The U.S. Army’s leaders have made many impressive changes recently. They have increased the number of armored formations, created new security force assistance brigades, and established Futures Command to streamline byzantine acquisition processes. Perhaps most importantly to soldiers, they have started slashing the overwhelming numbers of regulations and mandatory training requirements, including the much-despised weekend safety brief.
We’ve supported all of these initiatives, many of which we recommended in our articles and other work. But since we always call it like we see it: The new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) is a truly terrible idea. The Army decided to overhaul its long-standing PT test in order to improve individual fitness for combat and reduce musculoskeletal injuries, which are certainly legitimate objectives. But the new test will create far more problems than it solves, and could actually increase some types of injuries.
The current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) has measured the fitness of individual soldiers since 1980. It consists of three simple events. Soldiers must do as many sit-ups and push-ups as they can in two minutes each, with a brief rest in between, and then complete a two-mile run as quickly as possible. The APFT was designed to measure and incentivize individual fitness by testing muscular endurance and cardio fitness. Scoring scales differ by gender (except for sit-ups) and are graduated for age. They are designed so that any highly motivated soldier, with a substantial amount of training and effort, can “max” the test — long a substantial point of pride for many troops and their leaders. Soldiers must take the test twice a year and their scores appear on their fitness reports, thus factoring into any assessments for promotion.
The APFT can be administered by any unit anywhere in the world without special equipment other than a flat surface for running. An infantry company can test all of its 150 troops in under two hours. The current test is elegant in its utter simplicity.
In recent years, however, Army leaders have grown increasingly concerned that the current test provides too limited a measure of overall physical fitness and readiness for the demands of combat. They also wanted to reduce the considerable number of musculoskeletal injuries, which pose a major problem for readiness. Sit-ups, for example, are known to cause lower back pain and spinal injuries. The Army Public Health Center estimates that more than 70 percent of medically non-deployable soldiers have musculoskeletal injuries, which are one of the major causes of medical disability and discharge.
Fast forward to their proposed solution, the new Army Combat Fitness Test. A year-long field test of the program begins this month, though it may be adjusted before it officially replaces the APFT in October 2020. It includes six events and must be completed within 50 minutes in the following order:
- Deadlift between 120 and 420 pounds (more weight equals better score). Complete three repetitions in five minutes.
- Rest two minutes.
- Standing power throw. Throw a 10-pound medicine ball backwards over your head. Complete one practice and two record throws in three minutes, with the longest record throw counting.
- Rest two minutes.
- Hand release push-ups. Do as many pushups as possible in three minutes, lifting hands off the ground between each repetition.
- Rest two minutes.
- Sprint-drag-carry. Complete five repetitions of a 25-meter out-and-back shuttle run in four minutes. Each leg is different: First a sprint, then drag a sled, then run a lateral shuffle, then carry two 40-pound kettle bells, then finish with another sprint.
- Rest two minutes.
- Leg tuck abdominals. Starting from a dead hang on a pull-up bar, lift knees to elbows as many times as possible in two minutes.
- Rest five minutes.
- Complete a two-mile run on a flat surface in under 20 minutes.
Standards will be identical for men and women, with no adjustments made for age. The Army argues this is to ensure that the brigade commander and command sergeant major will have to perform to the same physical standard as the privates in their brigade. Right now, the proposed minimum standards vary a bit depending on whether a unit’s mission involves “heavy,” “significant,” or “moderate” physical demands. Army leaders claim that the new test will predict whether a soldier will be effective in combat with 80 percent accuracy, versus only 40 percent for the old test.
This all sounds very logical in principle. In practice, however, the test has five very serious problems.
#1: It is Too Complicated
Every unit in the Army, no matter how small or large, will be required to train for and administer this elaborate test. The time required to regularly train for it will likely exceed the amount of time currently allocated for unit or individual physical fitness — which means it will come at the expense of other, potentially far more important, combat training tasks. Simply administering the test will require a large chunk of unit time at least twice, if not more, each year. By one estimate, testing an 800-soldier battalion would take over three weeks of morning PT time if the unit has 10 sets of equipment (more on that in a moment). And because of the 50-minute test limit, all events will have to be ongoing at the same time so the first soldiers and the last soldiers can all complete within their required time limits. (Think 10 different start times alone for the two-mile run.) This will add immeasurable complexity to the time and effort required to run the new PT test.
#2: It Requires Too Much Specialized Equipment
The new test requires a staggering amount of cumbersome technical equipment. While the Army gamely argues that future service budgets will provide funds for thousands of new deadlift weight sets, pull-up stations, kettle balls, sleds, and medicine balls, the overhead investment in the new test would be simply unprecedented. It’s not enough to have a few sets of the equipment for testing time — every single soldier will have to be able to access this specialized gear several times a week, if not every day, in order to train properly. The Army estimates that this equipment will cost around $20 million, though it has almost certainly underestimated the number of equipment sets that will be required. Those funds would be far better spent on other readiness efforts, including the other elements of the Army’s holistic health and fitness initiative. Yet even if all of this equipment magically appeared for free, the logistical challenges of distributing it to troops stationed in over 120 countries and at hundreds if not thousands of posts, camps, and stations is truly mind-boggling.
