The U.S. Army has a readiness problem the likes of which it has not seen since the draft, and one which threatens to undermine the entire institution. This problem is called the Army Combat Fitness Test. The ACFT was designed to improve the physical fitness levels of soldiers. Because it was so poorly planned, however, 84% of women failed it straightaway, and data is scarce as to whether things have improved. This is a big problem because failure of a graded physical fitness evaluation renders a soldier ineligible for promotion, locked out of specialized training that might otherwise improve a soldier’s acumen or skillset, and ultimately, risks seeing them kicked out of the Army entirely.
Meanwhile, military medical staff—surgeons, nurses, dentists, optometrists, general physicians—are, sources tell me, eyeing ACFT standards skeptically and planning to exit the Army as soon as possible. (Congress certainly seems to fear this possibility, according to language in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, signed into law earlier this year.) A surgeon can make a lot more money in the private sector than in a uniform. This has obvious, serious implications for military readiness, as an Army without skilled doctors is an Army in serious trouble should a new war suddenly break out.
But it gets worse, as a timeline of events will demonstrate.
In October 2019, at the start of the fiscal year, most units in the active-duty Army, National Guard, and reserve component took the old Army Physical Fitness Test. Five months later, the Army suspended all “for-record” physical fitness tests because of COVID-19. In June 2020, the Sergeant Major of the Army announced that scores from the new ACFT would not count until March 2022. Then, in October 2020, the old Army Physical Fitness Test was discontinued.
In other words, by March 2022, when the ACFT is formally and officially implemented, for many soldiers, two-and-a-half years will have elapsed between physical fitness tests! Again, what was supposed to have improved readiness has instead impaired it. Because some soldiers are eligible for two-year hitches, that means there are some soldiers in the U.S. Army who will graduate from basic training and then complete an entire enlistment without ever having to take another for-record physical fitness assessment.
Because of retention fears and massive failure rates of women, Congress ordered last year that the test be halted until the Army could demonstrate that it did not discriminate based on gender. More on that in a moment.
WHAT IS THE ACFT?
In short, the Army Combat Fitness Test consists of six events:
- Strength Dead-Lift (140-340 pounds)
- Standing Power Throw (10-pound medicine ball)
- Hand-Release Push-Ups
- Sprint-Drag-Carry (sprint, drag a 90 pound sled, and then lateral shuffle then carry two 40-pound kettlebells)
- Leg Tuck (hanging from a pull-up bar, pull yourself up and bring your knees or thighs to your elbows) or planks (2:09 to 4:20 minutes)
- 2-Mile Run (minimum: 13:30 minutes, to maximum: 21:00 minutes)
(Just for the record, I called the ACFT a looming disaster in 2018. Sometimes I hate being right.)
WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
Every so often, the Defense Department decides with utter conviction who the new enemy will be, and prepares for war against them, and then the actual enemies come along and sucker punch the United States. In 1990, the U.S. had the best army on Earth for fighting the Soviet Union, and then Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. Months before 9/11, the Pentagon was planning for space warfare, and then terrorists used boxcutters to bring down airliners on U.S. soil. When Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan, they didn’t need intercontinental ballistic missile shields; they needed horses, and used cavalry tactics not seen since the Spanish American War. Now we are preparing to fight a nice, big, old fashioned land war in China, or even on U.S. soil. Consequently, I expect we will be invading an island country in the Atlantic or slogging it out in Antarctica any day now.
But from this new defense posture was borne the need for a new physical fitness test to test for the sorts of war-fighting events a soldier might expect to perform when life imitated Red Dawn. Even in garrison, Ft. Lewis to Ft. Devens, sea to shining sea, soldiers needed to be ready. People’s Liberation Army paratroopers could fill the skies over the Statue of Liberty at a moment’s notice.
Thus the abandonment of the allegedly inferior Army Physical Fitness Test in favor of the newly-dubbed Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), whose new name is much more in fitting with an Army rebranding that began in 2001 with the black beret, led to the ill-fitting black (and quickly discontinued) Army Service Uniform, and has since yielded (sigh) “Warrior Restaurants.” (At this point I have to believe that the Marines have secretly taken control of the Army and are doing everything they can to annihilate the dignity of soldiers and drive high school grads into the loving arms of Marine Corps recruiters.)
THE ARMY COMBAT FITNESS TEST IS EXPENSIVE
You might have noticed in the above list that an awful lot of hardware is necessary for this test. (Much more is needed than that, in fact, so that multiple soldiers might take the test simultaneously.) Just so that we have some perspective on things: To do the old Army Physical Fitness Test, all a company needed was a clipboard, a pencil, and a stopwatch. Each of those items could be purchased new at the dollar store, total price: $3. (Let’s round it up to $10, though, to include the mileage on someone’s POV.) Two hours later, you would have a complete evaluation of your unit’s physical fitness levels.
I remind you of this because the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command took a good hard look at the APFT, its three-dollar price tag and the generation of hardened infantry soldiers, special operations forces, and others, and said, no. No no no this won’t do at all. What we really need (and I cannot believe I am about to type these words) to evaluate the physical fitness of soldiers is $68 million worth of equipment and a mandatory testing ground whose conditions are rarely found outside of Biosphere 2.
CHANGE FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE
To be clear: I have never once in my life seen a soldier max the old Army Physical Fitness Test and not be in superb shape. You show me a soldier with a 300 on his or her score sheet, and I’ll show you someone who is lean and mean and fit to fight.
