I’ve seen PFCs run a latrine cleaning detail with greater care and deliberation than appears to be shown in the implementation of the Army Combat Fitness Test. The Army has taken more than $68 million in tax dollars (for new hardware alone) and implemented a test that units are refusing to take, that’s making medical battalions brace for a mass exodus once it is enforced, and Congress put a stop to until someone figures out what the heck is going on. Worse, the Army has gone silent on the issue when asked questions about the ACFT’s implementation.
STATISTICS: ARMY COMBAT FITNESS TEST BROKEN
After publishing my last critique of the Army Combat Fitness Test, I received a lot of heat on social media from readers who felt like I was being “unfair” to the Army for listing all those facts and concrete failures in a single place. For example: 84% of women failed the ACFT? Well clearly women are to blame, they said—it couldn’t be the test!
FACT CHECK: It was the test. Dr. Kyle Novak, during his time as a science and technology congressional fellow in the U.S. Senate, wrote a searing report evaluating the baselines used to develop the ACFT:
According to data from the Army’s own study, leg tucks are not predictive at all of actual, regular, and recurring duties. Indeed, using leg tucks as a criterion creates an unfair adverse impact… Moreover, the ACFT may undermine military readiness. In moving from the original Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) to the ACFT, the Army has made their fitness test of record 20 times easier for young male recruits and 1.3 times easier for young female recruits. At the same time, the test is more difficult for older female soldiers, precisely those who are already disproportionately underrepresented in senior leadership positions… And, in demonstrating predictive accuracy of the ACFT, the Army used only 136 male soldiers and a mere 16 female soldiers, all volunteers with an average age of 24 years, to represent the entire Army.
The Army has since confirmed my assertion that the test is broken and biased. In the ACFT 3.0, the leg tuck has been made an optional event. More on that in a moment.
Even after years of tweaking the test, training soldiers specifically for it, spending tens of millions of dollars on new gear and wasting countless hours and entire drill weekends on it… 44% of women are still failing the test! Worse—and this one shocks even me, who has been warning about this test since 2018—the latest figures leaked to Military.com reveal that of 106,000 tests taken since October, only 66 women have managed to score higher than 500 points (the maximum score is 600). This means elite schools are virtually closed off to the entire gender. For comparison, 31,978 men scored above 500.
WHAT IS THE ARMY COMBAT FITNESS TEST
If you are new to this catastrophe, here is a primer on the Army Combat Fitness Test and what has gone wrong so far. The ACFT is the Army’s replacement for the Army Physical Fitness Test, which for 40 years served as the fitness backbone of the most powerful Army in the world. The ACFT, the Army declared, was gender neutral and more representative of the battlefield of tomorrow.
The 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)
The ACFT was born of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, though whether the Army asked for it (most likely), or whether Congress decided willy-nilly to meddle in military minutia, remains unclear. Regardless, everything that happened after that has been a disaster, from the seeming lack of understanding of basic human physiology, to the supposed real world combat situations the Army claims the test will prepare soldiers for, to the baseline measurements of said success. This thing was born troubled, and it hasn’t improved with age.
A FLAWED SAMPLE, AND A WEDGE BETWEEN ACTIVE DUTY AND RESERVISTS
The failure of the ACFT’s masterminds to get a representative sample of soldiers during its development is stunning. From the same report quoted above:
Perhaps the most egregious data problem for a study on developing a gender-neutral predictor model is that the data is not representative of all soldiers in the Army… The underrepresentation of women during the development of the model was so significant that the Army researchers stated: “following an external review by the University of Iowa, Virtual Soldier Research Center, reviewers suggested we bootstrap additional women… to provide a more balanced model…” Bootstrapping is a technique where data is resampled from already counted data. In effect the researchers simply copy/pasted already overly underrepresented women, virtually cloning an extra 92 women from the original 49. Unlike in electronic music, resampling will not create anything fresh. Even worse, the version of the [Baseline Soldier Physical Readiness Requirements Study] model that the Army touts as having an 80 percent ability to predict… performance was developed using data from a mere 16 women out of 152 total participants.
Yes, you read that right. And not just 16 out of 152, but 16 young volunteers.
Bad design and worse implementation means a test designed to increase soldier readiness will now do just the opposite. Because of the test’s fitful start, then its temporary delay by COVID, and then its total halt by Congress, years will have elapsed before some soldiers take another for-record physical fitness test. Those soldiers with two-year contracts, in fact, will have graduated from basic training and then served an entire enlistment without ever taking a for-record physical readiness test with their units.
