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Senators urge Pentagon to suspend implementation of Army's new fitness test

By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: October 21, 2020

WASHINGTON — Democratic senators appealed Tuesday for support of a legislative proposal that would suspend implementation of the Army's new fitness test, arguing the high-profile initiative to improve physical readiness is based on faulty data and could undermine the goal of creating a diverse force.

In an Oct. 20 letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the rollout of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) "premature" and said the exam could damage some soldiers' professional prospects.

"We have considerable concerns regarding the negative impact [the test] may already be having on so many careers," they said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. "It is imperative that we pause implementation until all questions and concerns are answered. Soldiers' careers depend on it and the continued lethality of our force requires it."

The senators asked the committee leaders to ensure a measure that would suspend rollout of the test until an independent study can be conducted is included in the final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense bill. The provision appeared in the Senate-passed version of the bill, but not in the House version.

Lawmakers are expected to convene to reconcile the two versions of the bill after the Nov. 3 presidential election.

The test has become a charged issue within the Army as it pits the service's effort to establish gender-blind standards and improve soldier readiness against fears it could pose an additional challenge to retaining skilled troops and compound obstacles faced by underrepresented populations within the force. Critics say it could have a disproportionate impact on women, who make up 15% of the Army but occupy few leadership positions.

Army data shows that, 18 months after small cohorts of soldiers started taking the test on a provisional basis, women continue to fail at dramatically higher rates than men. In the second quarter of 2020, 54% of women failed the test, compared to 7% of men.

The stark gender gap comes as Pentagon leaders express an urgent desire to rectify the military's legacy of racial and gender inequity, issues that have long dogged the force but were given new prominence when race-related unrest gripped the nation this summer.

The test consists of six events, including a dead lift, weighted ball throw and, most problematically for women who have taken it to date, a "leg tuck," which requires soldiers to lift themselves up from a pullup bar using their arm, core and leg muscles.

The test has different requirements for different career fields, but critics say that even the least demanding standards could remain out of reach for some. They also say that consistently lower scores for female soldiers, who are typically lighter than men and thus must lift weights that are heavier relative to their body weight, could hold women back.

The Army did not provide an immediate comment.

While Army leaders have said the test won't impact evaluations until 2022 at the earliest, it is expected to eventually affect enlisted personnel's promotion potential and officers' careers.

Army officials say the test is a product of years of research and is designed to better prepare troops for conditions they would encounter in combat. It places a higher emphasis on muscular strength than the previous Army fitness test, which was adjusted for age and gender and included pushups, pullups and a two-mile run.

Officials have also said troops can do an alternate to the leg tuck, a two-minute plank, while the test is being finalized.

But some soldiers have privately voiced fears the test could make it even harder for the Army to secure personnel for high-demand fields like cyber and say the exercises aren't relevant for certain troops, including medical professionals and lawyers.

In their letter, Gillibrand and Blumenthal questioned the data used to develop the test, saying not enough women were included in the early testing groups, among other problems.

As envisioned in the Senate bill, the proposed study would examine how the test will affect recruitment and retention in certain military career fields and whether it would negatively impact soldiers in areas where adequate training for the six-event test is not possible.