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This article is structured as follows:

  • Part 01: Background to US Air Force Special Tactics
  • Part 02: Entry Standards and Applications
  • Part 03: Outline of US Air Force Special Tactics Officer Selection and Training
  • Part 04: Miscellaneous


1.0     Introduction

Logo, AFSOC, Air Force Special Operations Command, US, Special Forces, USAFThis article provides an overview of the recruitment, selection and training process for the US Air Force’s Special Tactics Officer.

Previously, Special Tactics officers were known as Combat Control (CCT) officers (CCA News, 2006).


There have been significant changes in the recruitment and training of special warfare operators, as they are now known, as well as a change in some roles. Detailed information on the changes can be found at:

This is now a legacy page.


As leaders, Special Tactics Officers are in charge of four enlisted US Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSC) (Thompson, 2012):

  • Combat Controllers (CCT): Are specialists who focus on air-to-ground terminal control.
  • Pararescuemen (PJs): These are the guys you see in all the movies (think Black Hawk Down). They deliver battlefield trauma care, as well as personnel recovery and combat search and rescue.
  • Combat Weathermen: Metrological interpretation, which can affect how the battlefield is going to change and how commanders conduct operations.
  • Tactical Air Control Party (TACP): Are air-to-ground specialists, but they focus primarily on close air support (CAS).
  • Survival, Evasion, Resistance & Escape (SERE): Perform duties as the name implies. Not strictly a special operations branch, but has significant input in training and exercises conducted by special operations.

Two other roles that officers can undertake within AFSOC include combat rescue officer and special operations weather officer. All of the above officer and enlisted roles are encompassed within the Battlefield Airmen Career pathway.

These Air Commandos form the special operations element of the US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Special Operations Forces (SOF) community, which is the air component of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

The role of a US Air Force Special Tactics officer is to lead the Special Tactics Squadrons and Groups by planning, managing and conducting special missions in support of US policy and objectives. This role has four strands and includes:

  • Coordinate, plan and conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and terminal control;
  • Provide air traffic control services for expeditionary airfields and assault zones;
  • Establish command and control communications; and
  • Ensure Special Tactics Teams (STT) are organised, trained and equipped to perform their roles.

These special missions include providing global access for US and coalition forces with:

  • Assault zone assessment and control;
  • Fire support;
  • Personnel recovery/combat search and rescue (SAR);
  • Battlefield trauma care; and
  • Tactical weather operations.

From boot camp to first deployment, a Special Tactics Officer may undertake up to two and a half years of training.

It must be emphasised that a candidate must be physically fit at the beginning of the Special Tactics officer training process if they are to stand any chance of success. The course requires far greater expenditure of physical energy than is normally required in other peace time training. It is essential that candidates arrive fully fit, carrying no injuries and with a sound grasp of basic leadership techniques.

1.1     Aim

The aim of this article is to describe the fundamental entry requirements, selection process and training for personnel seeking to become a US Air Force Special Tactics officer.

1.2     Women and US Air Force Special Tactics

From January 2016, in accordance with current US Federal Government policy on the employment of women in the US military, service in the US Air Force’s SOF community is open to both male and female volunteers (Pellerin, 2015).

Women in the US military have, for a number of years, been able to serve in a variety of SOF-related roles, including:

  • Intelligence;
  • Military information support;
  • Civil affairs units;
  • Female engagement teams;
  • Cultural support teams; and
  • Air Force special operations aviation roles.

As of March 2015, approximately two-thirds of the roles in USSOCOM were integrated (Vogel, 2015).

1.3     Air Force Special Operations Specialty Codes

There are a number of Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSC) within the USAF special operations community, known as Battlefield Airmen, as outlined in Table 1.

Table 1: Air Force Specialty Codes for Battlefield Airmen
Officer Roles AFSC Code
Special Tactics Officer (STO) 13CX
Combat Rescue Officer (CRO) 13DX
Special Operations Weather Team – Officer (SOWT-O) 15WXC
Enlisted Roles  
Combat Controller (CCT) 1C2XX
Pararescue (PJs) 1T2XX
Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) 1C4XX
Special Operations Weather Team – Enlisted (SOWT-E) 1W0XX
Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) 1T0XX 
Source: US Air Force, 2014a; 2014b
  • For officers, there are three levels, with each level represented by the suffix: 1 (Entry); 3 (Qualified); and 4 (Staff).
  • For enlisted personnel there are five levels, with each level represented by the suffix: 11 (Helper); 31 (Apprentice); 51 (Journeyman); 71 (Craftsman); and 91 (Superintendent); replace the 1 with 2 for SOWT-E.
  • For SOWT-O, the C suffix represents special operations trained.


