A September 2022 Department of Defense (DoD) study warned that 77% of young people would not qualify for military service without a waiver. Though past drug and alcohol abuse remain factors, along with mental health concerns, the physical fitness of those in Generation Z is another issue.

Likewise, a 2021 Johns Hopkins report also found that about 56% of Americans aged 18 to 25 could be described as overweight or obese, and that number has steadily risen in the past decades. Recruits can receive a waiver, but fitness has been a serious obstacle for military recruitment – and now some military planners are saying it is time to rethink that.

In April, a U.S. Naval Institute report suggested that some warfighters may not fit the typical mold, and perhaps it is time to evaluate the fitness of those who pursue a career in cyber warfare, as well as drone operators. Today’s – and more importantly tomorrow’s – military will likely rely less on the infantry and more on unmanned vehicles doing the fighting, controlled by afar.

Rethinking Uniformity

The very idea of military uniforms was to tell friend from foe on the battlefield – to a point. A study of uniforms proves it was rarely so cut and dry, but the military has long been about literal uniformity to make everyone look and think the same.

That may have worked when armies lined up in neat rows to shoot one another, and uniformity remained true even in the wars of the 20th century. However, requiring future warfighters to reach the same fitness goals as those in the literal trenches could mean that some of the talent is turned away.

“The uniformed recruiters come from an organizational culture that may feel at odds with the culture of work the tech workers they need come from,” explained Dr. Matt Schmidt, associate professor of international affairs, national security, and political science at the University of New Haven.

“How do we bring those two styles of work and belonging together? That’s the basic idea of a uniform, or a ‘basic’ or foundational set of training that everyone in a service goes through,” Schmidt told ClearanceJobs. “The goal is to take people from a wide array of backgrounds and build a sense of belonging and mission so that they now identify and work as a single team. Whatever creates that sense of team is what has to guide these decisions.”

Different Jobs, Different Recruiting Pools?

The nature of the military has changed. As new technology has been adopted, new roles needed to be filled – and physical standards were adjusted accordingly. In the past, submarines and tanks were often crewed by shorter and smaller sailors due to the confines of the boats.

Yet, despite the differing roles, there were still general physical standards.

“Every job has requirements. And military jobs do imply some readiness for conflict as any site, even if it is remote, could come under fire,” suggested technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.

“Now do these jobs require the same training as an elite soldier like SEAL or Ranger? No, but you need to be physically fit enough so you don’t become a lethal burden to the extraction team that may have to pull you out to safety,” Enderle told ClearanceJobs.

Desk Jockeys Could Still Be Necessary to Win Future Wars

The question of whether all military personnel, particularly those involved in cybersecurity and drone operations, should have the same physical standards as those in more physically demanding roles like infantry.

“The roles of cyber warriors and drone operators are critical in modern warfare, but they require a different set of skills compared to traditional combat roles. These positions demand acute intellectual and technical abilities, such as software proficiency, analytical skills, and strategic thinking. The physical demands are not as rigorous as those required for combat troops who must endure physical hardships and perform in physically challenging environments,” said John Price, founder of cybersecurity provider SubRosa and former signals intelligence analyst in the British Army.

Price told ClearanceJobs that maintaining a baseline of physical fitness is still important for all military personnel, given the overall demands and lifestyle of military service.

“However, setting the same stringent physical standards across all roles may not be necessary and could potentially limit the recruitment pool,” he added. “By imposing the same physical standards on roles like cyber warriors or drone operators as those required for infantry, the military risks excluding highly skilled individuals who could excel in these critical areas but may not meet specific physical criteria.”

This has resulted in discussions about whether the military should adapt its requirements to better match the needs and realities of modern warfare roles. While the basic level of physical fitness should be upheld, reevaluating the specific standards required for roles predominantly characterized by intellectual and technical demands could be a strategic move.

“Tailoring fitness and entry standards to align more closely with the actual demands of each role could enable the military to tap into a broader range of talents and skills, enhancing their capabilities in areas like cybersecurity, which are increasingly vital on the modern battlefield,” said Price. “This would ensure that the military does not miss out on skilled individuals who are otherwise well-suited for these essential roles.”

The Issue of Recruiting

The question is then whether the U.S. military can successfully recruit from a different pool that otherwise wouldn’t meet the physical fitness standards. In other words, are the physical requirements a deterrent to recruiting the best?

“If it is, I think the question is as much about esprit de corps as anything else,” added Schmidt. “The problem is, if you don’t maintain the same physical standards, you will end up having two culturally different organizations inside the same service.”

“So what’s the difference between uniformed high-tech workers and DoD civilians,” questions Schmidt. “That’s the specific question that has to be answered. If the physical standards and the uniform make a difference to recruiting, or esprit de corps once in, then relax the standards. But if you can build a sense of mission and belonging that lets you recruit who you need, why force physical standards that are largely superfluous?”

Yet, there could be ongoing challenges if the standards are relaxed too greatly.

“Being in poor shape in the military would limit your advancement potential and raise questions about your ability to serve,” said Enderle, who further noted that different jobs should have different physical training requirements.

Those that are not focused on direct engagement, should still meet some requirements that ensure their survival if the situation moves beyond their onscreen duties.

“The saying ‘plan for the worst, hope for the best’ works here,” Enderle continued. “These people will be at some risk regardless of how far behind the lines they are and need to be trained with regular refresher courses to make sure they are prepared for any likely personal risk they will face and this training would be very different than that used for those in conflict with far more focus on defensive skills than offensive.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.