Here is what you need to take the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT): a 60-pound trap bar and plates weighing 340 pounds. A 10-pound medicine ball. Two 40-pound kettlebells. A 90-pound sled. A pull-up bar. A certified grader who has been through the week-long training course. Tape measures. Traffic cones. Marker domes. One half of a football field. A stopwatch. Total cost for the test: Unknown, but this year the Army is spending at least $40 million for the equipment alone, plus whatever it costs to train five thousand fitness instructors.
Here is what you need to take the existing Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT): a grader and a stopwatch. Total cost: $3 for the stopwatch, and about an hour.
Everyone wants a fit Army. One of the ACFT’s selling points is that it is almost impossible to get a perfect score on it, which is fine! But I don’t think any unit in history had too many soldiers scoring 300s. And even if one did, you show me a soldier who scored a perfect score on his or her APFT, and I’ll show you a soldier who looks lean and mean and is fit for a recruiting poster.
Army leadership—and it took Zen-like discipline to refrain from putting that word in quotation marks—never found a dollar it couldn’t spend badly, but even for them, the ACFT is an aggressively wasteful program. The Army isn’t allowed buy F-35 fighter jets, but so I guess replacing the APFT just because is the next best thing.
Complaining about the Army’s bewildering ability to waste good money on bad ideas is like complaining about the tides. So let’s just agree that if they weren’t going to blow a fortune on this, they’d just blow it on something else. (Hey, have they replaced the service dress uniform this week?) The real problem is that this test is going to adversely affect readiness with little meaningful benefit.
HOW the ACFT HURTS THE GUARD AND RESERVE
In particular, this test is going to be difficult-to-impossible for the guard and reserve components to execute. The Army has acknowledged this, which means they are deliberately implementing a half-baked system that affects the majority of the Army. I have written about this before, and soldiers have reached out with complaints. One well-placed source described some of the issues facing the guard and reserve, and it’s worse than I thought.
The test has to be taken on a dry grass field. No rocks. No rain. No snow. No early morning dew. Which will be great for all of the units stationed in Biosphere 2, but everyone else has to plan accordingly. Presently, on drill weekends, if it rains or snows on Saturday, you just have everyone show up at 0500 on Sunday and knock the test out. You grab a few stopwatches and you’re set.
But with the new test, unless you have immediate access to an indoor soccer field with AstroTurf (which typically need to be reserved far in advance, and can cost thousands of dollars for a half day), you need soldiers to show up now at 0-dark-thirty on Sunday to start loading up the LMTVs with sleds and plates and kettlebells, and driving them over to the test area, and unloading them, and setting up the stations. That might not seem so bad, but the numbers at the start of this article are for single stations; in practice, you’re going to need dozens of everything listed, and on the order of three thousand pounds of plates for the deadlift stations.
(Did I mention that you will need some place to store all of this stuff? Is your supply cage already overfilled? Good luck, because that gear will walk away without a lock and key.)
Then the soldiers show up and take the test, and if you don’t have enough certified graders, guess what? You are limited in how many stations you can run, and how many people can take the test at once, because there are rigid time constraints between events. In other words, you don’t lose an unexpected hour on one day of drill weekend; you lose half a day if you’re lucky.
Don’t worry! I am told that the Army has thought of this! It will build field houses in every state (this will be very inexpensive, I’m certain) where guard and reserve units can plan in advance, and take the test without having to shell out thousands of dollars to rent indoor sports facilities. Which is great, but the Texas National Guard alone has 21,000 soldiers, not counting the state’s reservists. I’m sure securing a field house slot won’t be a strain at all across the annual 24 days of drill weekend available.
WHERE DO YOU EVEN BUY A SLED?
And lest you think I am being unduly harsh toward the ACFT, understand that none of the above complaints even begins to address guard and reserve soldiers who have to take the test before attending such schools as Basic Leader Course. For one-offs, you still have to drag out all that hardware from the supply cage and reserve (and pay for) a test area with AstroTurf if you live on the planet Earth, which has weather.
But this gets to a more pressing issue with the ACFT: if you are not on active duty (where this stuff will be easily accessible), it is difficult to prepare for the test. Presently, a soldier in the guard or reserve can wake up early, knock out his or her push-ups and sit-ups, and then go for a run. Those three events alone can get a soldier in excellent physical condition. Find a pull-up bar, and now you have a soldier who can independently meet the physical fitness standards of every paratrooper of at least the last thirty years.
Those days are drawing to a close. Now, if they really want to prepare, guard and reserve soldiers must either shell out money for their own sleds, kettlebells, medicine balls, and weightlifting gear, or start paying for a gym membership. (Expensive, because Planet Fitness doesn’t have sleds.) Look, a gym membership is great! Every soldier should have one! But if the Army is going to demand that they have one, it had better be willing to pay for it.
550,000 soldiers x $40 monthly membership x 12 months x 6 years = $1,584,000,000. Plus the $40 million for equipment. Plus the expense of training trainers (forever!) at week-long schools. Plus building the field houses. Plus the gear for alternative events—stationary bikes and rowing machines, which there’s no point in even bothering to address, because by now the absurd expense of this preposterous plan is so self-evident to anyone who isn’t an Army officer that to go on is just to beat a dead horse into a fine paste.
KNEECAPPING THE GUARD
Here is how it is all going to shake out. The guard and reserve—already missing its recruitment goals—are going to lose yet more soldiers. It’s hard to think of anything more frustrating than sending them ill-prepared into an ill-conceived test, and failure means no promotions and no schools. (Older soldiers are just going to get out earlier, thanks to the blended retirement system.) And those authorized slots and dollars that were going to the guard and reserve—now not being used—are going to be given to active duty, to stay. And if you think it’s hard to get into a school right now, just wait until your authorizations are cut. Which will, of course, further demoralize the guard and reserve, leading to more soldiers who ETS, and readiness continues to deteriorate.
All that money for a smaller Army with less institutional knowledge. Or we could just stick with the $3 stopwatches, and if you want a leaner fighting force, just make 80 the minimum score per APFT event.