But to be generous, perhaps TRADOC looked at soldier fitness and believed that the Army just wasn’t where it needed to be. They are probably right! But rather than cripple Army readiness with an absurd Homer-mobile of a “combat fitness” test, they could have simply raised the minimum scores of the already demonstrably effective Army Physical Fitness Test. What once was a minimum 60 in an event could have been elevated to a 70 or higher. That meeting would have looked something like this: “Hmm, this 25-year-old male only has to do forty pushups to demonstrate upper body strength. That seems low, and he is ill-equipped for the rigors of modern warfare and the gear a soldier must carry. Let’s raise the minimum to sixty-five pushups.” Total price to roll out the new test: Whatever an email message costs in electricity. Three cents?
No. Instead, the Army said that we definitely need hexagonal trap bars, pulling sleds, medicine balls, kettlebells, and 550 pounds of plates. It just makes sense! I’m surprised they didn’t mandate that soldiers flip and roll those giant tires that CrossFit gyms love so much. Scratch that—I’m not surprised at all. That would actually be a useful battlefield skill, and something that any soldier, his or her entire post under attack in sudden, full scale war, might actually need to do. LMTV tires are no joke.
This is where it gets worse. If you are in the Army Reserve or National Guard—i.e., the majority of the Army—you are just out of luck in the new physical fitness regime. You only have access to the training equipment two days per month, during drill, and Planet Fitness doesn’t stock sleds. But don’t worry, 17-year-old E-2 who makes minimum wage in your civilian job! You can purchase a complete ACFT equipment kit for $2,350. When those enemy tanks roll across Kansas corn fields, you want to be ready, don’t you?
SOLVING THE ACFT LEG TUCK
I don’t even know how to explain this without a flowchart, but I am a professional and will give it a go. Previously, the ACFT mandated a testing event called a leg tuck to determine the core strength of a soldier. The problem: 72% of women were failing it. The solution TRADOC has provided: Soldiers can perform a plank as an alternative to the leg tuck. That seems fair, but…
According to a letter sent out by the Sergeant Major of the Army: “Each Soldier will indicate which core strength test event they will do before the test begins. The reason we are keeping the Leg Tuck, and adding the Plank, is that the Leg Tuck is a better correlation to fitness requirements for Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills (WTBDs) and Soldier common tasks. By making the Plank a fully graded, alternate assessment, we are working to give Soldiers who are currently struggling with the Leg Tuck, a chance to succeed on the ACFT, while adapting their physical readiness training to the Army’s changing culture of fitness.”
So which is it? Are we designing a test to give absolute, rock solid evidence of a soldier’s fitness for modern warfare, or are we just… making things up? Because it’s a binary situation. If WTBD proficiency—things like movement under fire, evacuating casualties, and so on—is a necessary prerequisite for modern warfare (and I agree it is), then why are you yielding on leg tucks?
It’s almost like the leg tuck event is just made up, a metric and not the metric. Perhaps—it sure seems that way—that the entire ACFT is a collection of expensive, invented tests that might, yes, improve the fitness of some, but at the expense of the whole. Because while it would be nice if cooks, helicopter mechanics, paralegals, and linguists could, at a moment’s notice, graduate Ranger school, maybe—just maybe—retention with a basic level of physical fitness is more important than the ability to achieve the fetal position while hanging from a pull-up bar. The Army is losing medical doctors to this thing. I have profound respect for cav scouts, but I don’t want one performing surgery on me.
As one insider who spoke under the condition of anonymity told me last year: “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.”
CONGRESS GETS INVOLVED
Last year, Congress issued an edict to the U.S. Army to get to the bottom of the ACFT fiasco. Among other things, representatives wanted to know “the extent, if any, to which the test would adversely impact members of the Army stationed or deployed to climates or areas with conditions that make prohibitive the conduct of outdoor physical training on a frequent or sustained basis,” and “the extent, if any, to which the test would affect recruitment and retention in critical support military occupational specialties of the Army, such as medical personnel.”
Officials tasked the RAND Corporation, an independent, non-profit think tank in Washington D.C., with this endeavor. But I was curious how RAND’s experts would do this. Would they send observers to take notes from the field, or would they run statistical analyses on ACFT results thus far, or would they build their own group of non-Army test-takers, or perhaps do some combination of all this?
So I reached out to the RAND Corporation, and a spokesperson could confirm only that they are, in fact, conducting research on the Army Combat Fitness Test, but that said research was in the very early stages, and in any event, they can’t talk about it until their work is complete. Next, I reached out to the Army, who has yet to respond to my request, aside from acknowledging its receipt. (If and when they respond, I will update this story.)
There is a problem with all this. Because the ACFT is not presently mandatory per Congress, units are not taking it. But the Army is desperate for more data points to prove that the ACFT is good. (I mean they’ve got no place to go but up!) In the same letter from the Sergeant Major of the Army, he practically begged units to get with the program—to jump on the team and come on in for the big win:
“The refinements will be data driven and it’s critical we make training for, and taking the ACFT, one of our highest priorities. As of last week, only 25% of the Army had taken the test. We cannot, and should not, make final policy decisions based this limited data set.”
Congress is waiting, and the RAND study looms. The ACFT stumbles onward, while the waistlines of some soldiers expand, surgeons plan their exits, and readiness reaches a nadir: all problems invented by a test, which then claimed it could solve them.
UPDATE: Army spokesperson Matthew Leonard says, regarding the RAND study of the ACFT: “The Army asked the RAND Arroyo Center to independently review the Army’s development of the ACFT and contribute to ongoing discussions regarding its implementation. RAND began conducting the ACFT implementation study in first quarter FY21. The Army is providing all applicable training data through the Digital Training Management System (DTMS), which is the Army’s system for recording planned and completed training. All Army units will continue to train and test the ACFT and enter scoring data into DTMS. During the study period only RAND and select Army research elements will have access to DTMS data.”