A well-placed source connected to the Army Combat Fitness Test tells me that progress on the ACFT—the intended replacement for the Army Physical Fitness Test—is going just as badly as I reported previously here and here and here at ClearanceJobs.

The so-called “combat fitness” test was designed allegedly to simulate the real combat situations soldiers might face. It must be taken on perfectly dry ground with the grade and manicure of a golf course, no rain, no snow, no rocks, no dew, no pits, no obstructions. Because nothing simulates a combat zone like the #3 fairway at Pebble Beach.

Who does the Army think we’re going to war against? New Zealand? Is the Army preparing to storm the beaches of the Bahamas? Well, not the beaches. Can’t take the test on sand. More inland, maybe. Perhaps we are about to invade the lush lawns at the Sandals resort and spa.

THE NAME “COMBAT FITNESS” OBSCURES THE REAL ISSUE

The last time I wrote about the Army Combat Fitness Test, I reported that 84% of women have failed it, which is evidence that the test is poorly designed. Afterward, I received hundreds of messages (literally) sniping that “if women can’t pass the combat fitness test, they don’t belong in combat.” That is a specious argument.

Here is what you need to know about the combat fitness test: It’s all made up. It doesn’t measure combat fitness. It measures physical fitness—just like the previous test—using using different events. It has nothing to do with combat. It does not derive from some time-honored training ritual going back to ancient Sparta. The 101st Airborne wasn’t running through the ACFT before jumping into Bastogne. No: a couple of years ago, a few officers were tasked with modifying the Army Physical Fitness Test, and while they were at it, they decided to rename it. Why? Because they could. Because it would look great in their promotion packets. And that’s it!

But by changing the name, they muddied the water. You fail the Army Physical Fitness Test, and hey, try harder and you’ll pass it next month. You fail the Army Combat Fitness Test, and suddenly you have know-nothing, never-served, armchair experts on Twitter lamenting that women don’t belong in combat—the same combat where women spent the last two decades serving honorably during the War on Terror.

The name is typical Army hooah nonsense. It is the black beret fiasco in cardio form.

“Here’s the key,” according to an insider who spoke under the condition of anonymity: “This test was made up out of thin air. There is no ‘raising’ or ‘lowering’ of standards because this test is not a standard. It is a made up, make-believe set of criteria that never been used before to determine the combat fitness of any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. It’s totally made up. And so we don’t know if this truly measures combat fitness. What we do know is the Army Physical Fitness Test has been used for the last 30 years, and we have put hundreds of thousands of people into combat successfully based on it. The [new] ACFT is a made up set of exercises and repetitions that has absolutely no basis in a real life combat experience because it’s never been required before.”

ENTER THE CORONAVIRUS

I’ve been told that ACFT testing equipment is still being rolled out to units across the country. Most active duty units have their hardware already, but the National Guard is, by and large, still waiting. (A good number of reserve units do have their equipment now, which is a sliver of good news, since the taxpayer has already spent between $40 million and $68 million, on it.)

But there’s a problem, and it’s turning into a train wreck. Before a unit can give its soldiers a test, its graders must be certified by a master trainer. The school for graders is pretty short. The school for master trainers is quite long, relatively speaking: two weeks. (I have yet to see any dollar figures attached to this mandatory training; it’s certainly not included in the equipment costs.)

Because the coronavirus and COVID-19 have the nation shut down, as of two weeks ago, nobody is able to attend the master trainer school. Which means graders are in short supply, even for units that have the equipment. Which means there’s going to be a huge backlog for personnel authorized to give a physical fitness test—the foundational test of the U.S. Army—and that backlog is increasing by the week.

Moreover—and this is big—unlike active duty soldiers, who already have access to all the hardware, facilities, and trainers necessary to succeed at this test, National Guard and reservists were told to join a gym to train for the test. (On their own dime, of course, because most privates have $40/month lying around to cover the Army’s lack of preparedness.) But in my home state of Louisiana, for example, all gyms are closed until at least April 12 (with an option to expand the shelter-in-place order).

