What to Know About Applying to Be an Air Force Spec Ops Officer

A candidate sounds off during the Special Tactics and Combat Rescue Officer assessment and selection process at Hurlburt Field.
A candidate sounds off during the Special Tactics and Combat Rescue Officer assessment and selection process at Hurlburt Field, Florida, March 25, 2021. (Tech. Sgt. Sandra Welch/U.S. Air Force photo)

Special-ops programs for the officer corps in any branch of service are highly competitive, primarily because of the lack of numbers needed and the huge interest in these communities. Typically, you only need one officer for every 8-10 enlisted personnel, so you have to stand out in the applicant pool. 

Here is an email from an Air Force cadet seeking information about preparing to be a special tactics officer.

Stew, I am a freshman in college and a cadet in AFROTC. I wish to become a commissioned STO and was inquiring about good preparation habits as well as knowledge about building a strong application to become an STO. I am mainly looking for advice about the particular areas of the application STO is looking for, and how to put myself in a good position to succeed. If you have any helpful information for me, I would appreciate it. Thanks, JJ


You are smart to start preparing now, as you can get the selection phases out of the way while still a cadet during your summers. Try to find a group of like-minded people in your unit and start training hard together to first ace the physical ability and stamina test (PAST). 

The STO PAST is a tough one:

  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Three-mile run
  • 1,500-meter swim
  • 25-meter underwater swim

Think of your job right now as a student to make good grades, be a good team player, learn to lead and master this test. I think this test is the hardest of all entry-level, spec-ops tests.

Here are the fitness standards:

For calisthenics (pull-ups, sit-ups and push-ups), the exercise is done for time or until muscle failure. The minimums:

  • 12 pull-ups in one minute
  • 75 sit-ups in two minutes
  • 64 push-ups in two minutes

The other requirements:

  • Run three miles within 22 minutes.
  • Complete the 25-meter underwater swim successfully. 
  • Swim 1,500 meters (any stroke except the backstroke and with or without fins) within 32 minutes. 

While these are minimum standards, such a highly competitive program requires a performance much better than all of the above. My personal recommendations:

  • 20-plus pull-ups
  • 100 sit-ups
  • 100 push-ups
  • Three-mile run in sub-20 minutes
  • 1,500-meter swim in sub-26 minutes

To become a special tactics officer, you have to apply for Phase 1 Selection first, which is a board of STOs who think your application is good enough to pass Phase 2. Phase 2 is a weeklong program at Hurlburt Air Force Base, Florida, which will require a week of running, rucking, swimming with and without fins, pool skills, and drills like treading and drownproofing. There also is plenty of physical training (PT). You also will take the PAST again, so maintaining a solid score on that is your job between now and then.

From the Official Air Force STO Application Package

AFROTC/USAF Academy Cadets: Cadets should submit a Phase I package before they are classified in another Air Force Specialty Code, ideally, at least 12-18 months before the forecasted commissioning date. ROTC cadets must have successfully completed field training before applying. USAFA cadets should apply in their second class year. Senior cadets are not prohibited from applying, but these applications will be handled on a case-by-case basis with the Line Officer Accessions program manager at the Air Force Personnel Center. In most cases, cadets will be allowed to attend Phase II on a contingent release from their assigned career field.

Good luck with the first few years of training. These first two years are important as you transition from civilian to special ops-level conditioning. Depending upon your foundation of fitness and athletics, it typically will take that long to prepare adequately. Check out this program for ways to prepare for the PAST for Special Tactics Officers and Combat Rescue Officers.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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