The ACFT and the Problems with the Military's Cult of Physical Fitness

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Capt. Lehuanani Halemano of the Hawaii Army National Guard performs hand-release push-ups during an Army Combat Fitness Test at Camp Parks in Dublin, Calif., on May 10, 2019. Halemano traveled to California to attend the ACFT training, which was intended to prepare instructors and graders for the impending 2020 roll out of the new physical readiness assessment. Photo by Spc. Amy Carle/U.S. Army National Guard
Capt. Lehuanani Halemano of the Hawaii Army National Guard performs hand-release push-ups during an Army Combat Fitness Test at Camp Parks in Dublin, Calif., on May 10, 2019. Halemano traveled to California to attend the ACFT training, which was intended to prepare instructors and graders for the impending 2020 roll out of the new physical readiness assessment. Photo by Spc. Amy Carle/U.S. Army National Guard

Emma Moore is a Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

A new hurdle for U.S. Army recruitment and retention is coming in the form of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), scheduled to become the Army's physical test by October 2020. In the pursuit of combat readiness, the Army has increased barriers to service at the same time it promotes more targeted talent management and attempts to broaden its recruiting base. This tension shows the dissonance between remaining a force that values and emphasizes physical fitness and working to welcome a wider range of skill sets. Ultimately, such an endeavor may harm readiness.

Physical fitness is an outdated measure of readiness for the majority of Army jobs, yet the Army has doubled down on emphasizing just that. The Army should be deemphasizing fitness as the cornerstone of every soldier's identity and instead focusing on testing relevant to specific job categories. The need to broaden the recruiting pool to meet the increasingly technical realities of war runs counter to the endless pursuit of fitness as a measure of readiness.

The Goals of the ACFT

The product of six years of research by the Army's Center for Initial Military Training (CIMT), the ACFT will replace the existing three-event Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) that has been the standard for decades and aims to improve Army fitness culture and physical readiness. Testing standards are age- and gender-neutral, which normalizes female physical capabilities and recognizes that combat situations do not discriminate. Luckily, the ACFT is not MOS-neutral, recognizing differing job-category demands, which fall into three difficulty categories: moderate, significant, and heavy. While physical training and assessments should be restructured to meet the demands of modern conflict, in this case the Army should be implementing MOS-specific testing rather than a new Army-wide fitness test.

Lethality at the Forefront

The ACFT comes in the wake of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis' push for a more "lethal" force and the Army's attempt to take a harder stance on obesity and fitness. The director of CIMT has said the ACFT is a change "in the right direction for the betterment of the Army and the soldiers" that "assesses your ability to be a soldier." Attitudes about the importance of the ACFT regardless of budgetary, logistical, or Reserve hurdles indicate the Army is staying focused on physical capability as the premier component of readiness for the warfighting mission.

Physical fitness is and should remain an important aspect of military culture, bearing, and standards. However, it should not be the ultimate mark of a good soldier. The best soldier in a situation may not be the most fit soldier; cultural bias favoring fitness over other skills is short-sighted. Because the Army is still organized around valuing and promoting physically fit soldiers, the implementation of the ACFT risks losing diversity of expertise in favor of uniformity of exercise.

A Research-Based Approach

A popular argument in support of the ACFT cites its basis in research. Army leaders and ACFT defenders have all argued that the basis in research better assesses soldiers' capabilities and will prevent musculoskeletal injury, the most common injury in the military. Research behind the ACFT was developed and promoted by the Center for Initial Military Training (CIMT), which sits under Army Training and Doctrine Command. CIMT oversees Army basic training with the end goal to develop "disciplined, fit, combat-ready Soldiers who increase Army readiness." In short, the center focused on fitness and combat developed a test focused on combat capabilities.

What is surprising is that the Army's premier physical and medical research lab, the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), did not develop the ACFT. Instead, CIMT claims it "validated specific physical fitness test events that measure all components of fitness relative to the physical requirements of combat" and references work by USARIEM on back pain and load-bearing occupational tasks as well as physical demands of combat arms jobs. Of note, USARIEM examines exercise physiology and environmental medicine, conducting "essential medical research focused on optimizing servicemen and women's health and performance during training and on the battlefield." It has been responsible for enhancing soldier performance and connecting body armor fit to performance. USARIEM developed the Army's pre-enlistment and pre-commissioning test, the Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT), which assesses potential recruits.

