1.0 Introduction

This article provides an overview of Sandhurst Competition which has undergone multiple changes since it started in 1967.

The Sandhurst Competition is now open to both United States (US) domestic and international military officer cadets. Originally an internal Cadet competition, it has steadily grown to include teams from across the globe to test their physical prowess and military proficiency in a diverse multinational and joint service competition.

In its current form it is a multi-day event featuring teams from West Point, ROTC as well as other foreign and domestic military academies.

This article will state what the competition is about, its purpose, and where it takes place. It will then provide a brief history, who participates, and team composition. It will also outline the events and awards. Finally, it will highlight the Sandhurst Conference, as well as provide some useful publications and links.

2.0 What is the Sandhurst Competition?

The Sandhurst Competition is a multi-day, multi-event competition (and conference) for military officer cadets that tests endurance, military preparedness, leadership and unit cohesion.

While it is called the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition after the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), the British Army’s officer training establishment located in Southern England, the annual competition has always been held in and around the grounds of the United States Military Academy (Section 4.0).

It is composed of two elements:

  • Conference (Section 10.0): A one-day event, usually on the Monday, followed by the,
  • Competition: A two-day event, usually on the Friday and Saturday.

3.0 What is the Purpose of the Sandhurst Competition?

The original aim of the Sandhurst Competition was to promote military excellence among the US Corps of Cadets.

In conjunction with the conference, the competition:

  • Showcases tactical and technical proficiency;
  • Showcases leadership abilities;
  • Showcases physical prowess; and
  • Builds relationships across institutions and nations.

As noted in the Sandhurst 2019 Spectators Guide (2019, p.2) the purpose of the competition is:

“To deliver the world’s premier international academy military skills competition that inspires Cadets to achieve military excellence in their chosen profession by competing in a physically and mentally rigorous leadership and small unit military skills challenge that reflects the tempo, uncertainty and tasks of combat operations.”

4.0 Where does the Sandhurst Competition take Place?

The Sandhurst Competition takes place at the United States Military Academy (USMA), commonly known as West Point, a US Army officer training establishment. It usually takes place in April.

The USMA is located on the West bank of the Hudson River, approximately 40 miles North of New York City.

The USMA is led by the Superintendent of the USMA, a Lieutenant General (OF-8), and the US Corps of Cadets (USCC) is led by the Commandant of the USCC, a Brigadier General (OF-6).

Administration of the competition sits with the Department of Military Instruction (DMI) led by the Director, a Colonel (OF-5).

Its specific organisation is facilitated by the Sandhurst Competition Officer-in-Charge (OIC), who may be aided the Sandhurst Competition Cadet-in-Charge.

5.0 Brief History

“The original purpose statement read as follows: “To provide the Corps of Cadets with a challenging and rewarding regimental skills competition, which will enhance professional development and military excellence in selected soldier skills.”” (Pruden, 2019a).

The Sandhurst Competition was established in 1967 when the RMAS, via the British exchange officer, presented the USMA with a British Officer’s sword to use as the prize for a competition to promote military excellence.

Between 1967 and 1975, the competition criteria were similar to those for the current USMA Superintendent’s Award, these being:

  • Corps Squad participation;
  • Intramurals;
  • Physical fitness tests;
  • Drill and ceremonies; and
  • Cadet Brigade Company evaluations.

In 1975, the competition began to transform into its current form with teams taking part in different challenges to test their military skills. The then Commandant USCC and the British exchange officer, Major Robert Hodges KORBR, felt that the competition had fallen short of its original intent. Consequently, the format was changed to better test the cadets’ ability to ‘move, shoot and communicate’, and stressing the importance of teamwork.

The competition was conducted in the spring during drill and intramural time to include:

  • Equipment inspection;
  • Communications;
  • Weapon handling;
  • Swift movement;
  • Shooting; and
  • Land navigation.

All 36 USCC companies provided 5 four-man patrols, and one alternate patrol per company. Approximately 850 cadets would participate, with the competition conducted at Camp Buckner during 20 weekdays in April.

In 1981, due to logistical issues there were calls to move the competition to the summer but a study on the subject recommended keeping it in the spring. It was also recommended that the competition should take place at USMA.

From 1982, the competition was conducted in two phases, with land navigation on one day (set by the orienteering club) and rifle marksmanship (M16) on the indoor range on the other day.

Since 1986, each team competing in the competition has been required to be co-gender, with at least one female team member (O’Connor, 2019). This rule applies to all domestic and international teams.

“The rule even applied to teams from the National Military Academy of Afghanistan when they competed in years past. Because there are no women in the NMAA, a female West Point cadet would compete on the Afghan team each year.” (O’Connor, 2019).

Also in 1986, teams would now complete the competition on a single day, to include firing the M16 on an outdoor range.

In 1988, team composition changed to 2 nine-person squads, including one female, instead of the 5 four-man patrols.

From 1967 to 1991, the competition was for USMA cadets only, with Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets competing from 1992. At the same time, each USMA company now only fielded one team of nine.

In 1993, the competition expanded to include US military academies, ROTC and international teams (Pruden, 2019b). The RMAS sent two teams, which it still does.

In 1997, the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC-C) began participating.

To help mark the Bi-Centennial of the competition in 2002, a team from Germany and the US naval, air force, and coast guard academies were invited.

In 2003, the German team was replaced by a US Merchant Marine Academy team.

In 2005, the Merchant Marine team was replaced by a sixth ROTC team. Prince Harry (then third in line for the British crown) visited West Point and participated in the competition as a RMAS cadet.

No ROTC teams took part in 2007.

2008 saw the competition being held exclusively on Post, but moved back to the training grounds in 2009.

“A number of new events are being introduced this year [2009]. There is greater emphasis on navigation and problem-solving. Following a partially-set course, teams need to use leadership and teamwork to negotiate the 11 sites and an orienteering course over the two days.” (Chandler, 2009).

These changes were made to reflect the changing demands placed upon Platoon Leaders on then current operations.

2010/11 saw the competition move back out onto the training area surrounding Lake Popolopen and Camp Buckner.

The Tom Surdyke Leadership Award was introduced in 2017, which is presented to the best overall squad leader.

In 2019, the number of USCC teams was reduced to 12 from 36 – there was a fall (winter) qualifier to determine which teams would qualify – to make way for more international teams, and the number of ROTC teams was doubled from 8 to 16 (O’Connor, 2019).

In 2019, the competition posted, “almost on the hour”, updated rankings throughout the day (Pruden, 2019b, p.10).

Between 1993 and 2019, the RMAS won the competition 16 out of 27 years.

6.0 Who Can Participate in the Sandhurst Competition?

Officer Cadets from a wide variety of nations participate in the Sandhurst Competition, including:

  • US Military Academy Officer Cadets:
    • USMA US Corps of Cadets (12 teams).
    • USMA Preparatory School (1 team).
    • US Air Force Academy (1 team).
    • US Coast Guard Academy (1 team).
    • US Naval Academy (1 team).
    • US Merchant Marine Academy (1 team).
    • International cadets enrolled in one of the above academies participate as a member of that academy’s team (Pruden, 2019b).
  • US ROTC Officer Cadets:
    • 16 ROTC teams.
    • ROTC teams are invited to participate based on their overall standing in the annual Cadet Command’s Ranger Challenge programme, also known as the National ROTC Ranger Challenge.
    • Each of these teams will compete in a brigade level competition to earn a spot at the Sandhurst Competition.
    • The number of ROTC teams doubled from 8 to 16 in 2019 (Pruden, 2019b).
    • ROTC teams have included: Austin Peay; California Polytechnic State University; Central State University; Creighton University; Florida State University; Florida Institute of Technology; Georgetown University; Lehigh University; Tarleton State University; University of Delaware; University of North Georgia; Utah Valley University; Virginia Military Institute; John Hopkins University; Embry-Riddle; Marquette University; Edinboro University; Texas A&M; Brigham Young University; East Carolina University; Iowa State University; Appalachian State University; and the University of Hawaii.
  • International Officer Cadets:
    • International teams must observe the competition the year prior to receiving an invitation to participate.
    • International teams have included: Australia; Canada; Germany; Denmark; South Korea; Thailand; Colombia; Greece; Japan; Mexico; Chile; Brazil; Italy; Latvia; Mexico; Chile; Poland; Afghanistan, and Ecuador (from 2020).
    • The UK’s RMAS gets two teams (Blue and Red), all other international teams are allowed one team. The two RMAS teams were known as 1 and 2 between 1993 and 2000.

7.0 Team Composition

The number of teams participating in the Sandhurst Competition has steadily risen over the years, with 49 teams in 2019, with a maximum of 50 teams to maintain the quality of the competition.

Each team is:

  • Composed of eleven members (Bolkcom, 2019):
    • Nine primary members; and
    • Two alternative members;
  • Composed of men and women (at least one of each); and
  • Assessed on a variety of individual and squad warrior tasks.

8.0 Events

During the competition cadets participate in a range of challenging events, spending approximately 36 hours travelling 25-30 miles across the grounds, and surrounding area, of the USMA (Kimmons, 2018). Teams will cover approximately 12 miles on day one, 6 miles on night one, and 12 miles on day two.

Cadets will tab, or ruck march, between checkpoints carrying approximately 35 lbs (not including food, water, or personal weapon). At checkpoints, cadets will have memory and other tasks to complete, and timings between checkpoints are very strict (Pruden, 2019a).

“The teams kicked off the week with an order of march relay Monday afternoon (April 8), which pitted the three fastest members of each team head-to-head in a four-and-a-half-mile relay race to determine a draft order to select start times for the competition.” (Pruden, 2019b, p.11).

Following this, on the Tuesday and Wednesday, teams are allowed to familiarise themselves with the possible obstacles they might face – they are not informed of the actual challenges, the number of obstacles, nor the route they would be taking (Pruden, 2019b).

“The cadets also have to prepare for other various tasks such as knot tying, figuring out how to make a rig to carry someone or something, and how to climb objects with the limited tools and equipment that is provided.” (Bolkcom, 2019).

Events include (Kimmons, 2018; Pruden, 2019a & 2019b):

  1. Functional fitness:
    a. Takes place on day one only.
    b. Teams are assessed on their physical fitness carrying out a variety of tasks within a set time.
  2. Pistol marksmanship:
    a. Takes place on both days.
    b. Teams are assessed on their Service pistol (M9 in 2019) marksmanship proficiency.
    c. At the same time they are asked to do other tasks to increase the pressure.
    d. Double scoring event.
  3. M203, 40mm grenade launcher:
    a. Takes place on both days.
    b. Teams are assessed on their ability to conduct range estimation, engage targets, and also complete a functional fitness event for additional points.
  4. Zodiac (inflatable boat):
    a. Takes place on both days.
    b. Teams are assessed over an aquatic course.
    c. Respond to contact (from 2019).
    d. Two members jump into water and swim ashore (from 2019).
  5. Land navigation:
    a. Takes place on day one only.
    b. Double scoring event.
  6. Bivouac (aka building a shelter):
    a. Takes place overnight.
  7. Night tactical road march:
    a. Takes place overnight.
    b. Double scoring event.
  8. Obstacle course:
    a. Takes place on day two only.
    b. Teams must complete a series of obstacle as fast as possible.
  9. Leader reaction course:
    a. Takes place on both days.
    b. Teams must negotiate a series of team-based problems and be evaluated on proper treatment of a combat-related injury.
  10. Rifle marksmanship:
    a. Takes place on both days.
    b. Teams are assessed on their Service rifle (M4) marksmanship proficiency in a variety of firing positions.
    c. Double scoring event.
  11. Call for fire:
    a. Takes place on both days.
    b. Teams are assessed on their ability to properly determine a target location in a call for fire simulator.
    c. Concurrently, squads will complete a variety of physical tasks for points.
  12. Combat swimming:
    a. Takes place on day two only.
    b. Separate swim event for the first time in 2019.
    c. Teams are assessed on a combat swim scenario, followed by several physical tasks.
  13. The ‘Burden’:
    a. This is the final event and takes place on day two only.
    b. Teams are assessed on their ability to complete a variety of physical tasks.
    c. Cadets are ‘presented’ with: two wooden logs (each weighing 100 pounds); a large tractor tire; seven 5-gallon water jugs (filled to the brim); and a stretcher (Kimmons, 2018).
    d. The cadets have to decide how to transport this equipment around a half-mile loop.

The order of events varies and the above is for illustration only, generally four teams start every 25 minutes. A team may conduct an event on the first or second day, but only once. All teams start with the functional fitness event but then diverge depending on whether they are following the Blue Route or Red Route. Teams are given no later than timings to reach some events and are deducted points if they are late.

In 2019, there were “13 obstacles” for teams to overcome (Pruden, 2019b, p.8) and, for the first time, teams were not given any “route information ahead of time.” (Pruden, 2019b, p.11).

9.0 Awards

Awards to be won at the Sandhurst Competition include (Pruden, 2019b):

  • The Tom Surdyke Leadership Award is presented to the overall best squad leader.
    • It is named in memory of Cadet Thomas Surdyke who died from injuries sustained while saving the life of a drowning stranger.
    • You can read about his bravery here.
  • The Sandhurst ROTC Cup is presented to the first place ROTC team.
  • The Sandhurst International Cup is presented to the first place international team.
  • The Sandhurst Sword is presented to “…the Academy regiment with the best aggregate company performance.” (Kimmons, 2018).
  • The Reginald E. Johnson Memorial Saber Plaque is presented to the best overall team (Kimmons, 2018; O’Connor, 2019).
    • It is named for Cadet Reggie Johnson who died during the land navigation phase on Friday 11 April 1980.
    • Although it is called a plaque, the award follows the initial tradition of the competition and is a mounted cadet saber.
    • The saber has been used as the award since 1999, replacing the original plague.
  • Teams that place in the top five are awarded a Sandhurst Medal.
  • All teams are presented with a certificate of participation, signed by the Commandant USCC.

10.0 Conference

The Modern War Institute (MWI) and USMA Class of 1999 sponsors the conference element of the Sandhurst Competition.

Inaugurated in 2016, the conference is an annual, all-day, event organised by the USMA DMI and MWI to complement the traditionally military Sandhurst Competition and provide an intellectual and academic forum for officers across the globe to discuss and debate how best to prepare for modern war.

The premise of the conference is that technical and tactical competence alone no longer suffices for junior officers to meet the challenges of 21st century warfare and, therefore, the purpose of the conference is to share and build intellectual thought regarding contemporary military topics.

The conference takes place before the competition, usually on the Monday or Tuesday, and consists of:

  • Keynote speakers;
  • Panels; and
  • Workshops.

The conference is located in the Thayer Hall and rooms of the Robinson Auditorium within the grounds of the USMA.

11.0 Useful Publications

  • Sandhurst External Recon Instructions (Published NLT: 14 December year before).
  • Sandhurst Competition Manual (Published NLT: 14 December year before).
  • External Team Recon Briefs (Published NLT: 25 January in year of competition).
  • Packing List (Published NLT: February in year of competition).
  • Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks – Warrior Skills Level 1 (September 2017).
  • Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks – Warrior Leader Skills Level 2, 3 & 4 (September 2008).
  • Sandhurst 2019 Spectators Guide.

12.0 Useful Links

13.0 References

Bolkcom, V. (2019) ROTC Prepares to Travel to West Point for Sandhurst Competition. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.theallstate.org/rotc-prepares-to-travel-to-west-point-for-sandhurst-competition/. [Accessed: 27 May, 2019].

Chandler, S. (2009) 43rd Sandhurst is Friday and Saturday. Available from World Wide Web: https://web.archive.org/web/20090422035339/http://www.pointerview.com/pointer_view_43rd-Sandhurst-is-Friday-and-Saturday.html. [Accessed: 27 May, 2019].

Kimmons, S. (2018) Cadets dig deep to finish grueling int’l Sandhurst competition. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.army.mil/article/203864/cadets_dig_deep_to_finish_grueling_intl_sandhurst_competition. [Accessed: 27 May, 2019].

Pruden, T. (2019a) Competition’s name-sake represents with teamwork, toughness. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/318044/competitions-name-sake-represents-with-teamwork-toughness. [Accessed: 27 May, 2019].

Pruden, T. (2019b) International Cadets Compete in Sandhurst for West Point. The Pointer View. 76(14), pp.8-11.