2.0     Introduction

Logo, AFSOC, Air Force Special Operations Command, US, Special Forces, Air CommandoInformation regarding the basic requirements for enlistment or commissioning in the US Air Force can be found by clicking on the links, which the reader is advised to read if not already familiar.

The US Air Force does accept direct entry applicants, i.e. civilians with no prior military experience, for the Special Tactics Officer branch (there is an established pathway but there are no guarantees, applicants join up in a different job role). As a result, volunteers for Special Tactics Officer may be accepted from both US civilians and US military personnel from any branch of military service to serve with the US Air Force’s SOF community.

Consequently, there are three recognised pathways to becoming a US Air Force Special Tactics officer:

  1. Enlist as a civilian;
  2. Enlist while in the US Air Force and apply for a transfer; or
  3. Enlist from another Branch of Military Service.

2.1     Special Operations Recruiting Liaison

Recruitment for Special Tactics Officers is conducted through a number of Special Operations Recruiting Liaison Operating Locations (OL-C to O) throughout the US.

The OL’s fall within the 24th Special Operations Wing (Section 3.1).

2.2     General Requirements and Eligibility for All Candidates

Subject to the requirements outlined below, all US Air Force officers are eligible to attend the Special Tactics Officer training programme.

20070718adf8262658_063.JPGGeneral Requirements for all candidates:

  • Be a US citizen:
  • Education:
    • Minimum of Batchelor’s degree.
    • For entry into this specialty, undergraduate academic specialisation in a technical discipline with courses in administration and management is desirable.
  • Qualifications:
    • Knowledge of maps and charts, command and control principles and procedures, survival techniques, field leadership and evasion.
    • Completion of specialty training courses.
    • Meet physical qualification for marine diving, parachutist and ATC duty.
    • Maintain certification as a combat controller and combat-ready status.
    • Maintain physical fitness and water confidence standards.
    • Completion of a current Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI).
    • Completion of Officer Training School.
    • Must be between the ages of 18 and 34.
  • Those eligible for Special Tactics officer must be current Active Duty officer, officer cadet, or enlisted personnel with Officer Training School and positive STO Selection.
  • There are no direct civilian to STO recruiting programmes at this time.
    • Must become an Air Force officer then request a release from chosen career field to initiate a valid selection package.
  • Able to obtain a Secret/Top Secret Security clearance.
  • Must be a volunteer for hazardous military duties to consist of parachuting (static line and free-fall), marine diving (surface and underwater operations), and mission aircrew with retention time of six years.
  • Outstanding resume and no negative personal history.
  • Pass relevant Physical Fitness Test (PAST or BAPFT, view Section 2.6).
  • Medical:
    • USAF Class III Flight Physical (Special Warfare Initial Clearance).
    • Have normal colour vision;
    • Have vision of 20/70 or better, correctible to 20/20;

2.3     General Requirements and Eligibility for Air National Guard Candidates

As I understand it, qualifying National Guard candidates must become full-time Active Duty to pursue careers in all Special Tactics career fields (needs verification).

2.4     General Requirements and Eligibility for Reserve Candidates

Qualifying Reservists must become full-time Active Duty to pursue careers in all Special Tactics career fields.

2.5     Candidates from another Branch of Military Service

Candidates from another branch of military service can apply for service with AFSOC, but I am led to believe it is very uncommon.

2.6     Physical Ability and Stamina Test

The Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST) is utilised as an initial physical screening tool that must be passed in order to start training (and also during training where the standards become more stringent).

The AFSC’s identified in Table 1 undertake PAST tests that have slightly different minimum standards based on the requirement of each role, as well as different components.

With this in mind, Table 2 provides an outline of the PAST test for illustration purposes only.

