In Your Dreams: Could You Make it Through SAS or Delta Force Training?

The combined UK Armed Forces have had over 140 deaths in training alone since 2000.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to join one of the world’s most elite military units? To join any military organization, you first need to pass physical and psychological tests to make sure you are fit for the job. But joining some of the world’s most elite units involves months of rigorous, often grueling training just to make sure that you are able to meet the additional physical demands.

On top of this, you need to prove you can deal with some of the most difficult situations imaginable without cracking under pressure. You will also need to excel in many other specialist skills, from negotiating with hostage takers to top-level marksmanship. When you consider all this, you will understand why these units are known as “elite.”

We will take a look at the selection and training processes for two of the top and toughest units in the world and you can decide for yourself if you think you would get through.

Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response and Legionnaires from the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment of France’s 6th Light Armored Brigade work side-by-side during a simulated heliborne raid.Photo: Cpl. Michael Petersheim
Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response and Legionnaires from the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment of France’s 6th Light Armored Brigade work side-by-side during a simulated heliborne raid.Photo: Cpl. Michael Petersheim

The Special Air Service (SAS)

The SAS is one of the oldest elite units in the UK. Its specialist areas include counter-terrorism and special operations. The unit has been in operation since 1941 and includes the most capable and highly trained professionals in their field.

Soldiers from any of the other UK military units can apply to join. Many of those who join have previous experience in light infantry, commando units, or air units. The window for application and selection opens twice a year, usually in summer and in winter. Both men and woman can apply.

Special Air Service (SAS) in North Africa during WWII.A close-up of a heavily armed patrol of ‘L’ Detachment SAS in their Jeeps, just back from a three month patrol.
Special Air Service (SAS) in North Africa during WWII.A close-up of a heavily armed patrol of ‘L’ Detachment SAS in their Jeeps, just back from a three month patrol.

Selection

The selection process lasts about five months and has an astonishing 90% dropout rate—inevitably so high due to the extremely rigorous nature of the training. Candidates must demonstrate that they can cope with whatever conditions they find themselves in during the course of their duties. Their own lives and the lives of their comrades and civilians may depend on it.

SAS volunteers emplaning into an RAF Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.
SAS volunteers emplaning into an RAF Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.

Training

The training involves tests of physical endurance such as long marches in the Welsh mountains with nothing but water, a rifle, and a 20 kg rucksack. This is followed by more difficult marches or ‘tabs’ with the rucksack load increasing to 27 kg . There are also map reading exercises in the mountains.

At the end of the first phase of training about half of the candidates are selected to continue to the next phase. The SAS training has become a controversial subject in recent years due to the deaths of soldiers while undergoing training. The combined UK Armed Forces have had over 140 deaths in training alone since 2000.

SAS Training ground. Pen y Fan (886m) from Cribyn. Photograph taken 16th April 2005.
SAS Training ground. Pen y Fan (886m) from Cribyn. Photograph taken 16th April 2005.

This second part of the training usually takes place in the jungles of Brunei, Belize, or Malaysia. This brings in new skills including intelligence and espionage, hand to hand combat, medical skills, and both mental and physical survival skills.

Those who survive the jungle phase will return to the UK for the final part of the training which involves marksmanship, airborne training, and other skills such as escape and evasion techniques. SAS members will often be required to work behind enemy lines, so these skills are crucial.

21 SAS soldier after a night parachute drop exercise in Denmark, 1955
21 SAS soldier after a night parachute drop exercise in Denmark, 1955

The candidate’s ability to withstand interrogation is also tested through mock interrogation scenarios. Although they know that their lives are not in danger, during these sessions they experience some of the techniques a SAS operative may encounter if captured by enemy forces.

By the time the training is over, about 25 out of a group of 200 are expected to remain and join the elite ranks of the SAS as probationary members.

SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.
SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.

1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Airborne) – Delta Force

The success of the SAS is recognized and admired across the world and it was, in fact, the model for the top US elite corps – The Delta Force. This highly skilled unit was formed in response to terrorist threats during the 1970s.

Like the SAS, joining the Delta Force involves an intense selection and training process. Once again, only a small percentage of those who begin their initial training will complete the journey to become fully trained members of the unit, or “operator” as they are called.

Operator Training Course, second class. Fall selection, 1978.
Operator Training Course, second class. Fall selection, 1978.

To apply you need to already be enlisted in the military and to have completed more than four years of service. Currently, only men can apply. Candidates who intend to apply should ideally have already undertaken airborne training and have demonstrated a high level of skill in previous aptitude tests.

Selection

Once selected for training there are a series of physical tests. As well as sit-ups and push-ups and running, the tests include swimming 100 meters while fully clothed. There are land navigation exercises to be carried out at night, and long marches while carrying increasingly heavier weights.

Mental strength is also important and candidates are tested to see how they cope under pressure. Once the candidates complete the testing stage successfully, they move on to the Operator Training Course where they learn the many special skills they need.

Delta Force bodyguards in civilian clothing providing close protection to General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War, 1991.
Delta Force bodyguards in civilian clothing providing close protection to General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War, 1991.

Training

Marksmanship skills are a key element in the training. Trainees must learn to shoot both moving and stationary targets without having time to take aim. They must be accurate enough to use this skill, for example, in a hostage situation when they need to shoot the enemy without harming the hostages.

Breaching skills include how to pick different types of locks on houses, cars, and safes. All aspects of espionage are covered as well as the use of various weapons, and advanced driving training ensures they can drive in difficult terrain and situations. Demolition training covers the use of explosives and how to make explosive devices from easily available materials.

A Delta Force Operative shows elite soldiers with the Asymmetrical Warfare Group how to shoot.Photo: Luke Thornberry CC BY-SA 3.0
A Delta Force Operative shows elite soldiers with the Asymmetrical Warfare Group how to shoot.Photo: Luke Thornberry CC BY-SA 3.0

But it is not enough just to learn each of the required skills. An important part of the training is learning how to combine these different skills. Trainees learn about combining their skills with support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Delta Force, soldiers pictured deep behind Iraqi lines during the 1991 Gulf War.
Delta Force, soldiers pictured deep behind Iraqi lines during the 1991 Gulf War.

Read another story from us: Best Warriors in the World – 5 of the Top Special Forces Units

In the final test, candidates need to demonstrate their ability to combine the skills they have learned and show how they would use them in a real-life scenario. As with the SAS course, only around 10% of trainees will complete the training successfully and become an operator.

Clearly, although many might aspire to join one of these elite units, it not an option for most of them. But those who are successful do a vital job and are highly respected for the work they do.