10 Reasons to Kill the Air Force Fitness Test

Yesterday, we told you about utterances from the Air Force grapevine indicating that the service might stop discharging airmen solely because of failed fitness tests.

Today it’s time for a comprehensive airing of grievances about this harebrained program and why it should be killed with fire before it can taint another calendar year.

There are at least 99 problems with the Air Force’s current fitness program, which is really just an annual test used to cull the herd. Here are the 10 most relevant problems.

One: It Has Become Too Important.

The Air Force doesn’t live in the mud or fight with bayonets. Contrary to the scotch-fueled predictions of a legion of drunkards back in the early noughts, when counterinsurgency was fashionable, the Air Force did not and will not transform into a tent-based branch of the Army that does a little aviation on the side.

The airman who discharges a rifle in anger is something like a military unicorn, and such rare creatures need and get a different set of physical fitness expectations (and resources). But for the run-of-the-mill blue-suiter, having a soldierly level of physical fitness is not and should not be a priority.

This didn’t stop wave after wave of mouth-breathers from chanting “bbut hurr durr the military” while trashing careers, draining the enjoyment out of squadron life, and perverting the focus of the entire force over the last decade plus — all in the unwitting name of cynical force-shaping clothed in a Jenner-esque disguise.

This was all too predictable — the foreseeable consequence of unleashing any easily quantifiable metric into the general population of the world’s laziest personnel bureaucracy, itself seething with decades of pent-up nonner envy. We handed the lunatics the keys to the asylum. Now we have some of our best pilots, crew chiefs, intelligence analysts, weapons loaders, and aerial porters being blackballed and discharged over the inability to meet a “standard” that has zero bearing on their ability to do the job they were trained to do. It’s absurd, and has to stop.

Two: It Doesn’t Even Know What the Hell It’s Trying to Measure.

The test has 3 components that measure fitness (run, situps, pushups) and one that measures wellness (waist measurement). They should be separate and different consequences, but are instead glommed into one score. You can be fit but unwell and fail. You can be well but unfit and fail. In either case, the consequences pretend mission impact that doesn’t exist. The only mission degradation in most cases is when we cull a capable airman from the roster because of this idiotic test.

It’s been proven time and again with theory, data, logic, and history that the size of someone’s waist has no direct correlation with fitness for Air Force duty.

Yet, the boneheads in charge have continued to implant this component in the test and then turn themselves into figurative pretzels trying in vain to argue it belongs there.

The waist measurement has jack all to do with fitness. It should be a separate measurement taken during an annual medical exam. Airmen deemed too rotund should be given any necessary support to reduce their girth to healthy levels. If the Air Force really cares about wellness, it will invest in the equipment to accurately measure body fat instead, and eliminate this creature of junk science completely.

If it’s useless, why is it in the test, you ask? Because the service wanted to get rid of people who didn’t look good in uniform. Because it didn’t want to say that out loud and be seen as fat-shaming, and because it doesn’t trust its commanders to judge whether someone’s appearance is objectively unprofessional, it co-opted this bullshit tape test as a way to try and engineer human judgement out of appearance judging. No one was fooled, and airmen hate being lied to more than anything. Kill it with fire.

Three: It Gets Judged in a Vacuum.

This is related to the first point above. The cubicle monkeys who foisted this thing on us weren’t satisfied with garden-variety operator harassment. They needed to actually destroy lives and degrade the mission. Thus, we got rule changes that made fitness testing a single-issue referendum on the worth and value of an airman … with zero reference to their performance in other aspects.

So much for whole person concept, right? If you come up short one crunch on test day, you’re not a person at all. If this test is to be retained in some form, its impact needs to be sharply curbed.

Four: It Trades Accuracy for Efficiency.

Wrapping measuring tape around someone’s belly is not scientific. But we accept it because it costs less than a ring-laser body fat measurement machine. If a few hundred people fail who should have passed (or vice versa), they’re just the unfortunate casualties of force-wide efficiency.

