The new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) has been a target of criticism since the moment it was announced as the eventual replacement of the APFT—the Army Physical Fitness Test that the service had used to measure soldiers’ fitness for nearly four decades. In some ways, at least, the new ACFT got a bad rap. Yes, it requires more cumbersome and expensive logistics, but the Army believes that it will actually save money by reducing injuries and the nondeployable rate. Still, leaked unofficial testing results showing high rates of failure, especially among female soldiers, and the Army’s recent suspension of the transition to the ACFT in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, draw attention to problems that could sink the ACFT under regular circumstances. Transitioning to the new test will still yield benefits for the Army, but only if these flaws are fixed. This can be done with reasonable effort, but it will require creativity. Specifically, the Army should address six key challenges so that it can proceed with the ACFT roll out safely and effectively.
The Right Test for the Army
As the US military prepares for a new era of great-power competition and to operate in uniquely challenging environments like urban centers, the Army faces an increasingly complex mission on an increasingly demanding battlefield. Because physical exhaustion negatively impacts decision making, while fitness has been shown to improve cognition, soldiers with better physical conditioning are likely to be better able to make smarter decisions, faster, under exhausting conditions, all else being equal. This is especially critical for soldiers involved in complex human interactions in cities where communications are contested or denied, actions reverberate rapidly and can have strategic consequences, and soldiers are tasked to fulfil the intent of the mission through their own initiative. Well-conditioned soldiers are also better able to handle the obstacles and close-quarters fighting that they will encounter on an urban battlefield.
The ACFT provides a more realistic measure of capabilities needed for the operational environment than the APFT. ACFT events correspond to specific physically demanding tasks that soldiers must be able to perform.* For instance, the deadlift imitates lifting a litter, moving a casualty, and loading an artillery round. Indeed, the hand positioning on a litter is nearly identical to that on the hexagonal deadlift bar used in the ACFT.
The Army’s test of record should reward top marks to soldiers best conditioned for the demands of the battlefield. A 120-pound soldier might be able to do more push-ups and sit-ups and complete a faster two-mile run than a 165-pound soldier of the same height, but that doesn’t tell the Army whether the lighter soldier is able to carry a heavy ruck or an injured comrade, load heavy ammunition, service a disabled vehicle, or dominate close-quarters, hand-to-hand fighting.
The battlefield is unforgiving, it does not care about gender, age, or how strong soldiers are relative to their bodyweight. Many “PT studs” who regularly achieve perfect APFT scores will struggle with the portions of the ACFT that advantage larger, stronger soldiers, such as the deadlift and the standing power throw.
The ACFT’s six events provide a more relevant measure of each soldier’s physical conditioning. They test ten components of fitness, while the APFT tests only two. The body type that excels at heavy deadlifting might be disadvantaged on the two-mile run and vice versa. The physically ideal soldier will score high marks across the board. This soldier will have cardiovascular and muscular endurance as well as strength, speed, agility, and explosive power. To score highly on the ACFT, soldiers need well-rounded fitness that can only be built and maintained by regularly training overall strength and conditioning. Instilling a fitness culture is a key purpose of the ACFT.
Moreover, with the opening of all military occupational specialties to women, the Army needed a gender- and age-neutral test with standards corresponding to the physical demands of the soldier’s duty.* Neutral scoring standards also promote unit cohesion and morale by dispelling doubts over a soldier’s physical capability. No one in a given Army job passed a less rigorous fitness test due to lower standards for age or gender.
Finally, there is reason to believe that concerns over increased injuries associated with the ACFT are unfounded. In fact, the Australian Army instituted similar training in 2016, and it decreased the trainee injury rate by 40 percent.
Hurdles to Overcome
Despite the new test’s advantages over its predecessor, there are important challenges to its implementation. But with planning and creativity, they can be overcome. Indeed, they must be in order to get the most out of the ACFT’s introduction.
Access to Equipment
With the Army operating globally and at a high operational tempo, is it worthwhile to add a test of record that requires more time, training, and equipment? Among the APFT’s greatest strengths is that it can be trained for and performed just about anywhere. Taking the ACFT, by contrast, requires specialized equipment and optimal training requires access to a gym. Indeed, the ACFT has been put on hold due to lack of gym access during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an Army designed to be expeditionary, making fitness dependent on access to specific equipment and facilities is problematic.**
Of course, the best way to get great at an event is to practice that specific event. However, building the physical capability to ace the ACFT does not require equipment. Soldiers with high levels of physical fitness score well on the test regardless of whether they have ever trained for the specific events. This shows that the ACFT does what it is designed to do: test overall fitness.*
Although a gym may be optimal, when access is limited—as might be the case for reserve-component forces, during deployments to austere locations, or due to a pandemic—there must be well-researched guidelines to safely and effectively train for the ACFT with bodyweight exercises and the imaginative use of items available.
There are currently no published standard training guidelines for the ACFT along the lines of the Army’s current Physical Readiness Training Manual (PRT), although they are being crafted.* The Army has updated its PRT mobile app to offer ACFT-focused guidance, replacing the earlier version of the app originally released in 2014. There is also an official website that includes training recommendations. This is helpful, but neither the app nor the website are as detailed as the PRT, so the Army should ensure that the more comprehensive manual to guide training for the ACFT, with or without a gym, is made available well before it becomes the test of record.
