Fit to Fight? Strength vs. Equity in the Crosshairs of New Army Fitness Test

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The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has mandated that the Army raise its fitness standards for certain combat specialties. The Army was unable to create a test of physical fitness that would measure fitness and treat women and men equally. This text comes from page 382 in the NDAA Conference Report.

SEC. 577. FITNESS STANDARDS INCREASED FOR ARMY CLOSE COMBAT FORCE MILITARY OCCUPA20 SPECIALITIES.

a) IMPLEMENTATION. –Not later than 18 months after the date the Act was enacted, the Secretary of the Army must implement the increased minimum fitness.

Standards are part of the Army Combat Fitness Test and apply to all soldiers with the following military occupational specialties2 or areas of concentration.

(1) 11A. The bracketed information was added by me. [Infantryman]

(2) 11B. [Infantryman]

(3) 11C. [Infantryman]

(4) 11Z. [Infantryman]

(5) 12A. [Engineer]

(6) 12B. [Engineer]

(7) 13A. [Field Artillery]

(8) 13F. [Field Artillery]

(9) 18A. [Special Forces]

(10) 18B. [Special Forces]

(11) 18C. [Special Forces]

(12) 18D. [Special Forces]

(13) 18E. [Special Forces]

(14) 18F. [Special Forces]

(15) 18Z. [Special Forces]

(16) 19A. [Armor]

(17) 19C. [Armor]

(18) 19D. [Armor]

(19) 19K. [Armor]

(20) 19Z. [Armor]

(b) BRIEFING. –Not later than one year after the date of enactment of the Act, the Secretary of the Army shall provide a detailed briefing on the methods used to develop standards by subsection (a) to the Committees on Armed Services of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Both parties in Congress have used the NDAA to force the Army to do its job. This was due to the Army’s failure to create a test with a connection to combat duties that women could pass.

The physical fitness test was composed of five events before and during World War II: squat jumping, sit-ups and pull-ups; push-ups, and a short-burst run. This tested strength and speed. The Physical Combat Proficiency Test was introduced in 1959. It included some skill testing as well as fitness tests. The five events remained but were changed to a 40-yard crawl, 20-foot horizontal monkey bars/ladder, grenade carry (in basic training, and for combat support troop, the 105-yard man-carry is used), and a 1-mile run with boots. The Women’s Army Corps (WACs’) test consisted of arm circles and body twists as well as a bent-over “airplane exercise”, sit-ups, and jumping jacks.

Around 1969, the tests were changed again to consist of sit-ups, inverted crawl (aka perverted crawl), run-dodge-and-jump (aka trip-stumble-and-fall), horizontal ladder, and one-mile run-in boots. This video shows Filipino Scout Rangers continuing a tradition that they learned from the US Army: the inverted crawl.

In 1980, it became minimalist: push-ups, sit-ups, and two-mile run at first in boots but eventually in running shoes. (I usually scored 297-plus on this three-event, maximum of 300 points test — it ain’t bragging if you can do it.)

The Army has used fixed events for most of its history. Grades were based on gender and age. It was intended to ensure a minimum level of physical fitness and provide a tool for personnel management. Also, it gave military school staff a way to deny admission to anyone who offended them. The latter I only half-joke about.

The Army Physical Fitness Test was a hot topic after Ashton Carter, Obama’s Secretary of Defense, opened up all military positions to women. Why should a man who is a tanker or an infantryman be required to meet a certain standard, while a woman supposedly doing the same work can meet a lower standard? The reality of Afghanistan and Iraq also showed how far removed the APFT is from the combat requirements. How many times did soldiers have to run in sneakers for two miles?

The Army Combat Fitness Test was developed in response to this reality and the growing popularity of CrossFit.