This should sound familiar, because it’s a feature of the Air Force’s unstated but core ethos. Assignments, promotions and promotion notifications, command screening, even command and control of theater airpower are driven by this same philosophy — that the efficiency and uniformity of action purchased by centralized control is preferable to the accuracy and effectiveness of tailored, situational, on-scene authority. If a commander is allowed to judge fitness based on the on-scene facts, next we’ll be suggesting s/he should command airpower at the tactical level. This would threaten any number of sacred cows, most of all the mega-billion-dollar Falconer AOC program, which is the service’s vehicle to prevent the other branches from forcing it into tactical support arrangements it does not prefer.

While interesting, this is not a good guide for how to treat people. Airmen can tell when they’re being treated like cattle so some jackass bureaucrat can have life easy, and they bristle at the notion. Don’t believe me? Look at that stampede racing for the exits.

Five: We Don’t Really Care About It.

And it’s easy to see this is the case because we don’t provide the resources to do it well. If you want a force fit enough that it can augment the Marines, you need to make fitness an inviolate and non-negotiable part of every duty day. You need to provide 24/7 gym access, full stop, no excuses. You need professional fitness coaches, dieticians, and exercise physiologists on staff at every base. Your commanders and senior enlisted leaders must be able to instruct fitness techniques as well as marksmanship and combatives, and these are the logical products of a need for individual fitness. This is the minimum investment level to show seriousness.

If you’re not able to provide these resources, you’re not entitled to expect a corresponding commitment from airmen, especially given they didn’t join the military branch known for high fitness levels. If you’re able to provide these resources but are electing not to do so (which is clearly the case given that the price tag of a single F-35 would pay for it all), you’re nothing but an exposed cabal of biblical-scale hypocrites. Time to end the charade and shut the hell up about fitness if you won’t close the money-mouth gap.

Six: It Feeds Image Obsession.

In the hands of a mature organization focused intently on the substance of its contributions, the test might not have run so amok. But in the hands of an Air Force obsessed with the employment of a public relations army to manicure its public image, the test has backfired with awful consequences. Image obsession is a problem for the USAF, so this test was something like a flare thrown into an ammo dump.

What we have now is a pack mentality with image-obsessed CrossFit nazis as informal chieftains. In real life and online, they preen in so many mirrors, imbibing their own potion until drunk on a faux superiority which is then empowers them to denigrate those who spend a mere normal percentage of their time tending to personal appearance. Fat-shaming is the norm. Eating at McDonald’s, once a great American tradition, is now a path to social isolation. Even alcohol consumption — a military tradition as aged as both militaries and traditions — is now frowned upon not for the chicanery it breeds, but its caloric content.

You see, these children are not just misguided imbeciles of the general sort. They are in many cases Air Force NCOs and officers in positions of authority with power over the lives and livelihoods (and families) of many others. Sufficiently under-developed as leaders that they remain confused about the distinctions between their personal preferences and the proper grounds for professional criticism, they are using the fitness test as a cudgel to beat down and disparage those who deviate from their personal definitions of human perfection.

In today’s USAF, you don’t have to fail a fitness test to be a fitness failure. You just have to care too little about being a gym rat that you fail to impress the new boss, himself promoted into his role because someone else left the USAF rather than have his or her chicken wing intake become a matter of national security.

Generals would know all this if they hired good colonels and pushed down on them until they got honest assessments of unit climate. One more example of how a bad program implemented in a bad culture makes both worse.

Seven: It Will Eventually Edit Our Heritage.

Curtis LeMay was portly. So were many other heroes in our book of lore. Bring that up today and you’ll get a glare of abject fury from one of the plastic morons currently ascending the ladder on the strength of rice cakes and tap water.

When enough of these skinny jackals make it to the top, they’ll censor our history for the sake of perceptual cleanliness. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

Eight: It Creates Absurdity.

Laws can be struck down if their predictable consequence is absurdity. We don’t need to speculate when it comes to this test, which is awash in enough lunacy and contradiction that it would be right at home as a torture device on Dante’s Island of Purgatory.

