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.
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.
Now that they are finding that a gender-neutral ACFT standard means very few women will pass, the Army is under pressure by members of Congress to fall back on meeting its diversity quotas instead. This was something we suspected would happen here at SOFREP. Our position then was the same as it is now: if a woman can perform within the physical standard set for men she should be able to serve in a combat unit. And we reassert our position that having one ACFT standard for men and a lower one for women is not the “equality” that proponents of women in combat units said they wanted. Rather, a lower standard represents “exceptionalism” which confirms the reasons women weren’t allowed to serve in combat units previously: because they lacked the physical strength and endurance needed to endure the rigors of combat. Women accepted into combat units under that lower standard will prove that at the cost of their own and that of their teammates’ lives.
Commanders of combat units will not just go along with this. They are responsible for the lives of all the soldiers under their command and will feel that this duty overrides any political concerns about diversity and rigged gender equality schemes. hey will be taking their people into combat and will undoubtedly cut people out of their units who they believe will be an actual liability in a fight. And someone in their unit below the physical standards set for men will be the target of counseling and reassignment. This is why women, who want a fair and equitable shot at being in these units, need to also stand up against a different standard. The men in these combat units willing to accept women into them under a gender-neutral standard will shun anyone they think got into that unit while underperforming in their qualifications. It will poison unit cohesion.
We also knew that the goals of “diversity” and a “gender-neutral” ACFT standard would be in conflict with each other. “Diversity” means wide variation, “standard” means no variation at all. Military service is about uniformity of ideals, purpose, appearance, etc. Military training is about replacing one’s individualized notions (diversity) with unifying core values that create unit cohesion, singularity of purpose, and uniform appearance.
The military is a “selective” service. It picks and chooses the best people for the jobs it needs to be done, by using batteries of aptitude tests, competitive instruction, medical standards, physical standards, and even moral standards. The military is not an Equal Opportunity Employer by any means. Human beings have made war on each other for a very long time and the lessons of those thousands of years of warfare have distilled the important qualities of the combat soldier down to just a few things as predictors of success. The ability to Run, Lift, Jump, Dodge, and Crawl. From the modern Army Infantry soldier to the Roman legionnaire of 2,000 years ago, these are the physical abilities that count the most on a field of battle. Gender equality is not one of them.
In a recent series of tweets, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston (@16thSMA) encouraged unit leaders to implement the new ACFT to their soldiers and submit data for evaluation saying, “Leaders, why aren’t you administering the ACFT? I need your help. Fix it… We’re preparing the way-ahead for ACFT. At the end of the day, policy needs to be DATA-DRIVEN. So far, only 24 percent of the total Army has uploaded scores into DTMS, and only seven percent have taken it more than once.”
SMA Grinston, who has been a guest on the SOFREP Radio podcast, also appeared to be pushing back against the charges that the ACFT was unfair to women soldiers given that so few had actually taken it yet: “Currently, women account for less than eight percent of all testing data we have. And the majority [of that] is from Operational units. We can’t (and shouldn’t) make decisions based on this information.”
He also stated that the Army was committed to maintaining a gender-neutral standard on the ACFT. “The test will remain gender-neutral to pass. Every Soldier must do the same amount of each exercise to be a Soldier. Only one scoring table. There are still a lot of policy Qs on using it for promotion/assessments, but the answers have to come with testing data.”
We take the SMA at his word on this but note that Congress not only controls the purse strings of the Army but also the promotion of general officers. There is a new administration in office now that makes no secret of its intention to pursue a notion of gender equality which in the case of the ACFT would not mean a gender-neutral standard at all.