The U.S. Army will conduct a congressionally mandated independent study of the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT. But for now, soldiers will continue to take the more challenging fitness assessment.
The Fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA -- a $740 billion defense policy bill that Congress approved Friday by voting to override President Donald Trump's veto -- directs the Army to stop units from administering the ACFT until an independent study can be conducted to determine its impact on certain populations in the service.
The Army authorized all soldiers in the active-duty, National Guard and Reserve force to begin taking the ACFT, a six-event assessment designed to replace the three-event Army Physical Fitness Test, on Oct. 1, 2020.
Since then, lawmakers and advocacy groups have criticized the service for launching the ACFT, arguing that it is unfair and needs more study.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told Military.com on Wednesday in a statement that Army leadership is aware that soldiers are concerned about the more challenging ACFT, adding that the service has begun working on a plan to address the directive in the NDAA.
"I understand and acknowledge the concerns from across the force regarding the implementation of the ACFT and the provisions included in the FY21 NDAA," Grinston said in a statement. "The Army is updating physical training programs and will collect more than 1 million ACFT scores to support data-informed decisions."
Since the test's Oct. 1 launch, Army officials have stressed that the scores soldiers receive will not count against them until March 2022 to give the force time to increase its fitness level. Meanwhile, fitness officials are using the scores to build a database to guide future decisions on the ACFT.
The Army has not ordered units to stop administering the ACFT. What remains unclear is whether the ACFT scores will start counting against soldiers after March 2022 -- something that could be decided by the independent study, Army officials say.
In mid-October, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., raised concerns about 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, or SWAN, in mid-November said it's unclear whether ACFT, which was designed to be gender-neutral, is fair to female soldiers, arguing 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 study participant was a 24-year-old male. In addition, the study, which the Army claims is 80% predictive, included only 16 women, all volunteers with an average age of 23, SWAN leaders said.
Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commander of the Center for Initial Military Training, which is overseeing the ACFT, said in 2019 that the Army was "seeing a difference in failure rates" between men and women taking the ACFT, but added that he was confident the scores for both men and women would improve over time.
Congress directed that the independent study examine whether 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 whether the ACFT would "affect recruitment and retention in critical support military occupational specialties of the Army, such as medical personnel," the legislation states
While it is early in the process, Grinston said in the statement that the "independent analysis being conducted will assist us in ensuring we are considering all relevant factors that could impact our soldiers and the Army."
"The goal of the test is to change the way we train to build a fit Army, and we owe it to our soldiers to get this right," he added. "We must have a ready, lethal force, and I believe that the ACFT improves our ability to do that."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.