Table 2: Physical Ability and Stamina Test
Event Component Criteria Time Limit Rest Period
1 25 Metre Underwater Swim Swim and remain underwater for 20 metres Pass/Fail 5-10 minutes
2 1500 Metre Surface Swim Non-stop, any stroke except backstroke 32 minutes or less 20 minutes
3 1.5 Mile Run PT clothes and running shoes 10 minutes and 30 seconds 10 minutes
4 3 Mile Run PT clothes and running shoes 22 minutes or less 20 minutes
5 Calisthenics
5a Heaves 12 or more 1/2 minutes 3 minutes
5b Flutter Kicks 50 or more 2 minutes 3 minutes
5c Press-ups 64 or more 2 minutes 3 minutes
5d Sit-ups 75 or more 2 minutes N/A

As I understand it, during 2016 the PAST test will be (is likely to be) replaced by the Battlefield Airman Physical Fitness Test (BAPFT), with four tiers: recruitment test; accession test; training test; and operator test (Scott, 2016). A number of the tried and tested components remain, but there are a number of new components. Scott provides a good initial overview of the (proposed) test. The test from another angle can be seen here.

During early 2019, the USAF will be introducing the first “career field-specific physical fitness standards — called Tier 2 standards.” (Losey, 2018). The USAF will establish career field-specific standards for all battlefield jobs (Losey, 2018).

You can view the updated fitness assessments here.


3.0     Special Tactics Officer Selection and Training Phases

The journey to becoming a Special Tactics officer is not easy, and training is rigorous and highly selective, but the courage and strength individuals will gain as a candidate will stay with them for their entire life.

The Special Tactics officer training programme is the selection and training process for all candidates wishing to join the Air Force’s SOF community as a Special Tactics officer.

All candidates will undertake a number of distinct stages of training (Table 3), in which candidates are taught the fundamentals of Air Force special warfare through formal US Air Force schooling and on-the-job training.

Table 3: Special Tactics officer training pipeline
Stage Programme Sub-course/Element Duration
Preparation Enlistment or Commissioning Process (including ROTC or Enlisted basic/advanced training) Variable
Officer Training School 9.5 Weeks
Assessment STO Assessment 2 Weeks
Initial Qualification Training STO/Combat Control Preparatory Course 10 days
Basic Airborne Course (scroll down to Section 3.2) 3 Weeks
Combat Survival SERE Training 2.5 Weeks
USAF Underwater Egress Training (UET) ?
Combat Control School 13/15.5 weeks
Airfield Operations Officer School ?
Mission Qualification Training Special Tactics Advance Skills Training (AST) Programme 12-15 months
Unit Specific Training Variable
Continuation Training As required  training that is necessary to maintain proficiency Variable
Source: Air Force Officer Classification Directory, 2014, p.55

Special Tactics officers receive the same initial training as enlisted combat controllers, a process that takes approximately 8-10 months, followed by 12 months on the Special Tactics AST Programme.

The skills and knowledge gained during this programme of training includes:

  • Maps and charts;
  • Command and control principles and procedures;
  • Flight characteristics of aircraft;
  • Communications, signalling devices, and tactical communications procedures;
  • Personal protection and sustenance;
  • Rough terrain movement, survival techniques and evasion;
  • Overland movement, small unit tactics and field leadership;
  • Fast rope, rope ladder, hoist, and rappelling;
  • Amphibious operations to include scuba infiltration;
  • Parachuting operations to include static-line and military free-fall parachuting procedures;
  • Air traffic control principles, procedures, and regulations;
  • Navigational aids and systems;
  • International Civil Aviation Organisation and Federal Aviation Administration regulations, airfield management and base operations, AOF management and administration and AOF and AEF contingency operations;
  • Air, ground, and naval weapon systems;
  • Meteorology;
  • Demolition to clear obstructions and hazards;
  • Terminal attack control operations;
  • Foreign Internal Defence operations;
  • Counterterrorism operations; and
  • Special reconnaissance missions.

3.1     Training Hierarchy

The 24th Special Operations Wing is located at Hurlburt Field in Florida, and is the only Special Tactics Wing in the US Air Force. The Wing is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5), who is assisted by a Chief Master Sergeant (OR-9).

The 24th Special Operations Wing has two operational groups, a training squadron and nine special operations recruiting liaison operating locations (Section 2.1).

Two Air National Guard units, the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron based at Standiford Field, Kentucky, and the 125th Special Tactics Squadron based at Portland International Airport, Oregon, augment the Wing as required.

The Special Tactics Training Squadron, located at Hurlburt Field, Florida, is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4).

The role of the Special Tactics Training Squadron is to recruit, assess, select, train and develop five-level (Table 1 above) combat controllers, special operations weathermen, pararescue and special operations qualified tactical air control party members for the Wing, while also providing initial joint terminal attack control training to US Army, US Marine Corps and US Air Force SOF.