So good luck training for a test that requires thousands of dollars’ worth of hardware.

That is particularly frustrating because here on the Gulf Coast, we are used to these sorts of crises. There are hurricanes every year, and places like gyms close down every time, and that’s a bummer if you want to use the weights or machines, but it never once slowed down anyone’s basic readiness to take the APFT. You do you sit-ups and push-ups in your home, and then go for a nice long run. Total equipment necessary to reach your fullest potential: a $9 Timex watch. The same holds true for the pandemic. Keep a six-foot distance and hit the running trails. With the ACFT, however, if one gear stops, the entire machine shuts down.

CAGE MATCH

And let’s not forget yet another challenge that soldiers in the National Guard and reserve face: getting access to the ACFT supplies that have been issued. See, this gear is expensive: about $2000 per lane, and its densely packed in locked supply cages. (The cages are locked because supply sergeants are personally, financially responsible for every atom of gear. The packing is dense because cages are small and the required gear fills an entire LMTV.) Supply sergeants aren’t issuing this gear for soldiers to take home because soldiers are excellent at forgetting to return said gear, meaning the unit can’t open every lane on test days. In addition, with each piece of issued gear, hand receipts must be written, one after the other, and it only takes one lost hand receipt for some poor E-6 to be out hundreds of dollars. Locking up the gear is self-preservation.

Now—and this advice was so stunning that I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t been confirmed—to train for such events as the sprint-drag-carry, which requires two forty-pound kettlebells to practice (each retailing for about $75), soldiers tell me: “We were told, well, to simulate that you can just take two cans of paint and you can act like they’re your kettlebells going back and forth.”

The greatest Army in the world with the largest budget by orders of magnitude is reduced to training as though it were a banana republic insurgency.

WINTER IS COMING

But it gets worse. Assuming the self-quarantine and forced shelter-in-place orders expire by autumn, National Guard and reserve units located in the northern United States (and particularly the northeast) will be unable to take the ACFT because 1. It snows in the north, if you’ve not heard, and 2. covered testing facilities have not yet been built. Which means units are now planning for the very real likelihood of being unable to test their soldiers from October 2020 through March 2021, and possibly spilling into 2022. This isn’t “part-timerz suck! Aktiv dooty rulez!” as I read too frequently when reporting previously on this. Rather, this is the U.S. Army being unprepared for a problem that everyone saw coming, and in their short sightedness, punishing the National Guard and reserve, which makes up the majority of the Army.

This shuts down promotions, renders soldiers ineligible to attend schools, and absolutely kills retention, because who wants to remain a PFC for their entire enlistment?

National Guard and reserve units are required to administer at least one diagnostic ACFT in fiscal year 2020, which ends in just over six months. I have been told that no one has done so yet. Why? The likely decrease in retention rates that would follow—and particularly the retention rates of women, who are being set up to fail. But here’s the kicker: without those diagnostic tests, Mother Green will lack the data necessary to “fix” the test before it is officially active on October 1. With the coronavirus lockdown, don’t look for the Guard to get their tests in on time.

I have reached out to the Army National Guard for comment, and will update this story when I hear back.

HARD TIMES, HARD FIGURES

But, you scoff: What about the hard statistics? What do they say about the ACFT pass/fail rates.

Nobody knows! Aside from the leaked slide we reported on last time that revealed dismal test results, nobody is saying anything.

“The Army is very tight lipped about all this,” says a source in a leadership position at an ACFT test battalion. “The only communications that we’re getting is the occasional unicorn that maxes or gets close to maxing out the test, and we get the story—you can see them online—about people who’ve had cancer who pass the test, or, you know, have had their the kidneys or limbs removed—but that’s the only kind of feedback we’re getting. These sensationalized type stories. We haven’t really gotten any feedback at all about how much equipment is out there, how many folks are trained—nothing about the money at all, aside from the $68 million hardware buy.”

Last week the U.S. Army announced it is suspending implementation of the ACFT indefinitely, in response to widespread gym closures.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.