President Joe Biden's nominee to be the next secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth, told senators at her confirmation hearing Thursday she is concerned about the force's new fitness test and whether it will push a significant number of women out of the service.
"I have concerns on the implications of the test for our ability to continue to retain women," said Wormuth, who would be the first woman to serve in the role if confirmed.
She said the Army needs a good measure of fitness, but strict fitness standards across the board could shrink the service's talent pool for critical jobs that do not demand athletic ability, such as cyberwarfare roles.
"I do think it's important for the Army to have a fitness test that tests the kinds of combat skills soldiers will need to have and to prevent injuries," she told lawmakers. "But we want to make sure we aren't incorrectly penalizing anyone. The plank is a good example of adapting."
The service added the option of performing a plank in lieu of leg tucks, which has slightly increased the pass rate for women, according to preliminary Army data.
Top brass told lawmakers at a separate hearing Wednesday that early data on women struggling with the Army's Combat Fitness test, or ACFT, is "troubling," adding that the force will reevaluate the test when a formal study is complete.
Military.com earlier this week reported internal Army figures showing that nearly 44% of women have failed the ACFT, compared to just 7% of men, a damning figure as the service struggles to improve physical fitness standards without hindering women from serving.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., cited the Military.com report at a Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee hearing to Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, asking him whether he found the data concerning.
"We fully acknowledge that the initial limitation of the test did show that there was a large disparity, one of which was a little bit troubling between genders, and then we will continue to assess," Brito said.
The Army is urging as many soldiers as possible to take the test and add their results to a massive data collection effort. Based on that data, leaders may make adjustments to the test, which could range from new exercises to potentially implementing gender-specific standards.
The data is being analyzed by Rand Corp. for a final report to the Defense Department on how the test impacts different demographics in the Army.
"We are patiently awaiting the results of the Rand study. … I would like to mention that we are asking units to put data into the system," Brito said. "We will continue to do that into 2022, likely, and fully take the measurements of the Rand study."
Gillibrand, who chairs the personnel subcommittee, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., ushered a measure through last year suspending official implementation of the ACFT until the Rand study is complete.
"The ACFT, as it currently stands, lowers standards and expectations for young, male soldiers while setting unrealistic standards for others, including those with fewer physical responsibilities such as medical personnel, judge advocates, or cyber warriors," the two senators said in a joint letter to Armed Services Committee leadership in October. "This test runs counter to the Army's new talent strategy that aims to create a 21st century talent management system."
The ACFT's predecessor, the Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, was simple, cheap and easy to run. It consisted of two minutes each of push-ups and sit-ups, and a two-mile run. It required no equipment.
But Army leaders wanted a test that better assesses overall fitness. The ACFT consists of leg tucks, deadlifts, hand-release push-ups, a sprint-drag-carry, a medicine ball throw and a two-mile run. The run is where most soldiers fail.
Retired Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who oversaw the development and implementation of the new ACFT, told Military.com in an interview that the Army wanted to move to a holistic test. He said the new test also aims to reduce injuries the service feels could be prevented if soldiers were more physically fit.
"The ACFT was built to strengthen the culture of fitness and reduce injuries. The test itself is based off the minimum standards necessary for the mission," Frost said.
The force considered dozens of different versions of the test, and it was a delicate process of nailing down which exercises would be conducted and in which sequence, according to Frost. Consideration was taken on reducing the amount of equipment needed and making the test relatively easy to conduct, he said.
"There were I think 40 or 50 different types of exercises," he added. "There were dozens of evolutions of events and the sequences they would be conducted in the test. In the end, this test was the optimal balance of testing multiple components of fitness across the board."
However, the ACFT takes significantly more time and resources to properly grade soldiers. It requires a lot of expensive gear, some of which isn't easily accessible to all troops who want to train for the test. The Army signed a contract with the fitness company Sorinex, which provided $63.8 million worth of gear, including kettlebells and trap bars, according to an Army spokesperson.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.