

The name Ranger was selected by General Truscott "because the name Commandos rightfully belonged to the British, and we sought a name more typically American," he said. "It was, therefore, fit that the organization that was destined to be the first of the American Ground Forces to battle Germans on the European continent should be called Rangers in compliment to those in American history who exemplified the high standards of courage, initiative, determination, ruggedness, fighting ability, and achievement."

The members of the First Ranger Battalion were all hand-picked volunteers; 50 participated in the gallant Dieppe Raid on the northern coast of France with British and Canadian commandos. The First, Third, and Fourth Ranger Battalions participated with distinction in the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns. Darbys Ranger Battalions spearheaded the Seventh Army landing at Gela and Licata during the Sicilian invasion and played a key role in the subsequent campaign, which culminated in the capture of Messina. They infiltrated German lines and mounted an attack against Cisterna, where they virtually annihilated an entire German parachute regiment during close-in, night, bayonet, and hand-to-hand fighting.

Most people have heard of Ranger School. It's a very tough, 61-day course. Many times, the other services even send their special ops people through this course. What you may not know is that not all combat soldiers assigned to a Ranger Battalion have gone through this course. Ranger School is designed to train NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and commissioned officers to lead Ranger and Army infantry platoons.

New soldiers (mostly in the rank of E-1 to E-4) assigned to a Ranger Battalion must first be airborne qualified (go through jump school). They then attend the three-week Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP). To successfully complete RIP, the candidate must achieve a minimum 60 percent score on the Army Physical Fitness Test, must complete a five-mile run at no slower than eight minutes per mile, must complete the Army Combat Water Survival Test, CWST (15 meters in battle-dress uniform, combat boots, and combat gear), must complete two out of three road marches (one of which must be the 10-mile march), and must receive a minimum score of 70 percent on all written examinations.

Those who pass the RIP are assigned to one of the three Army Ranger Battalions. At a later time in their career, usually once they make NCO status, they may be selected to attend the actual Ranger Course. To qualify for the Ranger Course, NCOs and officers must first complete the Ranger Orientation Program (ROP). Minimum qualification standards are:

  • 80 percent on APFT by age group for all officers and combat arms NCOs
  • 70 percent on APFT by age group for all non-combat arms NCOs
  • Six chin-ups
  • 12-mile road march with 45-pound rucksack within three hours, for all officers and combat arms NCOs
  • 10-mile road march with 45-pound rucksack within two and a half hours for all non-combat arms NCOs
  • Successful completion of CWST (Combat Water Survival Training)
  • 70 percent on Ranger History examination
  • Five-mile run in less than 40 minutes
  • 70 percent on self-paced Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) examination
  • Psychological assessment by a U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) psychologist
  • Successful recommendation from RASP board interview

The Ranger Course was conceived during the Korean War and was known as the Ranger Training Command. On Oct. 10, 1951, the Ranger Training Command was inactivated and became the Ranger Department, a branch of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. Its purpose was, and still is, to develop combat skills of selected officers and enlisted men by requiring them to perform effectively as small unit leaders in a realistic tactical environment, under mental and physical stress approaching that found in actual combat.

From 1954 to the early 1970s, the Army's goal, though seldom achieved, was to have one Ranger-qualified NCO per infantry platoon and one officer per company. In an effort to better achieve this goal, in 1954, the Army required all combat arms officers to become Ranger/ Airborne-qualified.

The Ranger course has changed little since its inception. Until recently, it was an eight-week course divided into three phases. The course is now 61 days in duration and divided into three phases as follows:

  • Benning phase (Fourth Ranger Training Battalion). The Army designed this phase to develop the military skills, physical and mental endurance, stamina, and confidence a small-unit combat leader must have to successfully accomplish a mission. It also teaches the Ranger student to properly maintain himself, his subordinates, and his equipment under difficult field conditions.
  • Mountain phase (Fifth Ranger Training Battalion). In this phase, the Ranger student gains proficiency in the fundamentals, principles, and techniques of employing small combat units in a mountainous environment. He develops his ability to lead squad-sized units and to exercise control through planning, preparation, and execution phases of all types of combat operations, including ambushes and raids, plus environmental and survival techniques.
  • Florida phase (Sixth Ranger Training Battalion). The emphasis during this phase is to continue the development of combat leaders to be capable of operating effectively under conditions of extreme mental and physical stress. The training further develops the students' ability to plan and lead small units on independent and coordinated airborne, air assault, amphibious, small boat, and dismounted combat operations in a mid-intensity combat environment against a well-trained, sophisticated enemy.

The Rangers used to be known by their distinctive black berets. However, the Army Chief of Staff made the decision years ago to issue black berets to all Army soldiers, so the Ranger beret color was changed to tan.

There are three Ranger Battalions which all fall under the command of the 75th Ranger Regiment, headquartered at Fort Benning, Ga.

  • First Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Air Field, Ga.
  • Second Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash.
  • Third Ranger Battalion at Fort Benning, Ga.

Delta Force

Everybody's heard of Delta Force. However, most of what you've heard is probably wrong. Almost every aspect of Delta is highly classified, including their training program and organizational structure.

Back in 1977, when hijacking aircraft and taking hostages was a major concern, Col. Charles Beckwith — an Army Special Operations Forces officer — returned from a special assignment with the British Special Air Service (SAS), with an idea for a highly trained military hostage-rescue force patterned after the SAS, and the Pentagon approved it.

