Air Force Fitness: Here’s the Fix

This past week, we’ve spent our dime energetically flogging the Air Force’s fitness program. This program is really just a test, the results of which determine whether you break even or your career is ground to an instant halt. There’s no evidence it is making the Air Force more fit, but plenty of evidence that the coercion baked into the test is a net negative for morale and retention.

The Navy recently snapped out of its fitness drunkenness, calling an end to discharges driven by fitness failures. In doing so, the Navy asked the question long left untouched by the aviation branch: what’s best for the mission?

This is the only question that matters. And on this question, the USAF program fails convincingly.

There is absolutely no connection between the Air Force’s fitness test and its lethality. This is irrefutable. Not even the test’s most ardent proponents dare attempt the argument that the service is more lethal because of the test, or that it would be less lethal without it. Such proponents instead typically invoke vague notions of “standards” disconnected from fitness for war — that is, when the discussion doesn’t devolve instantly into fat-shaming and/or CrossFit-fuelled self-love.

It’s clear the corporate USAF sees no link between the fitness test and its lethality. This is evident in two major features of the test itself.

First, it varies minimum score requirements by age. This makes no sense. An enemy bullet won’t travel faster or slower based on the age of the target. A requirement tightly coherent with field readiness would take no notice of age or gender.

Second, the test includes a non-scientific waist measurement that has no bearing on combat readiness. Airmen who are strong, flexible, and possessed of ample cardio-vascular fitness can still fail the test if their waistlines are judged too large. This measurement takes no notice of varying body types, and therefore rarely reflects an accurate measure of wellness, much less fitness.

The stench of this confused mess emanates against the backdrop of a service demographic that is rapidly changing. New airmen are healthier than ever before and have stronger life habits. They control and limit stress more carefully. They sleep more. They smoke and drink less. They work out more. They also resent coercive policies more than their predecessors, and value critical thinking more.

Meanwhile, the Air Force needs more of them, and desperately needs to find and develop an entire legion skilled in software development, coding, hacking, encryption, and cyber warfare. These are people who won’t need to serve their country to make money. To get them to take a pay cut and participate in national defense, the service needs to provide them a positive experience.

There’s never been a better moment to fix this issue. The question is how.

Clearly, the USAF can’t continue with the malignant jackassery of the current test, which is alienating and discarding great people, creating absurdity, and sowing division in the ranks. It’s also too expensive to maintain even at its under-resourced current level, and is inordinately complex to administer to the force.

Still, a return to the pathetic and laughable days of cycle ergometry is also not the answer. A baseline level of readiness is important, even for a service that does not need martial prowess to be lethal.

The answer is a middle ground solution. Here’s that solution, captured in eight simple guidelines.

1. Every airman will take a fitness test once each year within 30 days of his/her service anniversary.

2. The test consists of 30 pushups (no time limit), 30 situps (no time limit), and a 1.5-mile run in less than 15 minutes. These are universal minimums regardless of age or gender.

3. Passing test results will not be reported. Only failures will be reported. Failing airmen will be given access to fitness resources and expertise to improve their readiness.

4. Airmen who fail will not be punished or discharged. Failures may be considered when drafting performance reports, but may not be mentioned in reports. Failures will not be considered in the assignment of deployment selection processes. Airmen on failures remain deployable and assignable. However, airmen failing tests will not be promoted, sent to special duty assignments, or sent to PME until passing. Line numbers will be held until a passing score is achieved or until the sequence is exhausted and the number expires. Airmen on failures may not reenlist until the failure is cleared, though they may extend. New bonuses and incentive pays may not be processed for those on failures, but once processed, existing contracts will be paid irrespective of fitness status.

5. Airmen may re-test as frequently as desired. There is no minimum waiting period between a failure and re-test. Re-test failures will not be recorded. Re-test passes will be recorded in order to reflect recovery from failure in the system.

6. The waist measurement will no longer be part of the fitness test. Airmen will be measured for body fat, BMI, and abdominal circumference during annual health assessments. Medical doctors will provide counseling, support, and resources to airmen who demonstrate wellness risk factors as a result of these measurements. This information will remain privileged health information and will not, under any circumstance, be used as the basis for punitive or adverse personnel action. Airmen deemed medically unfit for duty, for this or any other reason, will be boarded.

7. Commanders who assess that an airmen does not present a professional military image will address the issue via ordinary administrative actions. Airmen may not receive nonjudicial or UCMJ punishment for failure to present a professional image, but may be processed for discharge or denied reenlistment if a commander deems then unwilling or unable to meet standards.

8. Air Force Specialties demanding a higher minimum fitness standard will continue to utilize existing community practices assuring combat readiness. Variances from USAF standard will be approved by the Chief of Staff and implemented at MAJCOM level. Commanders at levels below MAJCOM may not impose “county option” standards higher than the approved minimum.

One test to end them all. Simple, objectively minimalist and achievable by all, and yet demanding enough that it insists upon a minimum standard all military members should maintain.

Best of all, it will cost almost nothing and will allow the USAF to reduce its current fitness regulation from 147 pages to a single page. The individual and collective focus formerly spent on those other 146 pages can be plowed into priorities that will make us a more lethal warfighting service.

I’m sharing this with Gen. Goldfein. Recommend you do the same. Let’s be rid of this generational distraction and get back to a simple, effective fitness standard yielding a net increase in lethality.

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