What is Wrong with the New Army Combat Fitness Test and Why it is Important to Fix it Now
Designing a training program for a million plus personnel is, should be, and will always be difficult. The US Army's Field Manual 21-20 states the priorities of such a training program best as “[the] costly lessons learned by Task Force Smith in Korea are as important today as ever. If we fail to prepare our soldiers for their physically demanding wartime tasks, we are guilty of paying lip service to the principle of ‘Train as you fight.’” These words and the events that we choose affect many aspects of Army culture and is important as one of the shared ties that bind us all together in our service. The old Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) was simple, but did not demonstrate which Soldiers are actually in physical shape for combat operations, and often troops and units had to have two aspects to their fitness training: one for the test, the other for actual mission capabilities.[i] The new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) being introduced this year is a grand stride in a good direction. It applies a holistic element to our fitness, disregards age and gender, and seeks to use strength, speed, and endurance as indicators of our capabilities. However, it does not remove the fact that we are using events that are not practical or specific to our profession. This test is not just a metric for some officer to pore over in his morning or weekly brief, but rather is something that shapes the entire fabric of our force, and that is why it matters so much to the rank and file Soldier.
What is Wrong with the ACFT?
The problems with the ACFT are trifold. Firstly, we attempt to mimic movements that we need to be able to do as Soldiers, when it would be far more ideal to set up the events with equipment that we have. This would actually solve the second issue, which is the expense of the equipment and rollout of the program. The last issue, and the most critical, is the amount of time required for the test. Often it is lamented that the test itself is the greatest consumer of this metric, but rather it will be the schedules of troops that will suffer the most, given the additional training required to perform these events satisfactorily. When we have to teach two sets of movements for each event, one for the event and the other for doing the actual field version of it, we are doubling the amount of training we have to do for a specific task. Avoiding the quagmire of training for two different sets of exercises and events is why we should take the concept of the ACFT and transition it to a practical and low-cost solution that will accomplish the same task but will also make troops better at their jobs.
Why it is Important that We Fix the ACFT Now
Each of the events themselves have a conceptually sound logic to them and are designed to test something that is needed in a good Soldier, nevertheless some adjustment is necessary. Let us quickly review each one:
The Deadlift- is designed to test our lower body power.[ii] This is easily replaced by a litter carry. While it may take two troops to move one, this is an easily trainable task that has real world carryover. In addition, the weight of the litter can be substituted by an actual soldier, giving the whole event a more realistic feel as this would resemble the battlefield, or by a dummy with armor so that it is still an applicable task.
The Sprint, Drag, Carry- is designed to test troops on moving quickly over short distances while transporting various objects such as ammo cans, water jugs, or pulling a wheeled cart. This event would be best used to train for moving to cover and keeping some of the carries. Instead of kettlebells though, we should use full ammo cans with actual ammo in them. We could also use actual water jugs, which almost every unit has access to.
The Medicine Ball Toss- is designed to test explosive strength but fails the test of specificity. It doesn’t apply to any of the events suggested and in fact is perhaps better accomplished with the deadlift than with a medicine ball throw. The litter carry will accomplish most of the tasks assigned to this and instead of trying to mock climbing over things, we should actually climb over things.
The Leg Tuck- is a great example of a progression to get troops used to climbing on things, hanging on things, and testing our abdominal strength. However, instead of doing these we could just put up a rope and a 6-foot wall and practice climbing over these obstacles.
The Hand Release Pushup- is justified as necessary to carry out combat maneuvers (3-5 second rushes) and for hand to hand combat. If we want to test people's ability to get up and down, we need to actually test it, as a pushup is not going to tell you if they can get up and move appropriately or not. Hand to Hand combat, while a personal favorite, is not something we have prioritized to the point that we can add it to our daily physical fitness routine.
The Two-Mile Run- is designed to test our aerobic capacity. However, it fails to account for carrying weight over distance, doesn’t account for work capacity, and is a bad substitution when we could just ruck five miles, or another appropriate distance, and extrapolate our data from that. We don’t need troops to run two miles in a warzone, we need them to be able to suit up and move to the fight in kit. This is a great opportunity to give troops a reason to practice rucking if they are not in a unit that rucks often.
A New ACFT is easily surmised from the commentary above. What I propose is as follows: A 5-mile ruck, similar to a real-life ruck to reach a firefight or engagement. An obstacle course that requires climbing a rope, over a wall, moving ammo cans or water jugs, and low crawling under a series of wire. A litter carry or a fireman’s carry to practice moving under load and getting your buddy out of the kill-zone. A 300-meter cover and movement course to practice moving to cover, 3-5 second rushes, and rapid bounds. Finally, a 20-round stress shoot designed to ensure that each Soldier can maintain the clarity of mind to engage with and destroy the enemy after accomplishing the above tasks. The reason why shooting at the end of this is important is that it reminds troops that they must be ready to engage the enemy even if they are tired, and that at the end of the day we are professionals whose jobs include winning firefights regardless of fatigue. Our ultimate objective is to defeat our nation's opponents and it is important to tie all of this to our fitness regime.
These events would all be completed while wearing armor, an army combat helmet, and while carrying an unloaded weapon. The ruck march would include a 35 lb. ruck that would be discarded temporarily after the ruck march and before the obstacle course. The ammo would be staged on the range that the course would be done at, which would be a 25-meter popup or paper target. The knowledge that each troop can accomplish these tasks would improve trust in each other, and confidence in yourself.
This type of fitness assessment utilizes equipment that the unit has on hand. Each Soldier would be using their own gear individually and units have access to additional equipment in case a Soldier is new or missing kit. This keeps costs down and makes the test accessible to units in the Active or Reserve components equipment-wise. It is easily trained for as well, with progressions and basic Soldier tasks such as rucking, shooting, and movement on the battlefield. This means that instead of training for events such as a deadlift, we are training for relatively specific tasks that we will be required to accomplish on the actual field of battle. The only way we could make this more relevant to our way of fighting is to add a medevac and a call for fire portion of this task! Limits are necessary though, and the above tasks will serve to familiarize troops with basic battle tasks across the board.
This modified test may not take up a shorter period of time in the day but will be far more relevant to Soldiers who may suddenly have to take the fight to their opponents and will be easily built upon with additional training.
It is important to encourage these types of skills amongst the entirety of our Army’s personnel. On the modern battlefield the frontlines are not always where the fighting happens, and thusly when units and personnel are put to the test it is important that we prepare them for success. Deadlifts and kettlebells may prepare us for war, but training with the equipment that we will need in actual combat will make our troops far better prepared.
In summation, the ACFT is a bold step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough in the areas of pragmatism and its use as a cultural node for the US Army. This event ties each of us in uniform together and serves to showcase that each of us deserve to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest. It is important that we use the lessons learned in the last decade plus of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq to better prepare ourselves for the next war. If we do not, then we risk being in the same position as the Army was in when we entered the war in Korea with Task Force Smith. We risk being ill prepared and not ready. Ensuring that the incarnation of the ACFT that we implement makes us ready and able on the battlefield, is what those who are in uniform, and those who will wear this uniform in the future deserve.
The author would like to thank Wilder Alejandro Sanchez for editorial feedback
Myers, Meghann. "A New Army PT Test Is on Its Way. This Is Not a Drill." Army Times. July 10, 2018. Accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2018/07/09/a-new-army-pt-test-is-on-its-way-this-is-not-a-drill/.
[i] Meghann Myers. "A New Army PT Test Is on Its Way. This Is Not a Drill," Army Times, July 10, 2018, Accessed February 13, 2019, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2018/07/09/a-new-army-pt-test-is-on-its-way-this-is-not-a-drill/.