Recently the Army announced that it intends to lower the standards of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) because “biological differences” between men and women were resulting in an appalling failure rate among women. As reported in Stars and Stripes, this change comes from demands by Democrats like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT) that the Army cease implementation of changes to the gender-neutral ACFT until the test could be evaluated for its fairness to women completing the test successfully.

In the 2021 Defense Authorization Act, which provides funding to the military, the Army was ordered to cease using the test except for evaluation purposes pending an independent study on the test’s effects on women, recruiting, and retention. Those who recall the history of the controversial policy of women serving in combat units may recall that it was a Defense Department study that recommended that women be able to serve in combat units if they could meet the physical standards in place at the time.

A Department of Defense press release in March 2011 stated that “A commission established to study diversity among military leaders is recommending that the Defense Department rescind its policy that prevents women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level.” This commission called the Military Diversity Leadership Commission was established under the Obama Administration and was said to be impartial and bipartisan. One of its key recommendations to then-SecDef Leon Panetta was:

“DoD and the Services should eliminate the ‘Combat Exclusion Policies’ for women, including the removal of barriers and inconsistencies, to create a new level playing field for all qualified service members.”

That “level playing field” for all “qualified service members” involved women meeting the same physical standards as the men in combat arms units. At the time, the level playing field was believed to be integral to the men accepting women as equals in these units. Likewise, internal polling of servicemembers done by the Army found that soldiers were willing to accept women into these jobs, but only if they met the same physical standards as the men they would be serving with.

If women were put into these units under lowered physical standards, it would damage morale and unit cohesion. Men who had to meet a much tougher standard to get in would resent the women who served with them because they would have to over-perform physically to make up for the female members who weren’t meeting that standard. An 80lb ruck doesn’t discriminate against anyone. No matter your race or sex, it still weighs 80 pounds and you have to carry it long distances. And as the photo below illustrates sometimes you have to carry your fellow Soldiers or Marines who will weigh quite a bit more.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher McMurry)

Fast forward just eight years and now the Army is finding that 84 percent of women are failing to meet this standard as compared to 30 percent of men. This has led to charges in Congress that the physical standard is “unfair’ to women, which seems to be an acknowledgment of what none of them were willing to admit in 2013, i.e. that men and women are physically different. The very highest performing woman on the ACFT will still be at the near bottom of the standard for men.

The problem for the Pentagon is that it talked out of both sides of its mouth on this. On the one hand, it claimed it would maintain a rock-solid, gender-neutral standard that would allow for no distinctions between men and women; that was cheered on by those who claim that there is no difference between the sexes). Yet, at the same, the Pentagon tried to meet a quota of women in combat outfits in pursuit of diversity goals.