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What Nobody Can or Should Tell You About USAF SERE Experts

USAF SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) ”Instructors” are unique among military personnel – and not unique among special operations (SO/SOC) personnel. Much of what they do cannot be discussed publicly. So let me help you “read between the lines”.

Officially, “SERE is an elite operation in the U.S. Air Force comprised of approximately 325 airmen worldwide. The Air Force has the only specialized survival instructor career field recognized by the United States Department of Defense.” Obviously, SERE Instructors teach a variety of courses, but SERE Specialists also function as “in-theater SERE and personnel recovery (PR) subject matter experts (SME) to include Nonconventional Assisted Recovery (NAR)”. They manage development and coordination of PR operations and manage related programs including isolated personnel reports (ISOPREP), evasion plans of action (EPA), evasion charts (EVC), and PR aids. They augment the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (JPRC), Unconventional Assisted Recovery Coordination Center (UARCC), and Personnel Recovery Coordination Cell (PRCC) as well as other agencies to assist in developing theater PR infrastructure, planning CONOPS and conducting foreign internal defense (FID) and operational preparation of the environment (OPE) in support of PR. They provide direct support to Combatant Commanders and other SO groups in PR preparation, planning, execution, and adaptation. And, quietly, they teach a variety of “dark” survival, evasion, resistance, and escape courses.

USAF SERE Specialists are all trained to operate in eight geographic disciplines: Temperate, Arctic, Desert, Tropic, Coastal, Open Sea, Urban and Captivity. They specifically train to deal with friendly, denied, hostile, or sensitive areas in support of (OPE), to conduct developmental and operational testing on the use of SERE related equipment, and to perform basic, advanced, and emergency military parachuting testing and training. They are “instructors” first and foremost, but some SERE Specialists are tasked to do far more.

It takes over a year and costs the government over $60,000 to train a qualified USAF SERE Specialist (to the base “three-skill level” where they are authorized to teach SERE skills and wear their sage beret). The training includes BMT (“Basic”), SERE Specialist Screening (SSS - with a 1:6000 selection ratio and 50% pass rate), SERE Specialist Indoctrination Course, Water Survival, Non-Parachuting Course, Emergency Parachute Training, USAF Underwater Egress Training (UET), and SERE Specialist Training (SST--the formal tech school[1]) and is followed by six months of “OJT” (on-the-job training) and specialty schools (including the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP)[2] and Basic Army Airborne Course (BAC) at the Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia).

While most USAF SERE Specialists are stationed at Fairchild AFB (near Spokane, Washington), some are sent to military bases around the world to train deployed troops in survival skills and perform other specialty functions (described above). Air Force training is now collocated with the Navy and it is ultimately intended to collocate of all Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps SERE training. Thus, USAF SERE Instructors are commonly sent on temporary duty (TDY) to consult at other SERE schools such as the Navy schools in Maine and California, the Army school in Alabama, and the Marine Corp school in North Carolina. USAF SERE Instructors also teach at the Air University at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama and at bases around the world. Every USAF SERE Instructor is required to be competent to teach in any of the following areas:

                    The U.S. Military Code of Conduct (USMCC) and US Government policy for IP.

                    Global Survival (in the eight geographic disciplines and under varied circumstances)

                    SERE and PR principles and Joint Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (JTTP)

                    Physiology and psychology of survival.

                    Travel and Navigation in hazardous terrain. Basic mountaineering.

                    Water navigation and travel.

                    Intentional and emergency parachuting and parachute landing procedures.

                    Providing for personal protection (physiology) and sustenance (nutrition and edibility).

                    Emergency Communication and signaling techniques.

                    Preparing, Vectoring and Utilizing recovery assets.

                    Escape and evasion TTP (both rural & urban).

                    Apprehension avoidance (A2) and escape enhancements (E2).

                    CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, Explosive) survival skills.

                    Dive and submersion physiology.

                    Emergency evacuation procedures for injured personnel

                    Survival and Wilderness medicine (Wilderness Advanced First Aid certification).

                    PR program management

                    JPRC, UARCC and PRCC roles and missions.

                    OPE in support of PR.

                    Cultural and socio-political considerations that affect PR.

                    Special operations recovery teams and non-conventional assisted recovery mechanisms.

                    Caring for and using post-egress, recovery, and aircrew flight equipment.

                    Improvising and manufacturing clothing and equipment needed by an isolated person.

                    Courseware development and lesson planning..

                    Application of instructional methods and techniques: lecture, demonstration and performance, guided discussion, time and circumstance, and role-play.

                    Impact of international law on IP.

                    Conduct after capture concepts for war, governmental detention, and hostage environments including, but not limited to, resistance to exploitation, organization and communication, maintenance of psychological and physical health.

