WASHINGTON, D.C. – “If you can’t pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, then there’s probably not a spot for you in the Army,” said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper.

On July 9, the U.S. Army announced a new physical fitness test—the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT. The test is designed to replace the APFT with a gender- and age-neutral assessment that will more closely align with the physical demands Soldiers will face in combat. Field tests for the ACFT will begin in October 2018, and by October 2020, all Regular Army, Army National Guard, and U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers will be required to take the test.

“That doesn’t mean you’ll immediately get kicked out,” he added. It means there will be some sort of remedial program, the details of which are still being worked out.

Esper addressed a range of issues during a Defense Writers Group breakfast Aug. 29.

The current Army Physical Fitness Test, which has been around some 40 years, is flawed, Esper said.

“I grew up in the Army with the APFT and I personally never thought it was a good indicator of combat physical fitness, nor did many of my colleagues. The testing has proved that out,” he said.

The secretary said studies done by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command show that the APFT captures “maybe 30 or 40 percent relevance of what you demand in combat … the ACFT is upwards of 80 percent.”

Combat ready, physically fit soldiers

The main purpose of the ACFT is twofold, he said. First, the test ensures soldiers are ready for combat. Second, preparation for the test improves physical fitness as it relates to injury prevention.

Esper said losing soldiers to injuries during physical training or field exercises contributes to decreased readiness, because injured soldiers can’t deploy.

At one point, upwards of 15 percent of soldiers were categorized as nondeployable, he said. That’s about 150,000 soldiers across the entire force. Now, that figure has been reduced to 9 percent, and there are vigorous efforts underway to lower that percentage still more.

“If you’re not physically fit for combat, then we’re not only doing you an injustice, we’re doing an injustice to your colleagues and peers as well,” Esper said, explaining that if a soldier can’t deploy, that means someone else has to deploy twice as much.

“At the end of the day, we need soldiers who are deployable, lethal and ready,” he emphasized.

Beginning October 2020, all soldiers will be required to take the ACFT, which TRADOC fitness researchers term “gender- and age-neutral.”

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“Good test,” huffed Aiton, who will soon turn 50. “I’m smoked.”

Army leaders are touting the test, which is gender- and age-neutral, as a generational change in how soldiers approach physical fitness.

Instead of situps, pushups and a 2-mile run — the standard yardstick since 1980 — the Army Combat Fitness Test includes exercises to improve how soldiers perform on the battlefield.

For example, dragging that 90-pound sled isn’t just good exercise that builds muscle. It can simulate pulling a comrade to safety.

All soldiers will be required to take the test by October 2020. Field-testing is set to begin this fall, initially with 40,000 soldiers.

Senior leaders are already sweating it out, but in a productive way.

On Wednesday around 6:30 a.m., two-star generals, colonels and command sergeants major clad in workout gear gathered on a field at Fort Eustis. They’re under the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, headquartered at Eustis, and were already here for a commander’s forum.

TRADOC operates schools around the country. So if TRADOC is considered the Army’s university, these men and women represented its senior faculty.

At the top of the organization is Gen. Stephen Townsend, TRADOC commander, who wasn’t wearing his four stars Wednesday. Looking fit in a T-shirt and shorts, he was ready to take the test along with his subordinates. He’d already taken it once.

“I think it’s far superior to what I’ve been doing for the past 36 years,” he said. “The day I took it, I knew this is exactly what the Army needs.”

“That’s why the military — just like you — is thinking about how to get healthier in the new year and beyond.

These base makeovers are setting the scene for the launch of Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F), a larger initiative that strives to radically change how the Army prepares service members. The proposal includes the introduction of a new field manual for training, plus the creation of Soldier Performance Readiness Centers (SPRC, pronounced “spark”), which will be state-of-the-art fitness facilities staffed by experts who can educate and offer real-time feedback on proper form, psychological well-being, nutrition and more.

An SPRC is not exactly a gym, says Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who commands the Center for Initial Military Training at Virginia’s Fort Eustis, which is behind H2F. He compares it to the way the Army cares for equipment. “What we don’t have is a range to improve yourself,” he explains.

A better understanding of human performance is part of the impetus behind H2F, Frost says. But the initiative is also a reaction to the current American population, which is not nearly as fit as in previous generations. Frost says it’s a challenge to fight when tens of thousands of soldiers — or, as he calls them, “our primary weapons system” — are non-deployable because of weight problems and injuries.

Folks signing up to serve were once in peak condition, Frost says. “I like to say that 15 to 30 years ago, recruits were better prepared.  We were analogous to marinated steaks,” he explains.  “Throw us on the grill and we were ready to be soldiers.