It was gratifying to watch Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton question Christine Wormuth, the first female Secretary of the Army, during a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Senator Cotton, an infantry veteran qualified for the Rangers, respectfully berated Wormuth for the “fiasco” that has become the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). Over the past three years, the military has tried, but failed to implement “gender-neutral” standards in the new combat fitness test – mainly due to high failure rates among soldiers. female trainees.
After the Women in Combat rules changed in 2015, the Army designed the ACFT to be gender-neutral, with identical requirements and scoring charts for men and women. The new ACFT would replace the Army’s longstanding physical fitness test, which was gender-standardized with different requirements and scores to account for physical differences between men and women.
At this time, women were not eligible for direct ground (infantry) assignments. Now that they are, gender-based training standards are untenable. There are no sexual norms on the battlefield.
Cotton read back to Wormuth his own testimony from 2021 promising that the new ACFT would have gender-neutral standards. When former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered all combat positions open to women in 2015, he and the Army’s official implementation plan promised that combat effectiveness concerns would be addressed. addressed through “effective leadership” and “gender neutral standards”.
Dangerous lowered standards
Nevertheless, after several versions of the ACFT failed, this year the military abandoned gender neutrality and restored gender normalization. Secretary Wormuth acknowledged the army’s stunning overthrow, suggesting the new ACFT was “tougher”. Cotton replied bluntly, “The new standards are pathetic – They are absolutely pathetic.
Cotton noted that infantry-qualified soldiers will only have to do 10 push-ups instead of 35. He also cited the Army’s Frequently Asked Questions webpage stating that commanders cannot set standards higher for acceptance or retention in a combat unit. “That,” Cotton said, “is going to get people killed.”
Project ACFT, initiated by then Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, has always been controversial. The previous fitness test involved sit-ups, push-ups and a two-mile run that could be done anywhere. The new six-round combat aptitude test required expensive equipment, gender- and age-neutral standards, and considerable time to prepare for and administer the test.
Requirements included the leg tuck (pulling the knees up while hanging from a fixed bar); a 25-meter sprint, drag, and carry of a 90-pound sled and two 40-pound kettlebells; throw a 10 lb. medicine ball backwards overhead; manual release push-ups (raising hands and arms at the bottom of the push-up); and a two-mile run.
The women struggled with the leg tuck exercise and the “age-independent” standards raised questions. Why should an infantry squad leader, a Pentagon-based three-star, and a 125-pound X-ray technician meet identical fitness standards?
The original ACFT also attempted to match individuals in various occupations with different requirements for heavy, heavy, or moderate physical demands. An infantry-bound soldier, for example, had to perform 30 hand-release push-ups to earn a minimum score in this event, compared to 10 push-ups for others heading into less strenuous occupations.
Second and third attempts at the revised test
The experiment began to fall apart in 2019, when 85% of female soldiers failed. In response to pressure from Congress, ACFT 2.0 allowed the choice of a two-minute plank exercise instead of the leg tuck, and an optional 2.5-mile walk instead of the 2-mile run.
Version 3.0 of the ACFT designed a system to assess women’s scores in “performance bands” or “levels” comparing the performance of women to that of men. The top 1% of men and women, for example, would be ranked in the Platinum group, even if their performance levels were drastically different.
Congress-Commissioned Study Reveals Dismal Results
This color-coded “gender-neutral” tiered illusion fooled no one, and failure rates for women and older soldiers remained high. In 2021, an ACFT study commissioned by Congress was conducted by RAND, a Department of Defense contractor that has long supported leftist policies. RAND collected data from 630,000 tests and the results were dismal.
Only 52% of women enlisted on active duty, compared to 92% of men, passed the ACFT. Women’s pass rates were higher among officers — 72 percent compared to 96 percent among men — but pass rates were lower in the National Guard and Reserves.
RAND also reported that for women enlisted in the regular military, pass rates in the bottom ten military occupational specialties (MOS) ranged from 31 to 44 percent, and in the top ten, from 65 to 89 percent. By comparison, the success rates of male enlistees in the last ten MOSs ranged from 83-86%, and they scored 98-100% in the top ten MOSs.
Even with some caveats, the empirical evidence has clearly shown that theories of physical gender equality in military combat training are inconsistent with physical realities. RAND warned that normalizing the ACFT by gender “would ensure parity in pass rates between groups, but it would also force the military to accept differences in potential combat readiness among soldiers who are subjected to different test standards”.
Fourth try at the test
Cotton blames army officials for agreeing to this compromise. Shortly after the RAND report was released in March, the military announced ACFT 4.0, which reneged on previous promises to implement gender-neutral standards.
The new gender-based test adjusted requirements and scoring charts, scrapped the leg tuck event, and scrapped attempts to match individuals to heavier jobs with stricter requirements. Like the old Army test, the ACFT 4.0 measures basic physical fitness, not readiness for advanced combat training.
Gender-neutral standards have not worked in the ACFT, and as we have seen before in Special Operations Forces Command, “diversity and inclusion” mandates encourage minimum standards, not meritocratic excellence.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that 59% of respondents supported women in combat, but even more, 66%, said women should meet the same fitness requirements as male soldiers. What if women don’t meet equal standards?
Cotton said he was “disappointed and borderline appalled” by the situation, and would not let it stand. He and Secretary Wormuth were talking about two different things – combat effectiveness on his side and “fairness” to certain “sub-groups” of his. Congress should reassess policies for assigning women to combat, prioritizing meritocracy and military readiness.
Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public policy organization that reports on and analyzes military and social issues.