One awful side-effect of the test’s troubled implementation has been the giant wedge shoved between active-duty soldiers, who have full access to the test training gear, and reservists, who do not. In short, active Army is doing well enough, reportedly, on the test, and cannot understand why the guard and reserve are lagging. But as reservists explain: lacking the necessary equipment on a daily basis, they literally cannot train for the ACFT, and half the time, they cannot even take the test on drill weekend because of weather. Consequently, they are ineligible for schools, promotions, and specialized training—each of which require a passing physical fitness test before a soldier can get in. When war breaks out, the majority of the Army will be poorly trained, lower ranked, in worse relative shape, and demoralized.
Army Training and Doctrine Command Gets Its Say
Over a million readers have read my takes on the ACFT fiasco, and I thought it was time to throw a bone to the haters on social media, and have the Army give its side of the story. So ClearanceJobs reached out to the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and to my surprise, they responded favorably, asking for the questions I had. I sent them the following, reprinted in their entirety:
- What guidance is being given to guard and reserve soldiers to help them train for the ACFT given a lack of regular access to equipment and facilities?
- What is the cost differential between the APFT and the ACFT?
- What are the metrics for success or failure of version 3 of the ACFT?
- What does current data from the ACFT reveal about guard/reserve pass rates versus active duty? How do they compare to APFT data? How do failure rates for women in the guard and reserve compare with women on active duty?
- Veterans have higher obesity and hypertension than the civilian population. What research has gone specifically into the ACFT as it relates to veterans transitioning into the civilian world and maintaining their physical fitness?
Listed below are the answers we received, verbatim:
- [cricket cricket cricket]
Not one syllable. Not an email, phone call, tweet, or fax. Once TRADOC received my questions, they stopped returning our messages. We asked again, and nothing. Not even a courtesy “We don’t have a comment at present time,” or a canned response like: “Thank you for reaching out. The ACFT was designed to make every Soldier a Super Solder. Hooah! Check out our new uniforms at goarmy.com.”
Look, TRADOC knows who I am. (We know where our traffic comes from.) Our coverage of the ACFT has repeatedly gone viral and made national headlines. This was their moment—we were going to run their answers verbatim!—and they shrunk from the challenge.
You’ll note that none of these questions are all that difficult or scary. In fact, these were Day 1 fundamental questions that an organization responsible for 480,000 active duty soldiers, and 524,000 members of the Guard and reserve, and a $178 billion budget, should be able to answer reflexively. If you are going to put a soldier in harm’s way on the battlefield, the Army owes them answers. This is a supposed “combat fitness” test after all.
Good stewards of your tax dollars would have done the trade studies, considered their decisions, balanced the checkbook, and most importantly, figured out if it would work before rolling the test out. And to go radio silent now? That is unacceptable. Army leadership has a moral, intellectual, and patriotic duty to stand before the American taxpayer and say: “This test costs X more, but the benefits are A, B, and C and in the long term that saves Y.” Or: “The majority of soldiers do not have access to the hardware necessary to prepare for this test. Our plan to solve that by doing X, Y, and Z.”
SOMEONE WHO DID RESPOND
When the Army didn’t respond, I reached out to Dr. Novak, who wrote the report referenced above. If you haven’t read it and are interested in his study, I encourage you to check it out. It is a shocking read. But I was curious whether the changes to the ACFT with TRADOC’s ballyhooed “ACFT 3.0” might have addressed the conclusions drawn in his report, and might perhaps have put the Army on a pathway to success. Dr. Novak, a scholar and subject matter expert, was unambiguous in his response:
“It doesn’t change any of the conclusions,” he said. “I’m glad to see that the Army is attempting to fix a flawed test, but the changes are band-aid fixes.” He explained that the 2015 NDAA states that the gender-neutral standards must “accurately predict performance of actual, regular, and recurring duties” and must “be applied equitably.”
He explained: “The Army has never demonstrated that the ACFT is predictive, and making changes to it now further undermines their argument. The plank is an entirely different exercise from the leg tuck.” Moreover, he says, the study that developed the predictive model for the ACFT never even included the plank!
