Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Annapolis-SEAL connection

By Matthew Collins Best Defense department of professional military education Last season on National Geographic’s Fight Science, former SEAL and Naval Academy graduate Stew Smith wowed viewers by being dropped into a water tank with his hands and feet bound, and over 40lbs of weight strapped to his chest. The previous season, he shocked viewers ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

By Matthew Collins

Best Defense department of professional military education

Last season on National Geographic's Fight Science, former SEAL and Naval Academy graduate Stew Smith wowed viewers by being dropped into a water tank with his hands and feet bound, and over 40lbs of weight strapped to his chest. The previous season, he shocked viewers and a few scientists by immersing himself in an ice bath that could cause a fatal case of hypothermia in a normal human being in fifteen minutes. He sat in the water for over an hour.

By Matthew Collins

Best Defense department of professional military education

Last season on National Geographic’s Fight Science, former SEAL and Naval Academy graduate Stew Smith wowed viewers by being dropped into a water tank with his hands and feet bound, and over 40lbs of weight strapped to his chest. The previous season, he shocked viewers and a few scientists by immersing himself in an ice bath that could cause a fatal case of hypothermia in a normal human being in fifteen minutes. He sat in the water for over an hour.

As impressive as Stew’s physical feats are, one of his most impressive accomplishments, and the one he is most proud of, is his success training aspiring SEALs and other special operations personnel. Stu spent three years in charge of the SEAL program at the Naval Academy. Almost every mid Stu trained completed the notoriously punishing six month BUD/S training.

This is quite remarkable, as the SEAL community loves to tout BUD/S’s 70 percent failure rate. In the last 20 years, the number of BUD/S slots given to the Naval Academy has tripled. From time to time in its 150 year history, some have called for the service academies to be shut down. The success of the Naval Academy SEAL program raises interesting points about the value of the service academy experience.

Sparta by the bay

The SEAL program at the Naval Academy is a largely informal, four year process. The SEALs assigned to the academy run PT during plebe summer and run a voluntary morning workout program. While the officers and enlisted SEALs assigned to the Academy taught classes and mentored mids like officers from other specialties, much of the selection hinged on summer warfare school programs. Every year, these programs ran arduous and fiercely competitive screenings for these schools.

In the late 90s, aspiring SEALs used to begin the process their freshmen year by trying out for Airborne School. Around 400 midshipmen of the 4,500 person student body would try out for the 100-150 summer Airborne school slots. Next year, 200 mids would try out for the 50 slots to Navy Dive School. The aspiring SEALs knew they wanted to be one of the top 5 dive school selectees who went to U.S. Army Special Forces Combatant Dive School. The following year, they tried out for Mini-Buds, the summer program for aspiring SEALs run at Coronado that was also open to ROTC midshipmen.

By their senior year, about 60-80 mids would list SEALs as their top service selection choice. The SEAL staff would run a final fitness test, then conduct interviews, review their academic, military and athletic records, and talk to the facility, staff and athletic coaches about the candidates. 16 Mids would find out at the beginning of their last semester that they had been chosen for BUD/S. Of course, this wasn’t the end of their training.

After graduation, all SEAL selectees were temporarily assigned to the Academy, as happens with other specialties. They were assigned to the SEAL officers, who decided among themselves which selectees would go to the next BUD/S class. The top selectees were sent to the first BUD/S class after graduation. The rest would begin a Mr. Miagi style internship, where their daily activities consisted of performing menial chores and completing several grueling workouts a day.

Mids who did not get one of the BUD/S slots often continued their quest to get into the SOF community. Some became Surface Warfare Officers and went to BUD/S after their first tours. At some reunions, classes would have more SEALs than they had BUD/S slots. Others would be commissioned into the Marine Corps and enter the Marine Reconnaissance community.

The Academy SEAL program worked for two simple reasons: good preparation and a good selection process. The academy has a large pool of potential selectees in one place. They spend several years preparing for progressively more difficult training programs, giving the SEAL instructors a reasonably good idea of who could make it. When they arrive in Coronado, they are as prepared as anyone could be for the ordeal that awaits them.

Given their success at such a merciless meritocracy as BUD/S, it could be argued that the Academy gives aspiring SEAL officers the best possible environment to prepare. It is difficult to imagine an enlisted BUD/S instructor giving an officer a break because he went to the Naval Academy. A surprising number of SEAL selectees were roommates. This is unusual, considering that roommates must both be members of the same randomly assigned companies and members of the same class.

The unique environment

While the Academy’s success rate at creating SEALs is impressive, it should be put in perspective. Much of the growth in SEAL billets can be directly attributed to the growth of the SEAL community as a whole.  Dick Couch has estimated that about half of the current SEAL officers are Naval Academy grads. How Academy grads compared to their ROTC counterparts at BUD/S might be an interesting, but controversial study. But, merely completing BUD/S is not the only measure of success as a SEAL officer.

Clearly, the SEAL program does not settle the debate about the utility of service academies either. Producing a few dozen SEALs a year does not justify their huge expense. It may, however, show how the service academies’ unique environment can both attract and develop a particular kind of officer. Service academies have had similar success producing Rhodes Scholars.

Some critics, most prominently Tom, have suggested shutting down the service academies. The SEAL program suggests that would be a mistake. Aspiring SEALs benefit from a highly competitive and focused environment with like-minded classmates. They get mentorship that often continues into the fleet. While he was only assigned to the Annapolis for three years, Stew Smith is still in contact with the many of the mids he trained. It would be difficult to replicate that kind of program at a civilian college.

Service academies are not for everyone. This is not a question of ability, but temperament. No 18 year old knows exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Some, however, know they want to serve in the military and want to go to a school that will prepare them for it. Every year, a number of students at civilian colleges choose to restart their educations at the academies because they want the unique environment they offer. And if they want to become SEALs, Annapolis may be the best place to do it, especially if their roommate has similar plans.

Matthew Collins spent ten years as a Marine Officer, including a tour as the intelligence officer for  2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. His Naval Academy roommate became a SEAL.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.