After completing SERE Specialist training at Fairchild AFB, SERE instructors teach survival courses for aircrew members and other troops at a high risk of capture from all branches of the military. They continue their training (which never ends) to reach the “five-level” or “Master Instructor” qualification where they may teach any of the seven different standard “survival” courses (five of which are taught at Fairchild[3], the other two courses are conducted at NAS Pensacola, FL and Eielson AFB, AK).  From these SERE Master Instructors, the Air Force is extremely vigilant in selecting and further training seven-level  SERE Experts, some for other roles including “a selected Special Forces team comprised of individuals who have proven their solid integrity, unwavering determination and absolute inner strength”. Completion of the upgrades and certifications required for “seven-level” status makes the SERE Expert ready to deploy[4]. Deployment varies greatly with unit, mission, and region, but most deployments make the SERE Expert solely responsible for monitoring Isolated Personnel Documents and/or helping coordinate personnel recovery missions in theater. These assignments include:

·         Personnel Recovery (PR) Program Managers: Enlisted member in charge of establishing, managing and maintaining Personnel Recovery capabilities for a Geographic Combatant Command. 

·         Personnel Recovery Exercise Coordinator: Enlisted member on a team responsible for testing the recovery capabilities of a theater of operations, to include sister services, down to the capabilities at the unit level.

·         Foreign Internal Defense Support: Trains coalition and partner nation military members on the fundamentals of personnel recovery as well as how to affect their own rescue.

·         Preparation of the Environment: Qualified SERE Specialists work with partner nations to establish recovery capabilities for a host nation to enable support if US citizens require assistance abroad.

·         Repatriation/Reintegration: NCOIC responsible for safeguarding and debriefing isolated personnel that have been recovered by friendly forces.

USAF SERE Masters may also be assigned to the Guardian Angel (GA) weapon system of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Missions typically undertaken by SERE Masters for GA include:

                    Extricating personnel from vehicle wreckage resulting from improvised explosive blasts;

                    SCUBA dive search for personnel swept away or blown into canals and rivers;

                    Augmenting US Navy SEAL teams or US Army Special Forces to provide embedded medical and technical rescue capabilities;

                    Inserting into active fire-fights to recover injured US Marines;

                    Providing casualty evacuation for injured local nationals;

                    Reintegrating American citizens taken hostage by enemy forces;

                    Military free-fall jump from an aircraft to injured personnel; and

                    Confined space searches through earthquake rubble.

Although GA rescue squadrons report to the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command, as the lead command, and conduct conventional rescue operations, a large proportion of GA personnel are allocated to AFSOC where they conduct special operations[5].

Details regarding general USAF SERE training is readily available on the web. However, there is another realm of SERE training that remains largely or almost entirely hidden. DoD officially acknowledges that selected military, DoD, and other sensitive government personnel (e.g. CIA) are required to complete classified “resistance” training at Fairchild. Some aspects of this training were revealed to the public as part of an article in The New Yorker[6] and subsequently through the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearings relating to torture[7]. DoD publicly rates SERE training requirements by three levels (“Level C” is for personnel at a high risk of capture and whose position, rank or seniority make them vulnerable to greater than average exploitation efforts by any captor). The general course taught at Fairchild AFB is the Evasion and Conduct after Capture Course (ECAC) (a Level-B course intended to train airmen to survive the rigors of captive isolation). The course consists of full spectrum (wartime, peacetime and hostage) captivity training in academic classes and academic role-play laboratory (ARL) training environments and culminates with a hostage resistance training laboratory (RTL). ECAC also provides academic training on evasion; personnel recovery principles; Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs); and an evasion laboratory (EL) that provides hands-on practice using evasion TTPs.

It is also publicly known that a Level-C course is taught at Fairchild, but its details are classified. And, of course, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that higher level resistance training and evasion courses might be so classified such that those aware of such cannot acknowledge (or deny) their existence. The secret world of SERE requires clearance (and need-to-know) beyond the basic requirement of a “secret” clearance required at the three-level training. Aside from the sensitive areas of “resistance, evasion, and escape”, USAF SERE Instructors debrief all military personnel (and some others) who have been held captive and assist in their return to society.

Finally, on the “dark side”, it should not be surprising that there would be highly sensitive (classified) matters relating to rescue TTPs (PR) and the broad range of Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, or Explosive (CBRNE) Survival. Some of these areas are so classified that discussion of the courses related to them is prohibited (and not every SERE Instructor is even aware of them). For the most part, it is the level-9 SERE Expert who works in those areas after completing very advanced specialized training.

USAF SERE Specialists comprise one of the most elite career designations in the US Military. As enlisted personnel, they are entrusted to treat even staff grade (General) officers to appropriate abuses in isolated hazardous environments. They teach highly classified courses for all branches of the US military, and for high-ranking civilians. They consult for a wide variety of government agencies and for foreign governments. They are arguably the most highly trained personnel in the US military and perform more varied roles than any other group in our government. Earning that beret and SERE pin is only the first and most public step – it’s impossible to say what surprises and rare opportunities may follow.


[2] “The mission of the U.S. Army Combatives Course is to train Leaders and Soldiers in close quarters Combatives in order to instill the Warrior Ethos and prepare Soldiers to close with and defeat the enemy in hand to hand combat.”

[3] The “basic courses” taught at Fairchild are Basic Combat Survival, Resistance Training, Parachute Training, Water Survival, and the Instructor Training Tech School. There is also an assignment designated as “Academic Instruction”.

[6] Mayer, Jane, "THE EXPERIMENT: The military trains people to withstand interrogation. Are those methods being misused at Guantánamo?”, See http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-experiment-3. “Most details of the program’s curriculum are classified.”









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