You can be the best commander on base and lose your job for doing 41 situps instead of 42. You can be top 5% of wing commanders in a MAJCOM and have a 2-star fly in on a corporate jet to fire you because your waistline is 41″ … even though you look fine in uniform and can run faster than that same general. You can fail your fitness test and still be deployable outside the wire. You can deploy on a failed test and earn a Bronze Star for combat performance and still be demoted or discharged when you get home … because your fitness test result says you’re not ready for war. You can even be 6’5″ and strong as an ox, log 9:36 on your 1.5-mile run, and graduate #1 in your class from the weapons school … and still be non-selected to major because your waist is 40.5″.

All true stories. All diminish the Air Force and make it into a joke. In all cases, giving field commanders the authority to apply test results intelligently would have prevented the outcome. Since we will never give field commanders appreciable authority, we can’t afford to have this test anymore.

Nine: It Perpetuates a Lie About What We Are and What We’re Not

There is no “the military.” The services are separate for many great reasons. Each has a distinct role in defense. Each needs fitness more or less than the others. Even within the services, different clans and tribes exist, each with a different role in warfare and a varying need for martial prowess.

Let’s just knock off the bullshit and call spades spades. Most airmen will never see the business end of a lethal instrument. If they do, it’ll be from standoff and they’ll probably be having it jammed or be operating above/beyond its range. We win because the bomber gets through, not because the guy flying the bomber looks trim and svelte in a flight suit.

On the other hand, most airmen will have their mental endurance and agility tested frequently in a career. They’ll need attention to detail and composure under immense stress. To succeed, they’ll need to push and test and grow and exploit and diversify their intelligence and reasoning over time. They will fight from the neck up, and win based the content of their thoughts rather than level of kale consumption.

So let’s stop playing soldier and figure out the best way to underwrite that kind of readiness. This will dismay those pathetic creatures who joined our service for the wrong reasons and now have firearm envy. Leave them to suffer in silence. They’ll assuage their sense of grief with some cool gear from Cabela’s and maybe a plastic surgery or two. Meanwhile, we’ll regain tighter coherence with an accurate sense of who and what we are, leaving the wasted energy of abdomen-measuring to others dumb enough to buy into it.

Ten: It Is Most Loved By Our Worst People.

And here’s the crowning point. You can tell a lot about a thing by who loves it and who hates it. In the 15 years since we were forced to pretend fitness should matter more to the USAF than it did before — you know, back when we kicked ass and inspired institutional loyalty — it’s been embraced by our most lazy-brained managerial hobbits while being reviled by our best and brightest.

Leaders support the fitness test out of political necessity, usually through clenched teeth and with a tone of preemptive apology. Managers, on the other hand, love this thing. It gives them something clear and easy with which to coerce and lord over people. People who want power most are usually least skilled at employing it, so be wary of anyone who wants the fitness test as a punitive tool.

This program has enabled and emboldened wave after wave of shitlord rule, long since crowding out common sense. It has added no value while creating a net loss of good people … all the while gnawing away at our sense of team. Judging worth by appearance, scoring people like we’re playing “hot or not,” assessing total value on the basis of an isolated number, wrapping measuring tape around each other to literally measure worth according to girth. Providing no time, no resources, no help … only judgment and adverse consequences delivered against the backdrop of sneering and taunting from those who stand to gain by looking better because they look nicer.

Aliens watching from space would conclude that we’re rivals, not teammates.

It’s time to close this dark chapter. Burn it now. Burn it all. Let’s re-boot in 2018 … and this time, let’s ask commanders and airmen to help us write a program that supports airpower rather than sorta vaguely maybe supporting some possible future land-based counterinsurgency war we might be asked to participate in.

In the immortal words of Hap Arnold, let’s be smart about this. More importantly, let’s be unapologetic and apolitical, and devise a standard that makes us better at delivering airpower … not one that affirms the vanity of a general officer trying to reshape something sacred in his image.

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