Ask Stew: About Air Force Special Warfare

Special warfare recruiters run an obstacle course.
Master Sgts. Christopher Beversdorf and Derek Guerin, both 330th Recruiting Squadron special warfare recruiters, ran the obstacle course in chilling temperatures during the 2020 Lightning Challenge at Fort Hood, Texas, Oct. 26, 2020. (Master Sgt. JT May III/U.S. Air Force photo)

The United States Air Force has evolved significantly in the last two decades; specifically, the Air Force has created ground Special Operations in combat areas as well as other harsh environments and weather conditions around the world. No longer called "battlefield airmen," there is now a group of special operators who make up the Air Force Special Warfare component of the Special Operations Command.

As global threats and technology evolve, so does the Special Operations community. Here is a question from a future Special Warfare Open Enlistment (SWOE) candidate considering Air Force pararescue within the next year:

Stew, I noticed there are a lot of changes in the Air Forces PJ/CCT pipelines. How does that change the training and preparation for me? I am one year out and do not know if I am going to be a battlefield airman or Air Force Special Warfare? What is the difference?

This is a great question because you are going to join the Air Force as things are changing. Mostly, the changes are in the name of the special ops personnel, but the process to recruit, prepare and train these elite groups of airmen also also changing. After basic military training (BMT), you will attend the new Air Force Special Warfare Prep Course (formerly known as Battlefield Airman Prep Course). However, before you ever leave for basic, you will have some training and early preparation. While in the delayed entry program, a group of former Air Force Special Ops trainers and mentors will make sure you are meeting the standard before you depart for BMT. See the official site to find local trainers, mentors and recruiters to help you prepare for Air Force Special Warfare jobs such as pararescue, combat controller, tactical air control party, SERE, special reconnaissance (SR) and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD).

The Air Force Special Warfare Prep Course is for the formerly named "battlefield airmen" and is an eight-week course designed for BMT graduates who have selected the PJ, CCT, SR or TACP career field. Its purpose is to assist rebuilding an elevated physical fitness level after BMT and adequately prepare these new airmen for the following pipelines of Special Ops training.

You will learn to swim long before you arrive at the prep course -- not only a fast Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST) method, but also swimming with fins using the side stroke "lead arm/trail arm'' method. This is moving through the water staying on your side and only kicking with rocket- or jet-type SCUBA fins. Here are the minimum standards you must meet to qualify for the Air Force Special Warfare program that vary from specialty code (job):

Minimum Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST) for Air Force Special Warfare Civilian Recruits/Enlisted Personnel

Pull-ups 8 8 8 3
Sit-ups 50 50 48 --
Push-ups 40 40 40 --
1.5-mile run 10:20 10:20 11:00 11:00
2 x 25-meter underwater swims Pass Pass -- --
500m swim 15:00 12:30 -- --

Scores updated Jan 13, 2021 * -- means "not tested"

Note: The PAST requirements are designed to test for a minimum fitness level for entry into the various training pipelines. Candidates should continue to train throughout their application process to exceed these minimums to enhance their chances of success.

Recommended PAST scores from active-duty special operators to be a competitive student within the training pipeline:

500m swim -- sub-9 minutes

1.5-mile run -- 9 minutes

Pull-ups -- 20

Sit-ups -- 80-100

Pushups -- 80-100

Here are the prep-course evaluation standards you will meet throughout the prep course.

Pull-ups -- 10

Push-ups -- 55

Sit-ups -- 55

3-mile run -- 21:21

1,000-meter fin (L.A.T.A.) -- 20:00

So to answer your questions: Yes, you will be called something different that "battlefield airmen.'' You are going to be part of Air Force Special Warfare (AFSW). This is remarkably similar to other Special Operations Command names: Naval Special Warfare and Army Special Warfare Center and School, though they officially are Army Special Operations Command.

Training should not change, even though the minimum standards have changed a few times in the past years.

I urge you to strive for competitive PAST scores as mentioned above, but also know that you will be tested in many pool skills, longer runs and longer swims with fins. There will be rucking and other load-bearing exercises involved in your training as well. It goes back to the first two phases of tactical training in order to get to the training by acing the PAST test, but also giving yourself enough time preparing to get through the training before joining the Air Force.

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

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