If the Army were a TV show, this would be the end-of-season cliffhanger. Congress is seeking to kill the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, and revert to the service's previous fitness test. A move that, if successful, would surely draw the ire of senior leadership and confusion across the rank and file.
On Friday, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its draft summary of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets funding and policy priorities for the Pentagon. The draft directs the Army to restore the previous Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT. On top of that, it would require the service to develop the test for three years, a move that could sideline graded fitness tests for a soldier's record, with two years for a pilot program and another year to finalize standards.
"It would be highly not [recommended] going back to the APFT," Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told reporters Monday. "I equate this with going from the M4 back to the M16. I think it's unreasonable and, to me, doesn't make any sense."
That draft legislation is far from final, and it faces months of back-and-forth negotiations between the House and Senate, as well as the Army and other stakeholders before a final bill is sent to the president's desk for his signature.
Army leaders and their staff were not consulted on the provision, according to the service.
The ACFT has become the center of gravity for the force in recent years, with scores serving as a significant component of soldier evaluations and promotions. The service has also invested heavily into strength coaches and dietitians, in addition to revamping its fitness facilities and doctrine for testing. The service spent at least $78 million on the initial fielding of equipment, but has likely spent much more in recent years as units order more gear.
The move would not only put the Army back years on training efforts, but it would also likely sow confusion and frustration among soldiers after the ACFT's long development.
"It would just take us into chaos; we already changed all our regs for promotion points," Grinston, who was set to retire in six weeks, said. "It would be completely confusing. This was years of work."
One thing Grinston said would go away instantly is the service's new policy on allowing soldiers to skirt its body fat testing if they score 540 or above on the ACFT. The test has a maximum score of 600, and a 540 effectively guarantees a high level of fitness.
The ACFT started development around 2010, with the name being coined around 2014. The Global War on Terror, including combat in the steep mountains of Afghanistan, spurred senior leaders to develop new fitness standards for the force.
The test's predecessor, the APFT, was seen as simply not up to snuff in measuring fitness or promoting the fitness culture the service wanted. That test had been in use since the 1980s and only measured a timed two-mile run, push-ups and sit-ups.
The Army started fielding the ACFT in 2019 in a beta period to tweak which events would be in the final test and gauge what standards soldiers would be graded on. That pilot period took much longer than anticipated after the service ran right into the coronavirus pandemic.
Even after the pandemic subsided, it wasn't until 2022 that the service took record-graded tests. If the draft NDAA's provision were to pass into law, the service may not have a test for record until 2027.
"Not having a test for record was much more significant in terms of creating a negative effect for our Army's physical fitness than anything else," Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told reporters earlier this month before the draft NDAA was released. "What we don't want to do is change the test yet again, and do yet more diagnostic testing and lose that time again."
The Army has been in a constant back-and-forth with lawmakers on the ACFT. Initially, it drew scrutiny from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who were able to delay the test's implementation in the 2021 NDAA until a third party study examined the test's impact on recruiting and retention, specifically with women.
Military.com reported on early service data showing nearly half of the service's women failing an earlier version of the test that required leg tucks, an exercise in which soldiers did a horizontal pull-up and touched their knees to their elbows.
That third-party report from Rand Corp. led to the service killing the leg tuck and instead introducing the plank. It also torpedoed the Army's original intentions of a gender-neutral test. Some Army officials behind the scenes saw the service in an unwinnable position, keep the test as-is and grade women on tasks such as deadlifting the same as men, or creating an even playing field.
Moving to a gender-neutral test then spurred skepticism from Republicans, though the old test also had standards based on gender and age.
The ACFT is broadly seen as a much better measurement of fitness than its predecessor, measuring soldiers in six events including deadlifts, hand-release push-ups, a plank, a two-mile run, an event in which soldiers must yeet a 10-pound medicine ball as far as they can, and another event consisting of carrying 40-pound kettlebells, dragging a 90-pound sled and sprinting.
"The APFT, for [the] 30 years I've been taking it, I would score a 300," Grinston said, referencing the maximum score on the previous test. "But then I've yet to max the ACFT. I still have to push myself and train differently, and that's what it's about. The next fight is going to require strength, balance, agility, response time. If you take away the test, you take away our training for future warfare."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.