How smart do you really have to be to become a Seal or similar elite military designation?

Occasionally I have seen some television documentary style shows on the level of training required to become a Seal or similar elite military designation. It appears that practically all the washouts were broken by the demanding physical requirements, which were surprisingly (to me at least) not strength issues, but the aerobic capacity to swim and run etc. for extraordinary durations. The shows didn’t go too much into the intellectual requirements.

It seemed to me that if you were an exceptional aerobically gifted athlete with reasonable intelligence you could probably make the cut, there didn’t seem to be many people falling due to innate intelligence requirements.

Is this accurate? Was the documentary skewed, do Seals et al. also have to be unusually intelligent?


Let’s try this over in General Questions.

Moved IMHO > GQ


You can’t be truly dumb to make it into the special forces but you don’t have to be a genius either. They use the ASVAB test scores as a qualifier but I don’t really know how to translate the minimums into something that makes sense to everyone.

Minimum [ASVAB] Score of: General Science (GS) + Mechanical Comprehension (MC) + Electronics Information (EI) = 165 or Verbal Expression (VE) + Mathematical Knowledge (MK) + Mechanical Comprehension (MC) + Coding Speed (CS)=220.

I had a coworker and a friend that was a former Army Ranger and he was very smart for someone that did not have a college degree but nothing exceptional in that regard. He was pretty short and unusually strong for his size though and had a lot of determination and that is probably the key.

I have three cousins who are Army Rangers. They’re nothing special, intelligence-wise. (Not stupid, but by no means what I’d call “smart”. Tough as nails, though. Except for that PTSD thing that made my poor cousin lose his job and everything he owned, that is, and the Army didn’t help him with dick, of course.)

I had a coworker who had been a Seal in Viet Nam. Very much of a macho dare-taking type, but definitely not a genius.

My guess is you are starting with a pool of candidates that tested at a certain level on the ASVAB as stated above. Probably it is much more difficult to test physical stamina. So, the assumption is that everyone is minimally qualified for intelligence before entering and probably stand out in physical stamina. So, physical stamina is tested first. I’m willing to bet that you CAN fail out due to lack of mental ability but this would not be uncovered until much later in the training process. But, this is all a WAG.

You seem to be confused as to the requirements of the job. No one is asking them to make decisions, just risk their lives. At some point old warmongers need young gung-ho bad-asses to jump in and serve the cause. There will not be a lot of ‘academic’ wash-outs, it’s not part of the job description.

Any special forces people are going to be expected to do more than just follow orders from above. The nature of their missions means they are going to confront unexpected situations where they’ll have to be able to think for themselves.

It may be a good comparison to think of football* players, especially quarterbacks.
They have only 2 or 3 seconds to absorb a lot of information and make quick decisions, under a lot of pressure. That’s a certain type of “smart”. But it’s practical, get-the-job-done smart; not test-taking, academic-type smart. (Most of them barely manage to get passing grades in university)

Elite soldiers have to be smart—but my guess is that the best way to evaluate their intelligence is to see how they perform while they are sweating through the physical challenges of training, now how they perform when answering multiple-choice tests in a classroom.

(real football, not soccer :slight_smile: )

I knew one guy in high school who went on to become a SEAL and still is one, as far as I know. I did not know him that closely, but I played several sports with him and he was always an outstanding athlete. From what I remember of him, he was very calm, extremely focused, small but extremely strong, fairly quiet, but of a generally cheerful disposition, kind, and very religious. I do not think he had any kind of serious intellectual abilities, in an academic sense; what he did have was this unshakable sense of calm and control to him. He seemed like even if he were to be quizzed on some arcane topic of science or history which he knew nothing about, he would manage to answer it in a dignified way without losing his cool.

In the book ‘lone survivor’ the authors talked about how some high percentage (maybe 70%) of SEALs are college graduates vs about 25% for the general public. So if college graduates have an average IQ of roughly 115, then their scores may be a few points higher. Then again that may be more due to self discipline than IQ.