The ACFT, he went on to say, even with its 3.0 changes, still penalizes older soldiers while, simultaneously, setting the bar too low for recruits.
“Furthermore,” he said, “the test is complicated, and those soldiers who can train specifically for the test are at an advantage to those who do not have access to the equipment.”
He is calling for the Army to make anonymized data readily available to researchers and others who could provide oversight.
SOLDIERS GET THEIR SAY ON THE ARMY COMBAT FITNESS TEST
Though I took a lot of heat rounds in the cesspool of social media, my email inbox has been very supportive of my work, with soldiers sharing their stories. Since the Army failed to have their say, here is a representative sample of what soldiers and vets have written to me about the ACFT:
One soldier tells me that my reporting is banned from the biggest private Army Combat Fitness Test group on Facebook: “On that FB page, the [active duty] are all like ‘what’s the problem’ and guard/reserve is like ‘we can’t do this’. Never seen such a disparity between the components.”
Another writes: “Stopwatch, paper, pencil= $10.00 has worked. Maybe needs some tweaks like you suggested, but $2300.00 for a set of equipment??? Just who is making money off this hair-brained scheme… Follow the money… Thank you, keep up the good work.”
Another describes how bad it was when the test was first ordered [emphasis mine]: “You are spot on with the equipment requirements and cost. You are spot on with the reserves and National Guard slant. When this first came out, the National Guard Senior Enlisted Leader told everyone to improvise—use cinder blocks and MRE cases and other items as substitutes for the actual equipment needed to train and pass. And with geographic dispersion of units and people, and limited availability of official equipment, it just sets people up to fail—meaning it will cost them their professional development, their promotions, possibly their career, and affect their family’s financial and medical situation.”
The ACFT allows alternate events for soldiers on a medical profile. I’m not sure how a test designed for combat realism can really justify allowing a stationary bike, but hey: it’s about as likely to be used in combat as a leg tuck: “I got a good long list of permanent profiles for ACFT in my formation… My profile says I can… Ride the ergonomic bike. That’s it. I figure if they want to MEB me for it and retire me, I’m all good. I’m a reservist and I wouldn’t mind a medical retirement at my pay grade and years (30). Diagnostic ACFT is planned for every drill. It takes 4-5 hours, but the administrators have to be on the field an hour earlier for set up. I got my guys for 16 hours on a drill weekend….”
Another vet writes to me about the alternate events: “If you cannot run 2 miles into combat because of a profile, you can bike, row, or swim into combat… but no walk? no ruck march? I’ve been walking as an alternate event for over 10 years with no required equipment except a good set of shoes… now I have to get equipment: either a bike or row machine OR a swimming pool. I kept in very good shape walking… now I have to dance, then probably bike I guess.”
Lastly, a reservist female in a non-combat MOS who recently graduated basic and AIT commented: “I understand the reason of the change to the ACFT. The exercises are more similar to real applications that soldiers would need to execute in combat. The gender neutrality because it you may need your fellow soldier to drag your wounded ass out of battle regardless of their age or gender. But the problem is that except for running and pushups, current PT does NOT TRAIN/HELP YOU PASS THE ACFT AT ALL. A lot of BCT cycles only do the test 1-2 times. During my 4+ months of AIT, ACFT equipment was taken out during PT for us to practice with exactly ONCE. If you’re going to force this test on us is it too much to ask that you prepare us for it?”
HOW DID IT ALL GO SO WRONG?
It didn’t have to be like this. I asked Dr. Novak how the rollout was bungled so thoroughly. He said, “Determining fitness test events that are proxies for real soldier tasks is a good idea. But it’s also challenging. The Army has spent years trying to find a magic formula without much success. Even the initial studies that the Army conducted in developing the ACFT, by and large, found little correlation.”
He explained that the Army used a data-driven approach when developing the Army Combat Fitness Test, but that for such an approach to work properly, they needed to collect a lot of data on a statistically representative population and needed a diverse set of stakeholders to question the assumptions and limitations of the model continually.
“The Army had an extremely small sample size (and a ridiculously small sample size of women),” he said. “Because Army senior leaders simply do not have deep enough statistical literacy to question the limitations of such a model, the Army should better empower its analysts and researchers to call out bullshit.”
A Congressional mandate has led the RAND Corporation, an independent, non-profit think tank in Washington D.C., to determine “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.”
ClearanceJobs will continue following the ACFT as events unfold.