#3: It Doesn’t Scale Well Across the Force
The Army is a massive organization of more than one million active and reserve soldiers who are literally spread all around the world. While active-duty Army units based on large posts may eventually be able to deal with the twin challenges of complexity and specialized equipment, think about their implications for the more than 540,000 soldiers in the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. How many of their 39 annual training days will be devoted to simply taking the test, much less preparing for it? And, since many soldiers in the reserve component live far away from where they drill, where will they find the specialized equipment for regular training? Contrary to what Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently said, not every gym in America has a 10-pound medicine ball — and as the adjutant general of Tennessee has pointed out, many small towns don’t have gyms at all. Now think about Army recruiters, small ROTC detachments, and pockets of soldiers scattered across civilian graduate programs, acquisition offices, joint headquarters and U.S. embassies — not to mention the thousands of soldiers forward-deployed in austere environments. How is this going to work for America’s entire Army?
#4: It Might Increase Injury Rates
We’ve heard that early pilots of the new test have reduced injury rates. Yet there are at least two good reasons to suspect that injury rates will not significantly decline — and might even increase — when it becomes mandatory for all soldiers. First, improper training always leads to injuries. Many of the events of the new PT test are so complex that they require well-trained fitness coaches to oversee their proper and safe practice, but they will be in short supply. Second, the apparent standards for maxing the new test — attainment of which has long been a source of pride to many soldiers and leaders — are far beyond what even fit soldiers may be able to strive for. One combat-seasoned special forces sergeant major told us that his already-substantial maximum-effort deadlift would have to increase by over 100 pounds to achieve the maximum score on the new test. This is a recipe for trouble. It perversely encourages soldiers to either over-train in pursuit of the maximum score, which makes injuries more likely, or to abandon the maximum and instead do only what is necessary for the minimum score, which will result in less fit soldiers.
#5: It Tries To Do Too Much
The ACFT tries to meld individual and unit combat fitness standards into a single test — but it’s not at all clear why that is desirable, much less necessary. No one disputes that Army units should be as physically prepared for combat as possible. But that has always been the purpose of unit physical standards, not individual fitness standards. It makes far more sense for unit commanders to determine what physical standards make their soldiers combat ready, rather than having the Army staff determine that for them. A universal standard for a baseline of individual fitness makes sense, but centrally micromanaging unit fitness standards doesn’t — and undermines the Army’s principle of mission command.
The ACFT is the wrong way to try to improve fitness across the force. We have yet to hear a single soldier utter a positive word about it. Such a universally negative reaction is quite unusual, even by Army standards, and should draw serious attention from its senior leaders. (And, of course, any idea that has already been ruthlessly mocked by the Duffel Blog should be reconsidered.)
If Army leaders truly believe that the existing PT test cannot provide a sufficient baseline of individual fitness, they need to go back to the drawing board and design a new test according to the following principles:
KISS: Keep It Simple, Soldier
The new test should have no specialized equipment, be exportable to any remote forward operating base, and focus on incentivizing and maximizing individual fitness. Minimum standards can be set without regard to age and gender, but maximum standards need to be graduated to encourage every soldier to keep working towards their top levels of personal fitness throughout their career. Aim for three or four events that can be easily graded and that an entire company can complete in two hours or less. If equipment is truly necessary, use actual gear that Army units always have readily available, such as five-gallon water cans or sandbags.
Keep Unit Fitness Standards in the Hands of Commanders
Unit commanders have always been the best judge of the fitness standards needed for combat readiness. They know whether their mission requires soldiers to foot march long distances with heavy loads, negotiate challenging obstacle courses, or crawl in the mud under barbed wire. The staggering diversity of Army missions makes this approach far wiser than having centralized standards.
Help Commanders Craft Conditioning For Their Units
The best way for the Army to improve physical fitness is to help commanders develop tailored conditioning programs for their soldiers. Army leaders are already planning to put strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, sports psychologists, and dietitians in each brigade — a wise investment that should pay tremendous dividends. Their responsibilities should go beyond helping individual soldiers, and should also include helping commanders throughout the brigade develop safe and effective conditioning programs that improve mission readiness.
The ACFT is simply the wrong answer to a legitimate question about how to improve combat readiness. Army leaders seem to have been so blinded by all the science involved in the test’s development that they have lost sight of what will work most effectively across an incredibly large, far-flung, and diverse organization. Requiring every single soldier to take this complex new test, and every unit to administer it, will waste a lot of time, energy, and money for little proven benefit — and may actually cause more harm than good. If Army leaders truly believe that the current PT test is not adequate for the demands of the 21st century, they need to find a far better solution.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.
Image: U.S. Army