Fact file: Special Forces training

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The rite of passage to earn the Special Forces Operators Badge is long and arduous. It begins with joining one of the Services of the South African National Defence Force and then volunteering for the Special Forces after having served in the SA Army, SA Air Force, SA Navy or SA Military Health Service.

 

To join the SANDF, one has to be:

  • A South African citizen;

  • Aged between 18 and 22 (graduates 26);

  • Currently in Grade 12 or completed school;

  • Not area bound1;

  • Have no record of serious criminal offence or offences;

  • Preferably single; and

  • Comply with medical fitness requirements for appointment in the SANDF.

After a year of military service and after earning one’s static-line “jump wings” in the Parachute Regiment one can apply to the SF after proving proficient in reading, writing and speaking English as well as successfully completing the SF entry test:

  • 40 push-ups without breaking rhythm;

  • 67 sit-ups within two minutes;

  • 175-metre fireman’s-lift run within 65 seconds;

  • 5-kilometre run within 24 minutes;

  • 40 six-metre shuttle-runs within 95 seconds;

  • Water training test;

  • Psychometric test, achieve an above-average score; and

  • A personal interview.2

Requiring candidates to first earn their static line parachute qualifications reduces the failure rate of candidates selected for the SF while creating a useful mental and physical challenge for potential operators to overcome.

This personal interview, along with a battery of psychological, psychiatric and aptitude tests, ensures that only candidates with stable, mature psychological profiles, and who are in possession of the required aptitude, are admitted.

“After that, detailed interviews are conducted to further assess potential candidates, and finally demanding physical tests to ensure a minimum entry level of fitness and strength. Potential candidates who pass these pre-selection interviews are permitted to attempt the pre-selection phase.”3 Usually, only 30% of potential candidates will successfully pass the interview and test.

The pre-selection phase lasts at least six weeks. During this period, potential candidates may at any time leave the course, or be removed from it by instructors if they fail any of the weekly academic and physical tests – or display indiscipline or any undesirable personality or psychological characteristic while under pressure.

During this time candidates are provided basic infantry training to ensure that all have received the same training to the same standard. They are also kept under consistent and “extremely stressful physical and mental circumstances for an extended period”.

Only the strongest candidates – mentally and physically – meaning those with the greatest resources of determination and stamina survive. During this time, training continues six-and-a-half day week, up to 20 hours a day.

Lectures and practical work are interspersed with continuous physical training sessions, increasingly long route and speed marches with ever-heavier kit and other, similar, challenges. – including daily and weekly PT and academic tests that must be passed.

The selection phase lasts about a week. It “is carefully and specifically designed so as to be impossible for a human being to complete on finite physical resources alone. In order to be able to complete selection, one has to draw on the infinite resources of the mind, as well as resources of will and spirit, to possibly continue and complete.”4

During this week, candidates do not ordinarily sleep, eat, or rest. During this time, candidates are accompanied by a qualified Operator, as well as psychologists, who monitor and control them at all times. Psychometric tests are also given to candidates at various stages. Again, anyone who shows any signs of overt aggression, hostility, inability to work in a team, or other undesirable characteristics will immediately be removed from the course. Those who wish to give up on their own accord just have to sit down.

“The purpose of the selection is to simulate the most extreme physically and mentally stressful conditions that could ever possibly be experienced by a human being operationally, in order to see how the candidates (cope).”5

Many of those who pass are physically small or weak in appearance and many who fail are physically strong. “Once the subtle barrier to the mind has been passed, the candidates are able to – using this infinite power of the mind – control all feelings of fear, anxiety, stress, exhaustion or any other aspect, and are able to will their bodies to continue indefinitely under any circumstances, while undergoing physical conditions and demands that would otherwise be humanly impossible to achieve.

“Once a candidate reaches this stage, nothing will stop him, and he would be able to continue under these circumstances indefinitely. Also, once a candidate reaches this stage – where he has effectively completed and is completing the impossible – the concept of something being ‘impossible’ is broken forever. This is why the South African Special Forces are able to undertake operations and endure physical and mental conditions that for others are impossible – because after selection – nothing is impossible for us anymore.”6

Curriculum

Initial training takes 51 weeks. Successful recruits then receive the Special Forces “Operators” badge. The Special Forces Basic Training Cycle consists of the following courses7:

  • Special Forces Individual Phase 1

  • Special Forces Selection

  • Medical Level 1 – 4

  • Special Forces Individual Phase 2

  • Special Forces Basic Demolitions

  • Special Forces Air Operations

  • Small Boat Coxswain

  • Bushcraft, Tracking and Survival

  • Minor Tactics Rural

  • Minor Tactics Urban

  • Clandestine Operations

This phase previously included basic static line parachuting.

After successfully completing the Special Forces Basic Training Cycle, Operators can continue in any one or more of the following specialised fields:

  • Team Leader

  • Demolitions

  • Sniping

  • Bushcraft, Tracking and Survival

  • Urban Reconnaissance

  • Rural Reconnaissance

  • Photography

  • Climbing Techniques

  • Urban Operations

  • Operational Emergency Care Practitioner

  • Parachuting

  • Drop Zone Safety Officer

  • Heavy Weapons

  • Seaborne Training, including underwater demolitions, small boat handling, surface swimming, specialised diving and sailing & navigation.

  • Attack Diving8

1 I.e. one must be willing to serve anywhere in South Africa or abroad.

2 DoD, Military Skills Development System, MSD Application Coupon – SA Special Forces, http://www.careers.mil.za/careers/uniformcareers/archives/12951%20BROCHURES%20SA%20SPECIAL%20FORCES.pdf, accessed December 1, 2008.

3 Special Forces League, Training, www.recce.co.za, accessed, September 25, 2005.

4 Special Forces League, Training, www.recce.co.za, accessed, September 25, 2005

5 Special Forces League, Training, www.recce.co.za, accessed, September 25, 2005.

6 Special Forces League, Training, www.recce.co.za, accessed, September 25, 2005

7 Special Forces League, Training, www.recce.co.za, accessed, September 25, 2005. Interestingly, a display at Africa Aerospace and Defence 2006, detailing the same Cycle, did not mention clandestine operations.



8 DoD, Military Skills Development System, MSD Application Coupon – SA Special Forces, http://www.careers.mil.za/careers/uniformcareers/archives/12951%20BROCHURES%20SA%20SPECIAL%20FORCES.pdf, accessed December 1, 2008.