Next year, the Army Combat Fitness Test is set to officially replace the Army Physical Fitness Test. But according to an insider who was part of the test’s development going back to 2017, the whole thing is based on a lie, and the U.S. Army will lose good soldiers as a result.
“The longer we stick with this supposition that the ACFT is a predictor of combat fitness and capability, or that this is reducing or significantly decreasing musculoskeletal injuries, we are just lying to ourselves,” said an active duty field grade officer who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
WHAT IS THE ACFT?
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)
The test was developed by the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training (CIMT). Early in the process, CIMT wanted an official seal of approval that the test was sound, and approached the Operations Research/Systems Analysis (ORSA) team based out of the Studies and Analysis Division at Ft. Eustis, VA.
STUDYING THE STUDY
ORSAs are, put simply, the Army’s problem solvers and data analysts. Their job is to look hard at studies, find the flaws, and offer solutions.
“One of the validations they wanted to do was to confirm that their physical fitness test was better,” said the insider. Right away, however, obvious problems were apparent. The first issue was defining terms.
It’s not enough to say, “We want to test muscle groups so as to reduce physical injuries.” Data analysis requires specifics. Which muscle groups? Which muscles? Which tests? Which injuries?
In the case of a “combat arms muscle group,” CIMT finally defined it as a muscle group that gets used during basic combat skills and tasks. It uses your thigh muscles. It uses your core. And here are the exercises we are choosing to test it.
My source replied: “OK, great… I’m just making a general observation here, but walking uses all those muscles as well. So why not do walking as a component?”
That revealed a fundamental problem with what the CIMT were claiming. It wasn’t just about muscle groups; there was an agenda toward the exercises that they thought were beneficial.
Which is fine, as the insider explained. Analysts can work within parameters, and even if the events chosen for the ACFT are “because we said so,” that’s not a problem. Even the outgoing Army physical fitness test has some level of arbitrary choice to them.
“There’s a reason you do push-ups, sit-ups, and running. It’s not because they are the best exercises. They are just exercises.”
It was, however, an early example of CIMT attempting to use self-defined parameters as though they were derived empirically.
40%, 80%, AND OTHER MADE UP NUMBERS
Speaking of made up things, you might have heard that the Army Combat Fitness Test can capture 80% of the physical skills a soldier needs in combat, versus the paltry 40% that the Army Physical Fitness Test captures.
Here is Mark Esper, former secretary of the Army, saying those exact words.
When CIMT went to the ORSAs to ask for a seal of approval, they tried to use those numbers. The professional data analysts had some questions.
“We asked for any data to show how you how you would have come to that conclusion. They couldn’t show us anything. We asked them to please be very specific, because it’s being repeated incorrectly.”
There is a huge gap between 80% and 40%.
“You know,” my source said to the CIMT representatives, “I don’t know where you’re where you’re getting that gap, but it’s very different from performance in combat—especially when we’ve already identified walking uses 100% of the same muscles.”
CIMT then said that the Australian Army did something similar to the ACFT, and they saw a 30% reduction in musculoskeletal injuries for soldiers.
Which would have been impressive if the Australian Army’s physical fitness test did the same events as the ACFT, which it does not.
ABOUT THOSE EVENTS
Last year, the Army spent $68 million on gear for the ACFT. This year, they put out bids for another $13 million for more equipment. These numbers keep climbing—raising questions as to whether or not these investments are necessary.
“There’s no need for this equipment. If the goal is to be combat focused, then why doesn’t the test use combat elements? If you’re going to be carrying stuff, and it’s supposed to mimic the carrying of ammo cans, why not just carry ammo cans? We already paid for them! Why are we spending money on kettlebells?”
In the course of studying the ACFT, the ORSAs even found ways to improve the test without removing any of the events.
“We found a way to reduce the lanes and reduce the amount of equipment, and that reduction over a five year period was $124 million in savings while still taking the test faster.”
CIMT rejected the finding, the source argues. “They already had the money and they wanted to spend it. So they did.”
Ultimately, CIMT clarified their motives for the ACFT: They wanted to fix the “deployability” issue. Too many soldiers were ineligible to deploy, and the ACFT could weed them out.
Which is fine, said my source. If the Army wants to establish a pass/fail deployability test, that can be done if approached honestly. But claiming something was derived from hard data is not the same as deriving it from hard data. The fact remains that someone who deployed, came back, and for some reason doesn’t pass the ACFT, is still deployable. The test isn’t actually an assessment of deployability. It’s just a physical fitness test.
“It was always about reducing the number of non-deployable people, or the number of people on profile. And of course, that’s all the senior people—everybody who’s gone through, been injured, and still performs on behalf of the military and has for years.”
FAILING THE TEST
The ORSAs submitted their final report to CIMT and refused to endorse or rubber stamp the ACFT.
“They continue to just go forward with it, fully recognizing that the data did not support their assumptions. Their assumptions did not support any of their facts. And they knew up front that this would have an adverse impact, not just financially, but on the careers of tens of thousands of people who continue to deploy.”
The Army Combat Fitness Test does not measure combat fitness. It’s just a physical fitness test with a gloss of paint to sound more impressive. My source argues: “It’s a success of marketing. But it’s a lie from the ground up.”