Dave Ferreira is an active-duty Army officer with more than 10 years of service, including time in command and staff positions. He is currently assigned to the Joint Strategy and Plans Directorate of the Joint Staff.
As an Army officer who cares deeply about fitness and nutrition, I read an opinion piece by Emma Moore titled “The ACFT and the Problems with the Military's Cult of Physical Fitness” and was nearly immediately “triggered."
I thought, "How could someone be arguing that creating a healthier force, doubling down on a better total fitness regimen, and setting the foundation for the long-term health of our force be a bad thing?" Well, it turns out that she agrees that it isn’t a bad thing, and my initial response of being “triggered” was a little off.
I contacted Emma on Twitter and, to my surprise, she responded to my message. After initial pleasantries, we shared thoughts on where we agreed on aspects of her op-ed and areas where there was friction.
She absolutely is a proponent of a fit and healthy force, but disagrees that it should be the most important benchmark of readiness Army-wide. We agreed that women will face challenges with this test, particularly in combat military occupational specialties -- especially with the leg tuck exercise. We also concurred on recruiting challenges the Army faces, as the pool of able-bodied men and women is rapidly shrinking. Lastly, we agreed that this test will be challenging to manage at the unit level; however, we disagreed over some particulars as to why.
There are two areas that I want to focus on after reading her article many times and exchanging ideas with Emma.
First is the way that she characterizes lethality, or glosses over it in her op-ed. I know the article is short, but this is important. Throughout military history, you can find consensus on one thing -- that ground combat power tends to be the most significant asset to winning in conflict. Air and sea power are important, but not to the same extent. Does this mean that we will be marching thousands of troops from Winterfell to King’s Landing any time soon? Of course not, but that doesn’t change the fundamental purpose of what the Army needs to be able to do and the physical nature of it. The majority of Army MOSs are designed to directly or indirectly support the warfighter -- on the battlefield, training for it, resourcing it or recovering it. The point is that we need to be able to fight and, in my opinion, that can never be lost.
The second major area where we disagree is why the ACFT is challenging for units and what success looks like. The ACFT will be demanding at the platoon and company level because it requires more equipment, a more diligent training plan, and a level of expertise that many units just do not have. The Army is full of athletes who did Olympic-style lifts in high school and in college as part of their training programs. However, that doesn’t qualify those individuals to instruct on proper forms for complex movements such as deadlifts. The Army knows this, but Emma's idea for a Permanent Training Instructor is a bridge too far.
We have master fitness trainers in the Army, and it is a great program. Units who have them and leverage their capability tend to do well. It is the units that don’t have them, and do not prioritize the importance of getting that instruction that suffer.
The idea of permanent training instructors is drawn from allied nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Emma states, “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.”
The problem here is scale. The British Army has around 75,000 personnel, the Australian Army has 60,000, and New Zealand only 4,700. All three combined do not equal 30% of the U.S. Army, which has around 480,000 troops. Emma's ideas are well-placed, and many of them are utilized in non-standard units that are much smaller in size and managed differently based on their mission sets.
This isn’t to say that we can’t do better, but applying a solution for New Zealand's Army, which is less than the size of one U.S. brigade combat team, to the entire U.S. Army, is just not feasible.
Further, adding the fitness personnel needed for an organization this size would certainly require either an increase in end strength authorization from Congress or cutting the combat power that already resides in the force to accommodate a new MOS. Either way, readiness is harmed.
This is undoubtedly why the Master Fitness trainer was the Army's preferred route and can remain so going forward. Creating a decentralized unit PT plan to support the ACFT is not a full-time job. Where units need outside help is on recovery and nutrition -- areas that have not seen as much progress and are an entirely different debate that Emma has also written great things about. I know she uses parallels like the Rangers and Special Forces, but that model does not seem feasible for the entire force.
This discussion was a lesson in humility for me, after I originally found her op-ed borderline insulting to my profession. Emma took me to school in our initial flurry of emails and really laid out her points thoughtfully. The Army needs healthy soldiers, a healthy culture and the institutions to support it. We aren’t there yet, but creating a more comprehensive fitness test and programs associated with it is a step in the right direction.
To Emma, I say that the test should not be the only relevant element of readiness, but it cannot just be decoupled without major ramifications. So let’s figure it out!
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