The Army Shouldn’t Backtrack on Its New Gender-Neutral Fitness Test

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A fellow cavalryman watches as US Army soldiers carry a dummy during a field exercise in Fort Drum, New York September 29, 2010. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In 2015, when the Obama administration moved to open all ground-combat arms to women, we warned that its obsession with social justice was taking precedence over combat readiness.

“A public and political class largely insulated from the realities of ground combat has become ignorant of its excruciating and unforgiving physical demands,” we wrote in a December 2015 editorial. “Prolonged infantry operations — including operations common in the War on Terror — place immense strains on the mind and body. Unit cohesion is critical, and physical breakdowns can be costly both to combat power and to unit morale.”

“Moreover,” we continued, “given how beholden the administration is to the Left, there is no reason to believe that it will hold firm on physical standards if few women prove capable of joining and — crucially — thriving in the infantry environment.”

The fact that this worry appears closer to being borne out under the Biden administration gives us no comfort, because the price will be a less capable and combat-ready fighting force, with potentially baleful consequences.

Recent reporting by Task & Purpose, a military-news outfit, reveals that Army brass is weighing whether to backtrack on the new gender-neutral Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) to instead include different evaluation metrics for men and women after early results indicated that as many as 65 percent of female soldiers were failing the test versus only 10 percent of men.

The new test, a replacement for the decades-old Army Physical Fitness Test and widely trumpeted as both gender-neutral and a better match for the physical demands of modern combat, comprises six events: a deadlift, a standing power throw (throwing a 10-pound medicine ball backwards over your head), push-ups, a drag-and-carry shuttle run, leg tucks (hanging from a pull-up bar and raising your legs to your chest), and a two-mile run. The test may not be perfect, but its stated purpose was to create a new meritocratic test for the new gender-neutral Army.

Those pushing for a fully gender-integrated military have long deployed conveniently shifting arguments to suit their purposes: “The standard will be the same for both men and women,” they told us when pushing for women in the combat arms. Indeed, as secretary of defense Ash Carter promised in 2015, “as long as they qualify and meet the standards,” women could serve in Army and Marine Corps infantry units, in the special forces, and in any other uniformed capacity.

Predictably, however, as women struggle to meet the physical demands necessary for combat, the advocates are calling for equality of outcomes.

The point here is not to disparage the American women who selflessly volunteer to wear their nation’s cloth, especially as many American women have found themselves down range under enemy fire in the last few decades. Rather, we criticize the mindless drift towards lowering the minimum standards required to ensure that a soldier is equipped to fight and win in combat.

Our point is that the Army is running into the obvious — and well-known — physical-performance differences that exist on average between men and women, even among physically fit men and women. The fact that American women sometimes found themselves in difficult circumstances during the War on Terror and performed admirably does not excuse policy-makers from the responsibility to design optimal — rather than feel-good — combat-readiness standards for a new era of competition with peer-threat adversaries such as China and a resurgent Russia.

The likes of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) are focused on the “considerable concerns regarding the negative impact [the Army Combat Fitness Test] may already be having on so many careers” to the exclusion of the question of how differing physical standards will affect our combat arms. Indeed, the ACFT, rolled out last year — though scores were not meant to affect promotions until 2022 — is now on a congressionally mandated hold until the Pentagon studies whether the test is unfair to women.

America’s enemies are assuredly not so enraptured by the gender-equality revolution that they have embraced as national policy the weakening of their country’s defenses in the name of a radical-feminist ideology.

Only those who don’t know much about soldiering assume that 21st-century technology has reduced or eliminated the need for brute physical strength and toughness on the modern battlefield. To the contrary, today’s wars, if anything, require more strength and more endurance. Our fathers and grandfathers marched into battle with rifles, ammunition, and what they could stuff into an ALICE pack.

In the generations since, a soldier or Marine’s fighting load has grown heavier with the addition of body armor, radios, and a myriad of other gadgets, together with the batteries to power it all.

It’s not uncommon for a stout young American to march to the field with 100 or 120 pounds on his back: weapons and ammunition, grenades and mortar rounds, water and chow, flak, SAPI plates, and Kevlar helmet, tourniquets and bandages, night optics and range finders, a headlamp, batteries and more batteries, a map, compass, and protractor, note-taking gear, a sleeping system, tarp, and poncho liner, extra socks and warming layers, waterproofing bags, a toothbrush, a razor, and plenty of baby wipes, a blister kit, along with a bottle of Motrin and at least five cans of chewing tobacco. Oh, and don’t forget the extra boot laces.

Getting to the fight is, as the Marines will tell you, only the first part of the job description: “To locate, close with, and destroy the enemy” implies the ability to fight, kill, and win in unforgiving close combat only after you’ve completed the long hump to the killing fields.

And the real test comes when it’s not your gear or your weapons with which you must hump, but your buddy’s gear and your buddy’s weapons in addition to your own kit, or, worse, your buddy’s bleeding body, thrown across your shoulders, as you struggle under fire to get him off the X.

The Army is not a social-engineering NGO, a jobs program, or an institution set up to allow its members to achieve their highest self-actualization. It is an institution whose only purpose is to kill people and break things on the nation’s behalf. Any policy, however benignly intended — such as the arbitrary desire to increase the number of women in the Army — that interferes with the goal of attaining maximum lethality for the unit or individual is a betrayal of the nation and the soldiers — men and women — who volunteer to serve it.

If Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration insist on maintaining gender-integrated ground-combat units, the least they could do is assure the American people and the young Americans who will find themselves under fire, living through the worst day of their lives, that no standard was sacrificed on the altar of gender diversity and that they were put in the best possible position to fight and win

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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