A couple of the most dogmatic people I’ve known have been elite soldiers. Thick as bricks.

Football has a fixed set of rules. Combat does not. So a quarterback will always be choosing plays from a relatively short list of options against a known opponent of roughly equivalent stength. And somebody taking an academic test will be working in an expected and structured environment without active opposition. So I’d say that a SEAL, who might have to deal with a situation he never even considered any possibility of confronting against an opponent of undetermined strength which might greatly outweigh his own and who is actively opposing him, is facing the greatest challenge to his intelligence.

There are four BUDS and two SWCC washouts in my unit right now, and all of them have three things in common: they are of average intelligence, they can PT and run all day long, and all of them are here because they were injured in training.

I meet the physical training requirements for BUDS training, but I cannot do what they do ALL DAY LONG. That is key. These guys are combat triathletes and can run and swim farther and longer than the average person. It is cool to watch them drop from a helicopter into the water in Glorietta Bay in Coronado, California and realize that they are going to swim a few miles and they are just beginning their day.

They do not like being referred to as “BUDS duds.”

Last I heard, the military and the VA do provide treatment for PTSD.

Yes, and it being taken much more seriously than in times past.

I know a retired Navy Seal. Young (in mid-40’s?), upper middle class lifestyle (not sure what his job is, in an office in NYC), college educated. Had some problems with alcohol and is currently suffering badly from work related arthritis (which is why he’s retired). Hell of a nice guy, if he wasn’t married with children he would be a huge catch for someone (arthritis or not).

I would like to say that IME of British Special Forces that every single soldier is of outstanding intelligence…

I really, really would like to say that…

I really would …sigh…

Smart as in…?
The calculus I learnt at 3rd year of university would stump 95% of humanity and I wasn’t a particularly good student.
An elite soldier has to be smart in the sense of absorbing lots of information while perfoming extenuating (physically and mentally) tasks and coming up with answers in a split second.
Maybe that set of mental abilities doesn’t show up that well in multiple-choice questions

How are we defining smart here? There is no requirement to sit down and discuss quantum theory but they deffinately need to be able to perform mentally while enduring the physical demands.

It may not be brain surgery but I’d call it smart to be able to plan routes through difficult terrain, plant explosives, read dive tables, coordinate artillery strikes etc after locking out of a submarine, swimming to shore and engaging in a two hour firefight. Training is not all physical. They swim 10 miles then immediately go to a classroom where they have to perform mentally as well.

You don’t know much about Special Operations aside from what you’ve seen in Hollywood movies, do you? :rolleyes:

SpecOps operators not only have to go out into the field and follow general orders like regular troops but also have to act autonomously with limited to no communications. And because SpecOps are by nature often improvised and novel situations the operators have to be able to interpret and sythesize multiple souces of intelligence, assess the known and unknown parameters, and generate plans that are both detailed and flexible, rather than drawn from a procedure manual or technical order. Most Special Operations operators have technical training in several areas (emergency medical treatment, communications, logistics, language skills, reconnissance, photographic interpretation, forward observation and fire direction, meteorolgy, et cetera) which are normally individual specialties for standard forces, in addition to being superior atheletes, excellent combat marksmen, and maintaining control under fire. Most SpecOps officers have or work toward graduate degrees of some type (history, language, international affairs, management) because it is both a part of the culture and expected for advancement, and while they may not be doing deconstructive analysis of feminist subtext in The Tempest they tend to be vociferous readers, especially in regard to world politics and international affairs. Pete Berber’s The Men, The Mission, and Me gives a general flavor for life in elite SpecOps units.

So, not smart like your cousin wtb three Ph.D.s (but still living in he parents’ basement with an obscure collection of manga) is smart, but smarter than your average bear. By the time they’ve gotten to selection for qualification they’ve already been assessed for not only functional intelligence but also academic leaning ability and motivation, so Q-courses are really about washing out those who aren’t capable of the level of fitness and physical and emotional endurance necesary to fulfill the demands of the job.