If Congress gets its way, the Army will be forced to stop administering the new Army Combat Fitness Test until an independent study looks at how the more-challenging assessment will affect recruiting and retention, as well as deployed troops taking the test in adverse conditions.
In the final version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, released Dec. 3, lawmakers are calling on the Army's most senior leadership to order units to stop administering the ACFT until the Army "receives results of a study, conducted for purposes of this section by an entity independent of the Department of Defense."
The study should examine if the ACFT 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," according to the bill.
The study should also evaluate if the ACFT would "affect recruitment and retention in critical support military occupational specialties of the Army, such as medical personnel," it states.
As of Oct. 1, the Army authorized all soldiers in the active, National Guard and Reserve force to begin taking the ACFT, a six-event assessment designed to replace the three-event Army Physical Fitness Test.
But since then, individual lawmakers and advocacy groups have criticized the Army for launching the ACFT, arguing that it needs more study.
In mid-October, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent a letter to leaders of both Senate and House Armed Services Committees calling for a study to be conducted before the Army continues the ACFT. Gillibrand and Blumenthal say the study should assess whether the test is fair to both men and women, and whether it sets unrealistic requirements for those serving in fields with few physical demands, such as medical personnel, judge advocates or cyber specialists.
The Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) issued a letter to both armed services committees in mid-November, arguing that the Army should halt the ACFT until it does a study on the assessment's potential impact on female soldiers.
SWAN argues that fewer than 50% of women passed the ACFT in the third quarter of 2020, partly due to the methodology the Army used to standardize the test, called the Baseline Soldier Physical Readiness Requirements Study. The average requirements study participant was a 24-year-old male. Additionally, the study, which the Army claims is 80% predictive, included only 16 women, all volunteers with an average age of 23, SWAN officials said.
Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commander of the Center for Initial Military Training, which is overseeing the ACFT, did say in 2019 that the Army was "seeing a difference in failure rates," between men and women taking the gender-neutral ACFT.
Hibbard added that he was confident the scores for both men and women would improve over time.
Before moving forward with the ACFT, the Army completed a year-long field test in late September 2019 that involved 63 battalions of active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers.
When contacted by Military.com, Army CIMT officials said they are not authorized to comment on the pending legislation in the fiscal 2021 NDAA.
The Army did release a statement in mid-November stressing that ACFT scores will not count until sometime in early 2022, and that "no administrative actions will be taken against current or future soldiers for not meeting ACFT standards during the data collection period over the next 12-18 months."
Both the House and Senate are expected to pass the fiscal 2021 NDAA this week, but President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the bill because it does not include a measure that would limit protections of social media companies that allow them to monitor user content and protect them from liability for content.
Since the new test's Oct. 1 launch, soldiers have been taking a slightly altered "ACFT 2.0," which still consists of six events: the maximum deadlift; standing power throw; hand-release push-ups; spring, drag and carry; leg tuck; and two-mile run. But the Army has added an alternative plank event for soldiers who struggle to perform the minimum requirement of one leg tuck.
The plank event -- which requires soldiers to perform the exercise for a minimum of two minutes -- is intended as a temporary bridging exercise to build core strength, Army officials have said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.