Navy SEAL Training

Reinventing BUD/S

Navy SEALs Training
Handout / Handout / Getty Images News / Getty Images

He's exhausted. His muscles ache beyond belief and his body is chilled to the bone. His heart is pumping a mile a minute after having just maneuvered through an obstacle course that would challenge the most agile of men.

He knew it wouldn't be easy, having read articles about "the quiet professionals" and listened to stories about "the toughest military training in the world" from guys who had gone through the training before him. He tells himself he can make it, over and over again. This Sailor wants to be a U.S. Navy SEAL.

Navy SEAL Training Changes

He and a select group of Sailors are going through this arduous training at the Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC), Coronado, Calif. Currently, requirements are being revamped and instructions revised so that the graduates of Basic Underwater Demolition School/SEAL (BUD/S) are even more prepared to take on the ever-changing responsibilities of a SEAL operation.

Changes include incorporating more operationally specific evolutions earlier in the learning process. And while some Sailors "can" and some Sailors "can't," NSWC is making efforts to keep the number of the "can dos" to a maximum.

Recent changes (April 2001) at BUD/S aim to produce graduates who have an enhanced repertoire of SEAL skills, ready for use upon arrival at an operational SEAL team. The centerpiece of all the changes is an intense effort to "operationalize" BUD/S training.

In essence, the changes in training have done away with some outdated methods and introduced more back-to-the-basics training found at the SEAL team level.

"You have to want the program. And mentally, never give yourself the option to quit," said Master Chief Information Systems Technician Dennis Wilbanks, head SEAL recruiter who, with more than 25 years in the SPECWAR community, has seen hundreds of Sailors come and go through BUD/S.

Phase 1

The 25-week curriculum at BUD/S is divided into three phases that test the Sailors' spirit and stamina. The first eight-week phase is known as the physical conditioning phase and places a strong emphasis on running, swimming, navigating the obstacle course and basic water and lifesaving skills.

First Phase includes some of the most significant training revisions, where the most dreaded week of BUD/S, Hell Week (featuring 120 hours of continuous training on less than four hours of sleep), has been moved from the fifth week of First Phase to the third week. The shift allowed the addition of a maritime operations course and basic patrolling and weapons handling courses.

This phase pushes the body to its physical and mental limits. Trained medical technicians and instructors are with the students at every step.

"All instruction (as opposed to just physical training) takes place after Hell Week," said LTJG Joe Burns, First Phase officer-in-charge and former enlisted SEAL. "The majority of students who complete Hell Week are going to graduate," said Burns.

This schedule shift also means that drown-proofing and underwater knot tying will now be held after Hell Week. The techniques and skills taught in these areas are a crucial element in being both comfortable and proficient in underwater evolutions. This change is expected to be a confidence-booster since it allows the students to practice their knot-tying skills before they are tested—especially when the test is being able to tie a knot at a 50-foot depth.

Having endured the complexity of First Phase, trainees move on to their next big obstacle - diving. Second Phase is seven weeks in length and emphasizes the skills required to be a Naval Special Warfare combat swimmer.

Phase 2

"While it is imperative the student meets the standards set before him," said Intelligence Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Peterson, second phase instructor. "We look for the individual who possesses the ability to perform safely and effectively under stressful conditions.

Second Phase has undergone a few key changes. The number of training dives, both day and night, has significantly increased and the complexity of the dives is more challenging to the students with multiple legs and more realistic targets.

Multi-leg underwater routes require students to navigate and change directions underwater several times, rather than just once. This gives instructors another opportunity to evaluate a candidate's abilities under stress.

Furthermore, the pool competency evolution, perhaps the most difficult evolution at BUD/S, next to Hell Week, has been modified to better support those students who demonstrate basic skills underwater.

As CAPT Ed Bowen, commanding officer of the NSWC points out, "I am seeking the man who has the basic aptitude, attitude, and motivation to be a SEAL. If a young man can remain calm while great stress is induced underwater, I will not drop him from training for a minuscule technical glitch."

Phase 3

Finally, the 10-week long Third Phase is the last hurdle these Sailors face before graduation. This land warfare phase turns Sailors into hardcore, cutting-edge naval commandos.

"Third Phase is comparable to First Phase in that you are often cold, miserable and tired," said Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 2nd Class Louis G. Fernbough, Third Phase instructor. "The difference is, we now expect you to think and perform mentally under the same conditions. Mistakes made when working with explosives only happen once."

While all three phases have separate objectives, they all share common physical tasks that include running, swimming and obstacle courses.

Required passing times become more challenging as the training progresses, pushing trainees to their limits.

More changes have been implemented as students move into the final phase of BUD/S training. Emphasis in Third Phase is placed on small unit tactics, patrolling, weapons training and demolition, giving students a feel for what to expect once they have earned their special warfare pin and the title of Navy SEAL.

Attention is placed now, more than ever, on the basic SEAL combat skills required of effective SEAL platoon operators. One goal of the revisions is to qualify all students on the M-4 rifle as Marksman. Since the changes have been in effect, all students have qualified as Marksman and most (60%) as Expert.

Students also spend increased training hours on special reconnaissance, a key SEAL mission area. Less emphasis is placed on the old Underwater Demolition Team reconnaissance and demolition techniques. Core SEAL mission profiles are now highlighted, including increased rehearsals with Immediate Action Drills (IADs), Over-The-Beach (OTB) scenarios and ambush techniques.

"Ultimately, we are seeking a candidate that we can entrust with the life of a fellow Frogman," said Peterson.

The physical, emotional and mental challenges young men must endure becoming a member of America's most elite maritime special operations force aren't getting any easier.

The final change in Third Phase is a new live-fire Field Training Exercise, which provides the most realistic scenario possible without entering a real-world combat situation.

But officials at the Naval Special Warfare Center hope that recent changes made at the basic schoolhouse will ultimately result in more skilled operators arriving at the SEAL teams.

The overall response from both the instructors and trainees has been extremely positive and only time will tell if the changes accomplish both goals: to improve the skills and abilities of a BUD/S graduate while graduating more trainees.