Air Force Finally Coming Around on Fitness

Official Air Force Image: LtGen Gina Grosso Bio Photo

Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso recently gave an interview to Air Force Times about potential changes to the Officer Evaluation System. But in the course of that interview, she made interesting comments about the service’s fitness program … comments that are already creating high-volume chatter in the Air Force community.

“How much brawn does the military need, and how much intellect? I think about a cyber warrior. Do I care what a cyber warrior weighs? Do I care if he can run a mile and a half in 12 minutes?”

Many will disagree (and in fact, many have already), but I think Grosso is spot-on here. It’s time to abandon the “we’re all in the military” meme. “The military” is actually a vast and various conglomerate of millions of people wielding myriad skillsets — all required to function in harmony to create the conditions necessary to secure military objectives. Thinking total uniformity is necessary above the level of the fighting unit is dumb.

Some in “the military” need to be able to hike 20 miles with a 40-pound pack in a single business day on nothing but beef jerky and a canteen of iodine-treated water. Others need to stay mentally alert while parked in an office chair for 20 hours sipping Red Bull and chewing on Jolly Ranchers. Most fall somewhere in between. Pretending there is a single physical fitness standard for all belongs in the Pantheon of foolish ideas.

For roughly sixty years, the Air Force got by without the pretension that martial traditions applicable to fielded ground forces actually mattered to its combat success. The service knew the vast majority of its airmen had little use for the ability to live and thrive in the mud, since most of its people would be in a cockpit, on the tarmac, or in a missile silo. In fact, it embraced with ideological zeal the notion that wars were best fought from the neck up. Any over-focus on physical readiness would be deducted from the time and effort devoted to the intellectual readiness vital to victory in an industrial age, or so the argument went. The bare minimum was indeed rather bare. Only those manifestly unhealthy were stalked by the bureaucracy.

Then came OEF and the “era of counterinsurgency” that favored rifle-sight combat. In its feckless lurch to grapple for budgetary relevance during a protracted war that put airpower in a supporting role, the service adopted a new fitness program and scolded its airmen to get off the couch. As if to underline in double red that budget topline mattered more than individual worth to the mission, the service attached career consequences to subpar PT tests, amplifying the severity of those consequences in subsequent program revisions.

Suddenly, PT scores became a boardroom obsession. Generals routinely climbed aboard corporate jets to stroll across red carpets for the primary purpose of assessing fitness … and to hire or fire subordinates based on their waistlines and lung capacities. It was a brave new world for a work-hard, play-hard service that previously amused itself by marveling at the Army’s senseless preference for self-imposed misery.

In the years that followed, scores of highly valuable airmen were discarded. It was a sad chapter in Air Force history, with commanders carrying out — and in too many cases, zealously heralding — a mindless regulation that forced them to act contrary to their own interests and the mission. Good people were tossed aside, a Cardinal sin for any company interested in greatness.

In parallel, a cultural rot took hold as image-obsessed fitness freaks were favored over intelligent and hard-working airpower aficionados. Suddenly, style became more important than substance … form more critical than function … and the Air Force suddenly became an organization where the vapid but pretty suddenly had an advantage over the smart but physically ordinary. Pizza went from being an ornament of unpaid overtime to a token of shame.

Grosso’s remarks indicate an approaching reversal. She would not be making them unless at least tacitly authorized by the service’s top leadership. This means change is in the air when it comes to fitness. It might be as simple as Grosso and the Times’ article imply: there simply are not enough tank-top sporting, mirror-preening beefcakes or spandex-laden, marathon-jaunting yoga gurus in American society to keep the military services fully manned. This might be a key service leader telegraphing a move to gain a recruiting edge.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is part of the Air Force’s long-awaited awakening from cultural slumber. The answer to the riddle “what does lung capacity have to do with flying airplanes” is found in the size of Curtis LeMay’s waistline.

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