The Navy this month released its report on the investigation into the post-Hell Week death of Seaman Kyle Mullen during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in February 2022. Within the report, BUD/S attrition data — data that is rarely made public — was included. The data was also used to highlight the fact that attrition had spiked in the timeframe leading up to Mullen’s Class 352. This data rarely makes its way into the open press in such an authoritative format.
According to the report, the Navy SEAL community is currently comprised of approximately 3,000+ active duty SEALs, as well as 780+ Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen (SWCCs). The rest of the approximately 10,000 total people that make up Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) are active duty combat support personnel, reservists, and civilians.
Each year, according to the report, there are 888 candidates in BUD/S, including officers and enlisted, and “looks to graduate” 175. That is a prescribed goal of graduating 20% of those who start BUD/S. It also translates to an expected 80% attrition rate.
Presently, an average of 148 candidates begin each BUD/S class, and five or six classes run per year.
Where do SEAL candidates fail
The report stated that the average attrition rate and rollbacks for the entirety of BUD/S for the period studied was 68%.
Average attrition and rollbacks (in which a student might finish with a later class than the one he started) during the three weeks prior to Hell Week was 45% of the beginning class strength. Of those, an average of 29% (44 candidates) dropped on request (quit); 9% (13 candidates) were medically dropped or rolled back; 5% (eight candidates) were rolled for performance; 2% (three candidates) were dropped for performance; and less than 1% were administratively rolled or dropped.
For those candidates entering Hell Week, the average attrition rate is 21%. Of those, 15% (23 candidates) dropped on request (quit); 5% were medically rolled (seven candidates); and 1% were performance rolled (two candidates).
Finally, according to the report, the average attrition and rolls rate for all seven weeks of First Phase is 66%; for all seven weeks of Second Phase 5%; and for all seven weeks of Third Phase 3%. First Phase is the basic conditioning phase and includes the infamous Hell Week which takes place over five-and-a-half days during BUD/S’s fourth week. Second Phase focuses on combat diving and Third Phase on land warfare training.
This author has always understood 80% to be the historical BUD/S attrition rate, at least since my time in BUD/S way back in 1999-2000. In fact, our class started with approximately 110 students, and we graduated 27. Of those 27, 10 of us started with the class and finished with the same class. The other 17 were rollbacks from classes ahead of ours, and some rolled back from our class and went on to graduate with classes after ours. Still, the 20% success rate mostly seemed accurate.
However, the report states that the average attrition rate since November 1998 has been 68%. It also confirms what all BUD/S students also know, that once you make it through 1st Phase, your chances of success go way up. The attrition rates for 2nd and 3rd Phases drop significantly to 5% and 3%, respectively.
Finally, the breakdown for officer and enlisted attrition over the 5-year period studied (presumably 2017-2022, though not explicitly stated) was 39% for officers and 79% for enlisted. It seems, then, that the enlisted success rate has stayed at 20% over time, while the officer success rate has stayed nearer 60%. Again, that also tracks with this author’s experience. Most officers make it, while most enlisted do not. Our class was comprised of about 15% officers and 85%t enlisted at the start. At graduation, we had 10 officers and 17 enlisted left.
A spike in attrition during 2021-2022
The report also touches on a period of heightened attrition seen at BUD/S during 2021-2022 that started shortly after Basic Training Command, which oversees BUD/S, had a change of command in the fall of 2020. Beginning with Class 346 in January/February 2021 attrition during the first three weeks of 1st Phase began to “noticeably increase beyond historical averages,” the report states.
It adds that “attrition due to candidates dropping on request during weeks 1-3 of 1st Phase rose during 2021/2022 to 48 percent and 49 percent respectively from the historic average of 30 percent.” This heightened attrition continued throughout the course of an unnamed officer being in charge of 1st Phase, until returning to normal levels by Classes 354 and 355.
Exit interviews of those classes with heightened attrition rates showed that 91% of students who didn’t make it cited “physical limitations or a lack of motivation” as the reason for quitting and 8% cited specific injuries. The leadership of BUD/S, however, attributed the heightened attrition of Classes 350-355 to COVID-19, an increased intensity in how the curriculum was administered, including the addition of ruck runs to training, and “overly enthusiastic class leadership creating extra work at the expense of rest.” In other words, the student leaders of BUD/S classes were pressuring fellow students to drop out, and putting demands on their fellow classmates above and beyond the BUD/S curriculum.
The BUD/S leadership also attributed the higher fail rates to ‘generational differences, with candidates being physically better prepared and with higher emotional intelligence but less familiar with physical discomfort.” But that seems to this author (and former BUD/S student) to be a cop-out and a finding completely lacking in any data to back it up.
Regardless, it seems BUD/S remains as hard as ever, although slightly more students appear to be making it through these days than perhaps in the past.
Feature Image: U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)
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