Do You Have to Know how to Swim to Join the Navy & Air Force? Branches for Non-Swimmers

If you’re interested in enlisting in the United States (U.S.) military you may be in the beginning stages of research and wondering about the physical fitness requirements for each respective branch-Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy.

It is well known that every branch of the military, as well as the U.S. National Guard, has fitness requirements and a physical fitness test as part of their enlistment process, basic training, and to be maintained throughout one’s military career. Furthermore, it is well known that as part of their assessment each branch of the military, at a minimum, will test one in running, push-ups/pull-ups, sit-ups/crunches, and V-Sit/Flexibility.

For most, the land-based assessment of physical fitness isn’t too bad or daunting as almost everyone has performed those exercises at some point in life. And, even if one isn’t in the greatest of shape, it is fairly easy to prepare/train for those types of exercises ahead of time (and as you go).

However, you may be wondering about physical fitness in regards to the water and whether or not you will have to swim in addition to these land-based exercises. Or, maybe you are pondering if any branches of the military do not require one to swim?

The only two branches that require swimming (not just water safety/survival) as a mandatory skill prior to enlistment, during basic training, and throughout one’s military career are the U.S.  Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. All other branches of the U.S. military, at a minimum, may include water safety/survival skills during their basic training, as part of training for other specialized jobs within their branch, and/or throughout one’s military career (depending on their specific job), but it is not mandatory for enlistment unless you are enlisting into a specialty job and/or at a higher rank within that particular branch which requires such skills. 

So, Yes! You do have to know how to swim to enlist in (join) the U.S. Navy, but not the U.S. Air Force (unless you are going in to be an Air Force Pararescue Jumper or Tactical Air Control Party).  

This article is meant to help you find out more about the swim requirements for the U.S. Navy and Air Force as well as which branches do not require swimming.   (Source A) (Source B

Does the Air Force Have a Swim Test? 

The Air Force does not have a swim test requirement for enlistment or during their 8.5-week Basic Training. However, they do teach and require one to learn basic water safety & survival skills during Basic Training (i.e. staying afloat, basic front crawl stroke, treading water, and basic water survival tips/tools for shorter durations). 

While there is not a swim test for enlistment in the U.S. Air Force or during their Basic Training, some jobs such as Pararescue Jumper and Tactical Air Control Party, do require swimming skills and as such, the training for those jobs does include swimming and one’s swimming skills will be tested after the appropriate training. 

So, if you are moving forward with basic enlistment to the U.S. Air Force there will be an assessment of basic water safety & survival skills, but no lengthy swims. However, if you decide to advance your training or are enlisting at a higher rank- especially if to be a Pararescue Jumper, Tactical Air Control Party, or any other Air Force Special Warfare designation- you will participate in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School (SERE School) which is designed to teach one to evade capture and how to survive off the land while doing so.

This specialized training school is located at the Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington (home of the SERE watercourse). It’s worth noting that The SERE School utilized by the Air Force is not the same as SERE Training for the U.S. Army which is conducted at Fort Bragg in North Carolina- they are easily confused for the same thing, but they are, in fact, not the same. 

During SERE School water safety and survival will be part of one’s training though it may occur after SERE School versus during as it is a separate course within the curriculum/training.

SERE School’s [advanced] water safety & survival includes basic survival skills (i.e. floating, using clothes for floatation devices, treading water, etc.), first aid skills tailored to an aquatic environment, protocols & best practices for communication (both land-based and aquatic-based), aquatic ecology, and equipment maintenance. This training is designed for those that have a greater potential of being in the water for long durations.  

Also, if you decide to go the Pararescue Jumper route, the U.S. Air Force conducts Parachute Water Survival training as part of their SERE School training. This training is held at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida.  (Source)

How Far Do You Have to Swim to Join the Navy? 

Because all enlisted personnel in the Navy are required to obtain 3rd Class Swimmer qualification, one will have to swim, at minimum, 50 yards when enlisting with the U.S. Navy. However, truly, exactly how far one will be required to swim for enlistment and basic training depends on the level of qualification one is trying to obtain.

The U.S. Navy is one of only two branches (the other being the U.S. Coast Guard) that require swimming as a skill for enlistment, basic training, and ongoing training/skill maintenance throughout one’s military career. 