3.2     Preparation Prior to Assessment and Selection

A number of Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) detachments have special clubs which are geared towards Air Force SOF aspirants. An example is the Red Rope Club, part of AFROTC Detachment 157 located at Daytona Beach, Florida, and hosted at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Embry-Riddle, 2016).

The AFROTC Detachments have training relevant to SOF candidates including physical fitness, water training etc.

There is (or was) a Battlefield Airman Development Course (BADC) which candidates undertook (at Lakeland Air Force Base in Texas) prior to entry in a Battlefield Airmen training pipeline (USA Jobs, 2014), although not sure if the BADC applied (or applies) to Special Tactics officers.

3.3     Officer Training School

If not already done so, candidates will undertake the 9.5 week Officer Training School Course which is undertaken at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

3.4     STO Selection Process

The selection process screens an applicant for mental fortitude and physical capabilities, while preparing candidates for future duties as a Special Tactics officer. Thus the selection process reduces the training attrition rate by ensuring that candidates selected are equipped to succeed in the specific mental and physical challenges of the training pipeline.

The Special Tactics officer selection programme is a two-phase process, as outlined in Table 4.

Table 4: STO Selection Process
Phase Description
Phase I: Board Review of a Candidate’s Application
  • A panel of officers reviews and stratifies applications submitted by the deadline.
  • The top applicants are invited to attend Phase II Selection.
Phase II: One-week Field Evaluation
  • Phase II consists of a one-week evaluation conducted at Hurlburt Field, Florida, approximately three months after Phase I.
  • Candidates must attend Phase II in TDY (temporary duty) status.
  • The purpose of Phase II is to assess each candidate for the purpose of determining their aptitude for operating within the SOF environment.
  • Candidates are assessed in the nine ST attributes:
    • Physical Fitness;
    • Mental Agility;
    • Professionalism;
    • Leadership;
    • Interpersonal Skills;
    • Initiative;
    • Psychological Stability;
    • Motivation; and
    • Technical Competency.
  • A candidate’s performance is evaluated as both a team member and as an individual.
  • The cadre will push candidates physically and mentally beyond their comfort zone to assess the above critical attributes in adverse situations.
  • At the end of the week candidates are informed of their status: select or non-select.
  • Being selected at Phase II means the selection board president has approved a candidate’s entry into the career field and pipeline training.

3.5     STO/Combat Control Preparatory Course

The STO/Combat Control Preparatory Course, also known as the Combat Control Orientation Course and Combat Control Screening Course, is delivered by the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

The STO/Combat Control Preparatory Course is 10 days in duration and focuses on physical fitness with classes in sports physiology, nutrition, basic exercises, CCT history and fundamentals.

3.6     Basic Airborne Course

US Army, Airborne Training, Basic Airborne CourseAll candidates must attend the Basic Airborne Course delivered by the US Army at the Airborne School, Fort Benning in Georgia.

During the 3-week course, candidates will learn the basic parachuting skills required to infiltrate an objective area by static line airdrop.

Detailed information on the 3-week Basic Airborne Course can be found here (scroll down to Section 3.2).

3.7     Combat Survival SERE Training

The 2.5-week SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion) training course is delivered at the US Air Force Basic Survival School, located in Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington.

The course teaches basic survival techniques for remote areas and lessons include principles, procedures, equipment and techniques, which enable individuals to survive, regardless of climatic conditions or unfriendly environments and return home.

3.8     USAF Underwater Egress Training

Underwater Egress Trainer (UET) systems are a collection of mature technology training devices that provide emergency egress training techniques and procedures to passengers of aircraft, wheeled, and tracked vehicles from submerged water conditions.

Consequently, the purpose of UET is to enhance passenger survivability, regardless of platform or the causal factors that result in a rollover or submersion incident. UET provides this training in a coordinated physical environment in which knowledge based instruction is taught in the classroom which can then be applied and practiced in a safe, supervised and realistic environment.

UET includes a number of training devices:

  • The Modular Amphibious Egress Trainer (MAET) is a simulated generic fuselage section representing specific aircraft, cockpit and cabin emergency escape exits.
  • The Submerged Vehicle Egress Trainer (SVET) is a ground vehicle simulation of the High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) and a generic amphibious track platform.
  • Shallow Water Egress Training (SWET) training, which includes the SWET chair.
  • Familiarisation and operation of the Intermediate Passenger Helicopter Air Breathing Device (IPHABD).

3.9     Combat Control School

The 13-week Combat Control course is delivered by the Combat Control School located at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.