A Gender-Neutral Test

Gender-neutral currently means men and women are held to the same standard. If the Army is serious about increasing diversity across the force, something multiple leaders have mentioned, it has to define gender-neutral not simply as equal-opportunity, but also as unbiased in statistically significant ways. The ACFT has not been proven to be gender-neutral.

The opening of combat positions to anyone who could meet requirements was premised on tests being equally fair in assessing men and women. ACFT test-score averages show a huge disparity in scoring outcomes between male and female soldiers, though men and women passed at similar rates across other exercises. Preliminary testing data published on the Facebook page Army WTF! Moments showed an overall 84% fail rate for women and 30% fail rate for men, largely due to one exercise--the leg tuck, which 72% of women failed, compared with 14% of men. Men and women are passing all other events at similar rates.

Some have argued that the leg tuck is designed to be an abdominal exercise. The ACFT Field Testing Manual asserts the leg tuck "assesses grip strength, shoulder adduction and flexion, elbow flexion, and trunk and hip flexion." Clearly, the leg tuck also targets upper-body and grip strength. Differences in upper-body strength between men and women have been much debated, and while women have proven themselves in this category, they tend to struggle more. While the minimum standard is one successful leg tuck, CIMT has said that with training from basic training through AIT, men went from an average 5 to 7 leg tucks and women went from zero to one. Even with training, the discrepancy remains. This specific event puts an excess burden on women to train specifically for this exercise, rather than being evaluated for overall physical fitness. Including this event communicates to women that they are less likely to be successful in a military career, especially over time.

The ACFT's Effect on Retention

It costs less to keep a trained individual than to recruit and train a new one. The ACFT runs counter to strong retention bolstering 2018 recruitment numbers and Army Human Resource Command's talent management initiative "right soldier, right place, right time." The value of senior NCOs and officers is not just in their physical capability, but their ability to synthesize information and command. For all soldiers balancing family, command, and personal fitness is incredibly time-consuming.

The Army has always stressed "physical fitness is a personal responsibility" and "PT time is sacred." The increased technicality of the ACFT make it harder to train for, regardless of ability.

While the goal of the ACFT is to revolutionize Army fitness culture, there is incredible variation in fitness guidance, oversight, and support from unit to unit. Army leadership continues to stress that "All soldiers who have not trained, who have not practiced specific exercises to develop core strength and minimal upper body strength, will have challenges initially." The Army does not seem to have any substantial plan to train and prepare soldiers beyond updating the PRT manual. Targeted training will be critical given the increased technicality of the six events. Should the Army be serious about revolutionizing fitness, it has to make Physical Fitness Instructors a full-time MOS and implement them on a broader scale throughout the Army.

Female soldiers and those in non-combat arms fields will feel the change most acutely. Army leadership lacks gender diversity, in large part due to internal promotion preference for combat arms jobs, which female soldiers were previously barred from obtaining. Retaining women through the ranks is critical, and changes under the ACFT could be a factor if women "self-select" out of service. Ash Carter, in his decision to open all jobs to women, noted it is "important to address the challenge of maintaining viable career paths for women in fields where physical performance is often not only a baseline entry requirement, but also a differentiating factor for promoting leaders." The ACFT will be a differentiating factor and female soldiers may not progress on par with male soldiers and rise through the ranks under current ACFT guidelines.

The Bottom Line

There is huge dissonance between who the Army is trying to attract and retain and the implementation of the ACFT. The test doubles down on the perspective that "the Army is comprised of warrior-athletes," with some notable shortcomings. Instituting a combat-focused test force-wide does not make sense for the modern era. The Army should consider how essential soldiering is defined Army-wide and soldiers should be measured against job-specific standards.

A commitment to monitoring, assessing and adjusting physical fitness requirements is critical for readiness, but readiness itself should be assessed and adjusted in accordance with long-term strategic goals and changing warfare. If the Army really wants to make good on modernization promises, talent management, and remaining a competitive force, it has to ask hard questions. Despite the money and time invested into the ACFT, Army leadership needs to think of long-term success beyond the current lethality trend.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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