The Navy’s basic training is 7.5 weeks (prior to COVID-19 it was 8 weeks) and you will have to pass the Navy Swim Test as all enlisted personnel must pass the 3rd Class Swimmer qualification test. Those that are commissioned officers will have their swim qualification test placement (3rd, 2nd, or 1st Class)  determined by Officer Candidacy School (OCS)– they will either need to pass the  2nd Class Swimmer and/or 1st Class Swimmer qualification test(s). 

  • The 3rd Class Swimmer qualification test is comprised of a deep water jump, 50-yard swim (any stroke is allowed), 5-minute prone float, inflating one’s pants while treading water, and inflating one’s shirt while treading water. The latter two stations for this test (inflating one’s pants and shirt) are encouraged to be accomplished while remaining clothed versus via removing one’s clothing as removing clothing while in the water could lead to hypothermia. Also, it is important to note, at this level of qualification one may take breaks from the water between skill stations (i.e. you are provided the opportunity to collect yourself and/or prepare for the next skill station –particularly helpful to those not as keen on the water/being in it). 
  • The 2nd Class Swimmer qualification is for positions within the Navy that require advanced swimming and/ or water survival skills/techniques. This test is comprised of a deep water jump, 100-yard swim with every 25 yards being a different one of the four “survival strokes” (front crawl, breaststroke, sidestroke, and elementary backstroke). It is important to note that, unlike with the 3rd Class Swimmer qualification, breaks are not allowed between Skill stations- all skill stations must be completed back to back. 
  • The 1st Class Swimmer qualification is for positions within the Navy that require elite swimming and/or water survival skills/techniques as well as for those looking to certify as a U.S. Navy Swimming Instructor. The first requirement of this test is to obtain a Lifeguard (or Life-Saving) certification through the Red Cross or YMCA. You will be required to show your proficiency of all four strokes- front crawl, breaststroke, sidestroke, and elementary backstroke-which is typically done via a 500-yard swim (basically 5 x 25-yard laps of each stroke). Additionally, this level of qualification requires a 25-yard underwater swim where you are only allowed to surface (come up for air) up to two times. 

In addition to these swimming requirements/qualifications for enlistment as well as basic & advanced training, the U.S. Navy requires one to test their swimming skills twice per year (every 6 months) with a 500-yard (450-meter) swim.

This swim test is meant to be done as fast as possible. In my research, I was not able to find any literature that stated it was a timed test – just that it is to be completed “as fast as possible”. 

Fun Fact

The Australian Navy also has swimming requirements for enlistment which are very similar to those of the U.S. Navy 3rd Class Swimmer qualification. They require one to perform a platform safety jump (3 meters), 10-meter underwater swim, 50-meter swim using “survival strokes”, and to tread water for 15 minutes. (Source A) (Source B)

What Military Branches Do Not Require Swimming?

The only two branches of the U.S. military that require all enlisted personnel to have swimming skills, not just water safety & survival skills, are the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. That means the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and U.S. Marines enlisted personnel do not require swimming skills. Though the U.S. National Guard is not identified as one of the “core” military branches, it is worth noting that they have no swimming skills requirements either. 

While the United States Air Force, Army, and Marines (as well as U.S. National Guard) personnel are not required to have (or acquire) swimming skills as part of the enlistment pre-requisites or their basic training, enlisted personnel will go through some basic water safety & survival skills training. Therefore, you will have to get in the water at some point during your training and/or a military career. 

The water safety & survival skills training and assessment intend to assure one is comfortable in & around the water and is aware of basic survival skills should their mission involve being in &/or around water. This training typically includes any or all of the following skills/techniques- a water entry from a raised platform, 25-yard swim using any one of the four “survival strokes”, underwater swim of 25-yards or less with a max number of times that you can surface for air, treading water, floating, and using clothing as a floatation device. 

So, while you may not have to swim in the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, or National Guard (unless you go into a specialty position that requires such skills) as you do in the U.S. Coast Guard or Navy, you will have to demonstrate a basic level of proficiency with basic water safety & survival skills. (Source A) (Source B) (Source C)

Melissa Frank

My passion, outside of animals, is helping people and adding value to their lives…I strive to leave the world a little better than I woke to it each day. The first part of my career, for a total of about 15 years, was spent in the public safety field as a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B and 9-1-1 Operator. In 2019 I obtained my personal trainer certification (ACE certified) as well as many group fitness certifications and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.

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