The course provides final combat controller qualifications and training includes physical training, small unit tactics, land navigation, communications, assault zones, demolitions, fire support and field operations including parachuting.

3.10     Airfield Operations Officer School

Candidates will be taught how to perform and manage airfield operations functions and activities, including air traffic control (ATC), airfield management, and base operations. They will also learn the management of day-to-day operations of facilities, including radar approach control, ground controlled approach, radar final control, control tower, and base operations.

3.11     Special Tactics Advance Skills Training Programme

The 12-15 month Special Tactics Advance Skills Training (AST) programme is delivered by the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

The AST programme is for newly assigned Special Tactics officers and Combat Control operators, producing mission-ready operators for AFSOC and USSOCOM.

The AST programme is delivered in four distinct phases: water; ground; employment; and full mission profile. Examples of training include combat diver qualification, military free-fall (MFF) parachutist and personnel recovery 101).

  • MFF Training: is delivered over 5-weeks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. This MFF training is an initial skills course that provides academic, ground, and free-fall training to first time jumpers. Training includes: wind tunnel training; in-air instruction focusing on student stability; aerial manoeuvres; air sense; parachute opening procedures; and parachute canopy control.
  • Combat Diver Training: is delivered at Panama City, Florida. This 6-week course teaches combat diving procedures. Training includes learning to use open circuit (SCUBA, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) and closed circuit diving equipment to covertly infiltrate denied areas. The course provides training to depths of 130 feet, stressing development of maximum underwater mobility under various operating conditions.

3.12     Graduation

Upon graduation, candidates will be awarded the coveted scarlet beret and black jump boots signifying their entry into the Special Tactics brotherhood. STOs are then assigned to an operational Special Tactics Squadron (STS) in AFSOC.


4.0     Summary

The Special Tactics officer branch is open to all male and female officers of the US Air Force. Special Tactics officer training seeks to attract determined, highly-motivated, intelligent, reliable and physically fit individuals to serve with the US Air Force’s SOF community. This article provides the basic information to allow individuals to make an informed judgement before applying for Special Tactics officer training.

4.1     Useful Books, Documents and Magazines

4.2     Useful Links

4.3     References

Air Force Times (2015) What It Takes to be a Combat Controller and Special Tactics Officer. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/careers/air-force/2015/12/14/what-takes-combat-controller-and-special-tactics-officer/77151426/. [Accessed: 02 March, 2016].

CCA News (Combat Controller Association Newsletter) (2006) CCT Officer Name and Flash Change. Available from World Wide Web: http://usafcca.org/cca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/CCA-News-Issue-3.pdf. [Accessed: 03 March, 2016].

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (2016) Air Force ROTC. Available from World Wide Web: https://daytonabeach.erau.edu/rotc/air-force/index.html. [Accessed: 03 March, 2016].

Losey, S. (2018) Air Force rolls out new job-specific PT tests to better prepare airmen for the fight. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2018/01/23/air-force-rolls-out-new-job-specific-pt-tests-to-better-prepare-airmen-for-the-fight/. [Accessed: 22 November, 2018].

Pellerin, C. (2015) SecDef Opens all Military Occupations to Women. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.therecruiterjournal.com/secdef-opens-all-military-occupations-to-women.html. [Accessed: 04 December, 2015].

Scott, A. (2016) Upcoming Report: US Air Force Battlefield Airmen Physical Fitness Test. Available from World Wide Web: http://strongswiftdurable.com/military-athlete-articles/upcoming-report-analysis-proposed-us-air-force-battlefield-airmen-physical-fitness-test/. [Accessed: 03 March, 2016].

Thompson, M. (2012) The Air Force – On the Ground – in Afghanistan. Available from World Wide Web: http://nation.time.com/2012/12/05/the-air-force-on-the-ground-in-afghanistan/. [Accessed: 02 March, 2016].

US Air Force (2014a) Air Force Officer Classification Directory (AFOCD). Randall Air Force Base, Texas: Air Force Personnel Centre.

US Air Force (2014b) Air Force Enlisted Classification Directory (AFECD). Randall Air Force Base, Texas: Air Force Personnel Centre.

USA Jobs (2014) Training Instructor. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/PrintPreview/370209800. [Accessed: 03 March, 2016].

Vogel, J.L. (2015) Statement of General Joseph L. Vogel, U.S. Army Commander United States Special Operations Command before the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, March 18, 2015. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.socom.mil/Documents/2015%20USSOCOM%20Posture%20Statement.pdf. [Accessed: 29 December, 2015].