Even under the best of circumstances, any soldier’s fitness depends heavily on his or her own initiative. That is even more true under difficult circumstances like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid social distancing, leaders are finding innovative ways to train and motivate their soldiers indirectly, proving that with self-discipline, it is possible to maintain and improve physical fitness even under uniquely challenging conditions.*
With the APFT as the Army’s test of record, soldiers on profile with health or medical issues can complete alternate events. These do not adequately measure the fitness that the primary events do—walking does not measure cardiovascular endurance the way that running does. Questions remain regarding alternatives for those on profile for the six events in the ACFT. While the Army will have to work with those on profile as it transitions to the ACFT, it must navigate the risk that alternate events can negate a core purpose of the ACFT: measuring and training fitness needed to perform required tasks.
The ACFT’s time requirements also come at a cost by potentially requiring complex fitness training that cuts into training operational proficiency.** On the other hand, one of the most important things soldiers do is build and maintain fitness.* The ACFT, then, is appropriately calibrated because it increases the amount of time soldiers spend on physical training. Accordingly, the two hours required to administer the test to an entire company is not necessarily excessive, even if it is more time than is necessary for the APFT. Yet some units and soldiers have more time than others, and those with exceedingly time-consuming missions may have legitimate concerns over not being able to train adequately for a test of record that impacts career advancement. The Army must deliberately work to address those concerns with the ACFT.
Fairness for Career Advancement
Another challenge that must be overcome to successfully roll out the ACFT relates to career advancement. As was the case with the APFT, the ACFT will impact soldiers’ careers through promotion points. Because scoring is gender- and age-neutral, female soldiers reportedly score lower on average, as is likely to be the case with older soldiers, as well. These disparities are the result of physiological differences. While this can disadvantage these groups for promotion and assignment advancement going forward, disconnecting scores from promotion points removes the incentives for soldiers to improve. The Army must find a way to balance these competing challenges.
A final issue that might arise, especially if administration challenges are not adequately addressed, is that older soldiers whose valuable contributions to the Army are not primarily a function of their physical fitness could be pushed into retiring early. While having every soldier meet standards for combat readiness is an excellent mantra, rigidity in this regard could harm the Army’s talent pool. Losing a highly competent and experienced acquisitions, logistics, or finance professional a few years early because they cannot do enough leg tucks would be unfortunate.
Don’t Abandon a Good Idea
Institutions are hesitant to change. The APFT has been the US Army’s test of record since 1980. Transitioning to the ACFT won’t be easy. The new test requires equipment, while the APFT requires none. The ACFT requires new training guidelines and entails financial costs at a time when the Army is slashing all unnecessary programs to direct funds toward signature modernization programs. While the ACFT is projected to save costs in the long-term, the current startup costs are clear and tangible today. And the ACFT has been delayed several times, most recently due to COVID-19. As Army and Department of Defense leaders predict contracting budgets in the wake the pandemic, it is imperative that the Army works out the kinks quickly to avoid postponement turning into cancellation.
Problems stemming from limited equipment access and lack of training guidelines can both be addressed by quickly releasing the updated manual, similar to the existing PRT manual, which is currently being drafted. Once these guidelines are in place, all soldiers will be able to train safely and effectively for the ACFT. While training in a gym on the specific equipment is optimal, it is in no way necessary for scoring outstandingly. With proper guidelines, soldiers can train for the ACFT anywhere in the world.
One proposed solution is to develop an expeditionary variant for soldiers lacking access to the equipment needed to take the ACFT, including those assigned to remote locations or any of the eight hundred small bases abroad. This proposal features exercise substitutions that stress the same energy systems as the original ACFT but require less specialized equipment and can be trained for and administered anywhere. The Army should implement something along this line officially, enacting scoring standards and policy regarding if and when these soldiers will be required to take the regular ACFT upon returning to an area where it can be administered.
The Army must also work out administration decisions that ensure that soldiers meet standards without needlessly driving out talent. This might perhaps prove the easiest challenge to overcome, allowing the Army to have its cake and eat it, too. Gender- and age-neutral standards can remain, ensuring that solders are physically qualified for their military occupational specialties, while a second “percentile” score scaled based on age and gender can ensure fair promotion considerations and incentivize soldiers to aim high.
While the ACFT faces serious challenges, none of them are insurmountable. Startup costs, complexity, institutional inertia, and a rocky rollout provide ample fuel for the critics, but projected gains in Army fitness, health, and deployability suggest that the ACFT will be both cost-effective and worthwhile.
The advantages of the ACFT over the APFT are clear and numerous. However, militaries operating with constrained time and resources often reject the “wonderful” in favor of the more easily acquired and implemented “adequate.” This need not be the case with the ACFT. If the Army address the challenges it faces in establishing the ACFT as the test of record, it will enable soldiers to get after it and lead to a healthier and fitter Army.
* We would like to thank former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dan Dailey providing input on this topic.
** We would like to thank Maj. (ret) John Spencer for providing input on this topic.
Jeremiah Rozman has a PhD in international relations from the University of Virginia with a focus on strategic/security studies and conflict resolution. He is currently the national security analyst at the Association of the US Army. From 2006 to 2009 he served as an infantryman as well as a master fitness instructor in the Israel Defense Forces.
Lt. Col. Eugene Irby is an Army finance officer with over twenty years of military service. He is currently assigned to Headquarters, Department of the Army G-3/5/7. He holds master’s degrees in both business management and logistics and supply chain management. He has also served as an Army research fellow with the Association of the US Army’s Institute of Land Warfare and with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Management, Office of Budget.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Marcus Fichtl, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs