Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a new Senate National Defense Authorization Act amendment passed June 15 that would require the Army to develop a gender- and age-neutral health standard for the combat military occupational profession.
The final version of the Army Combat Fitness Test, which debuted in April, is dramatically scaled back from what was first envisioned in 2017, and without a founding mission: gender-neutral standards.
As a result, the Army changed its message to presage that the ACFT is a physical fitness test, not a readiness test as originally envisioned. This addresses the issue of the large number of women who previously passed the Army Physical Fitness Test being at risk of losing their careers due to poor scores in the new ACFT, but it also sheds light on the discussion of gender-neutral fitness standards.
“But there are a lot of other things that are really unique to MOS,” Army Sgt. Michael Greenston told Army Times on May 30. “That’s what we’re still focusing on.” …well, that’s the norm, both physically and mentally. “
While women in the military are fighting for equality within the same time frame while embracing the things that make them different from their male counterparts, fitness standards remain a bone of contention.
Capt. Kristin Grist, the Army’s first female infantry officer and one of the first two women to receive the Ranger tag, wrote an essay expressing her concerns about changing the ACFT’s single-criteria scoring.
“Under a gender-based system, women in combat units must fight every day to eliminate the notion that their presence inherently weakens these previously all-male units,” she wrote. “Lower women’s standards also reinforce the belief that women cannot do the same job as men, making it difficult for women to gain the trust and confidence of their teammates.”
But for women outside the fighting force — that is, the vast majority of women in the military — the pressure to physically match up with their male counterparts isn’t quite the same.
For decades, the Army has told soldiers that its physical fitness tests are a measure of value — awarding promotion points to high performers and forcing those who fail repeatedly — while also reaffirming that they are tests of fitness To make up for the shortcomings of testing, not combat readiness.
ACFT bridges the gap in some ways, encompassing more fitness areas than its predecessor, and thus requiring new training, including weights and core training.
“We have overuse injuries. It makes the muscles stronger,” Greenston said of the ACFT’s requirements. “It’s still the goal. It doesn’t matter what your job is – just to live.”
While APFT’s runs, sit-ups, and push-ups only cover endurance, ACFT adds strength and explosiveness items. But because it’s graded by age and gender, it’s still subjective, acknowledging that readiness may not be a one-size-fits-all situation.
With that in mind, the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday passed an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Army to develop a physical readiness standard for all combat work, independent of what the ACFT already requires.
“Our goal is to change the way we exercise,” Greenston said. “And, you know, from a guy who’s been in the military for 35 years, almost — when I went to the military, we changed the fitness culture.”
The Army does have existing readiness measures in its specialist badge. The Specialist Infantry Badge, Specialist Field Medical Badge, and Omnipotent Specialist Soldier badge all have a gender-neutral, age-neutral, pass-fail grading system.
While soldiers are encouraged to take the tests, and by granting upgrade points, no specialist badges are required, and failure is not a penalty, so they are not comparable to physical fitness tests.
The ESB is the latest badge, introduced in 2019, to enable soldiers not in infantry, special forces or medical jobs to be rewarded for mastering soldier basics.
“And there are many men and women who have passed [ESB] …,” Greenston said. “I think that’s the way we’re going. “
Since the first pilot in 2017, nearly 9,000 soldiers have been tested for the ESB, of which 2,000 have been tested, with a success rate of 22%. Pass rates have increased year over year, from 12% during the pilot, 14% when the badge goes live in fiscal 2020, and 25% so far in 2021 and 2022.
Individual and Organizational Fitness
There is also the possibility of a true combat readiness test, he added. The UK, for example, recently revised mandatory military fitness tests to use age- and gender-neutral standards based on job requirements.
The concept is not too different from the occupational physical assessment test the Army conducted for recruits in 2017. Its score determines whether a recruit is physically eligible for a given MOS.
“So, what do we do? We want to say we’ve got the model, we just take it and say, what would that be?” Greenston said.
After waiting about five years after the Army’s last failed new PT test adventure, it took the ACFT five years to arrive, so there’s no expectation that the ACFT will be revamped anytime soon.
There may be some room for different types of tests, though. When ACFT was in its early stages, it was actually two different tests: the Army Readiness Test, created by Training and Doctrine Command, and the Soldier Readiness Test, developed by Force Command.
The latter includes simulated combat maneuvers such as stacking sandbags and trail runs with small obstacle courses, all in full-body armor.
In addition to the individual physical fitness test, it is also designed to assess the overall readiness of a unit. Therefore, the Army might use the ACFT to measure individual fitness, and a separate single standard test to measure unit fitness.
“So, we have this study. Again, my focus is: getting a badge, that’s the standard for everyone,” Greenston said. “And then do we just transfer it and say we pulled the study out of FORSCOM. How do we model it?”
Megan Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief for The Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow @Meghann_MT on Twitter