First Special Forces Operational Detachment, Delta was created was organized into three operating squadrons, with several specialized groups (called "troops") assigned to each squadron. Each troop is reported to specialize in a main aspect of special operations, such as HALO (high-altitude low-opening) parachute operations or scuba operations.

Delta is the most covert of the U.S. military special operations forces. Delta is sent when there is a tough objective, and they don't want anyone to know that there was U.S. military involvement. Delta is rumored to have their own fleet of helicopters which are painted in civilian colors and have fake registration numbers. Their special training facility reportedly is the best special operations training facility in the world, including a close-quarters-battle indoor facility nicknamed the "house of horrors."

Delta recruits twice per year from U.S. Army units worldwide. After a very extensive screening process, applicants reportedly attend a two- or three-week special assessment and selection course. Those who make it through the course enter the Delta Special Operators Training Course, which is estimated to be about six weeks in duration. Delta Force is primarily made up of hand-picked volunteers from the 82nd Airborne, Army Special Forces, and Army Rangers. Delta is said to be the best in the world at close-quarters combat.

The highly classified Delta operations facility reportedly is in a remote location of Fort Bragg, N.C.

Navy SEALs

Today's SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) teams trace their history to the first group of volunteers selected from the Naval Construction Battalions (CBs or Sea Bees) in the spring of 1943. These volunteers were organized into special teams called Navy Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs). The units were tasked with reconnoitering and clearing beach obstacles for troops going ashore during amphibious landings and evolved into Combat Swimmer Reconnaissance Units.

The NCDUs distinguished themselves during World War II in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. In 1947, the Navy organized its first underwater offensive strike units. During the Korean Conflict, Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) took part in the landing at Inchon as well as other missions, including demolition raids on bridges and tunnels accessible from the water. They also conducted limited minesweeping operations in harbors and rivers.

During the 1960s, each branch of the armed forces formed its own counterinsurgency force. The Navy utilized UDT personnel to form separate units called SEAL teams. January 1962 marked the commissioning of SEAL Team One in the Pacific Fleet and SEAL Team Two in the Atlantic Fleet. These teams were developed to conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerilla warfare, and clandestine operations in both blue- and brown- water environments.

In 1983, existing UDTs were re-designated as SEAL teams and/or SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams and the requirement for hydrographic reconnaissance and underwater demolition became SEAL missions.

SEAL teams go through what is considered by some to be the toughest military training in the world. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is conducted at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, Calif. Students encounter obstacles that develop and test their stamina, leadership, and ability to work as a team.

The most important trait that distinguishes Navy SEALs from other special operations groups is that SEALs are maritime special forces, as they strike from and return to the sea. SEALs take their name from the elements in which they operate. Their stealth and clandestine methods of operation allow them to conduct multiple missions against targets that larger forces cannot approach undetected.

Like the Army Special Forces Enlistment Program, the Navy has a program called SEAL Challenge, which provides an opportunity for applicants to enlist with a guarantee to try out to become a Navy SEAL.

Just to qualify to attend SEAL training, applicants must pass a physical fitness screening which includes the following:

  • 500-yard swim using breast and/or sidestroke in under 12 minutes and 30 seconds (10-minute rest)
  • Perform a minimum of 42 push-ups in two minutes (two-minute rest)
  • Perform a minimum of 50 sit-ups in two minutes (two-minute rest)
  • Perform a minimum of six pull-ups with no time limit (10-minute rest)
  • Run one and a half miles wearing boots and long pants in under 11 minutes and 30 seconds

The screening is just a warm-up for BUD/S. BUD/S is about six months long, and divided into three phases: 

  • First phase (basic conditioning). First Phase trains, develops, and assesses SEAL candidates in physical conditioning, water competency, teamwork, and mental tenacity. This phase is eight weeks long. Physical conditioning with running, swimming, and calisthenics grows harder as the weeks progress. Trainees participate in a weekly four-mile timed runs in boots, timed obstacle courses, swim distances up to two miles wearing fins in the ocean, and learn small boat seamanship. The first three weeks of the first phase prepares candidates for the fourth week, better known as "hell week." During this week, applicants participate in five and a half days of continuous training, with a maximum of four hours sleep total. This week is designed as the ultimate test of one's physical and mental motivation while in the first phase.
  • Second phase (diving). The diving phase trains, develops, and qualifies SEAL candidates as competent basic combat swimmers. This phase is eight weeks long. During this period, physical training continues and becomes even more intensive. The second phase concentrates on combat SCUBA. This is a skill that separates SEALs from all other special operations forces.
  • Third phase (land warfare). The third phase trains, develops, and qualifies SEAL candidates in basic weapons, demolition, and small unit tactics. This phase of training is nine weeks in length. Physical training continues to become more strenuous as the run distance increases and the minimum passing times are lowered for the runs, swims, and obstacle course. The third phase concentrates on teaching land navigation, small-unit tactics, patrolling techniques, rappelling, marksmanship, and military explosives. The final three and a half weeks of the third phase are spent on San Clemente Island, Calif., where students apply all the techniques they have acquired during training.

Following the third phase, SEALS attend Army Jump School and then are assigned to a SEAL team for an additional six to 12 months of on-the-job training.

SEAL west coast teams are based in San Diego, Calif., while the east coast teams make their home in Virginia Beach, Va.