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What makes 2 of the world’s toughest special-operations courses so tough, according to troops who’ve endured them

A US Army Special Forces soldier talks to members of an Iraqi SWAT team during close-quarter combat training in Iraq, July 6, 2008.

US Army

  • The US special-operations community boasts some of the toughest special-operations courses.
  • From time to time, US commandos head overseas to test their mettle at foreign special-operations schools.
  • These are two of those foreign special-operations courses known for their difficulty and realism.

As one of the world’s best commando forces, the US special-operations community boasts some of the toughest special-operations courses.

Special Forces Underwater Operations School, Ranger School, Special Forces Advanced Reconnaissance, Target Analysis, and Exploitation Techniques Course, Special Operations Combat Medic course are some of the courses and training regimes known for their difficulty and extremely high standards.

Special operators from all over the world vie for the opportunity to attend US commando courses, and every class has a few foreign students.

From time to time, US special operators also get to attend foreign schools. When they do, they experience a rather different approach to training. Some of those foreign special-operations courses are notorious for their difficulty and realism.

La Escuela Militar de Lanceros

Colombian troops rappel at La Escuela de LancerosColombian troops during a demonstration at La Escuela de Lanceros.

Colombian army

The Colombian Lancero course is one of the toughest foreign special-operations courses US commandos get to attend. Army Green Berets usually attend, but Navy SEALs and Army Rangers will occasionally go too.

“The most difficult course I am aware of is the Colombian Lancero Course. It was established in 1956 by two US Army Ranger officers on TDY [temporary duty] orders to Colombia. The Colombian wanted a course similar to our Ranger course,” Steve Balestrieri, a journalist and retired Army Special Forces warrant officer, told Insider.

Called La Escuela Militar de Lanceros in Spanish, the course is named after the Lanceros, or Lancers, who aided Simon Bolivar during Colombia’s fight for independence from Spain.

The Lancero course has been heavily influenced by the US Army. Capt. Ralph Puckett, a legendary Ranger and Medal of Honor recipient, was one of two American officers who helped establish it.

As a result, the Lancero course follows the same structure as the US Army Ranger School. To this day, there is always a US Green Beret officer who is qualified as a Lancero at the course to serve as a liaison.

The 73-day course is divided into three main phases: Adaption/Acclimatization, Irregular/Urban Warfare, and Mountain/Jungle Warfare, followed by a graduation week for candidates who make it through. Students who fail one phase must redo it.

Colombian troops rappel at La Escuela de LancerosColombian troops during a demonstration at La Escuela de Lanceros.

Colombian army

“During the Mountain/Jungle phase the Lancero students get only 2-4 hours of sleep and conduct one mission after another. They carry 70-pound rucksacks up steep mountains and have a 36-kilometer movement that Colombian students call ‘Marca de la Muerte’ or the March of Death,” added Balestrieri, who served in the 7th Special Forces Group, which is responsible for Central and South America.

The course takes place in the Andean region of west-central Colombia, and “because of the threat of actual guerrillas in the area, the students carried live ammunition on patrols,” Balestrieri said.

The few successful commandos who graduate from the course earn the Lancero badge, the design of which was influenced by US Army’s Combat Infantry Badge.

The benefit of the Lancero experience for Green Berets and other US special-operations troops is two-fold.

It gives them “valuable experience” with the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by Colombians and with Colombian culture, Balestrieri said.

For troops who will be working in the region, mainly members of the 7th Special Forces Group, “the Lancero Badge is one of the most recognized and respected courses in all of Latin America,” Balestrieri added. “It provides instant credibility when working with our foreign allies.”

Royal Thai Army Ranger School

Army Special Forces Green Beret ThailandA Green Beret assigned to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) rappels down a mountainside while attending the Royal Thai Army’s Ranger School in October 2020.

US Army/Sgt. Anthony Bryant

The Thai Ranger School is renowned for its toughness — so tough that US special operators were banned from attending it for years because of the high risk of death.

Similar to the Lanceros course, the Royal Thai Army Ranger School lasts 73 days and is broken down into five phases: mountain, forest, swamp, maritime, and urban.

Students have to finish each phase to proceed to the next and are scrutinized for their ability to lead and be part of a team. Students are graded on their performance in every position in a patrol (platoon leader, squad leader, medic, paceman, and navigator).

Army Special Forces Green Beret ThailandA Green Beret performs a combat jump with Thai troops while attending the Royal Thai Army’s Ranger School, December 26, 2020.

US Army/Sgt. Anthony Bryant

In December 2020, a Green Beret assigned to the 1st Special Forces Group was the first American service member to attend the course in more than 40 years. He not only graduated but was recognized as the distinguished graduate.

“It’s a lifetime bond here. I will always remember these guys and I will always keep in contact with them. It’s like brother-to-brother mentorship,” the Green Beret said afterward.

“As a Green Beret, we’re supposed to be masters of the basics. This course took me back to the basics. For instance, navigating off one map per platoon,” he said, contrasting that with the eight maps and GPS that Green Berets have when operating in Operational Detachment Alpha teams.

What you know and who you know

Army Special Forces GuatemalaUS Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldier briefs Guatemalan Special Forces before an exercise in Guatemala, March 3, 2020.

US Army/Spc. Aaron Schaeper

Attending foreign conventional and special-operations courses is about a lot more than training for the individual US special operator who is attending.

Special-operations operations are all about access and relationships, both of which are required for SOF units to succeed.

When Green Berets, Marine Raiders, or Navy SEALs attend a foreign course, they are expected to graduate — if not as the honor graduate then at least at the top of their class. This sends a message to their foreign classmates about the quality of the US military and special-operations community.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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