Air Force Fitness Test Debacle: Another Leadership Failure

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Chaplain Lt. Col. Bruce Brewer, front, joins U.S. Air Force NCO Academy students here Dec. 5, 2014, during a fitness session on the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center's running track. Brewer is assigned as lead chaplain for the 151st Air Refueling Wing, Utah Air National Guard. He served as TEC's interim Chaplain from July to December. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith/Released)

Among the many poor decisions made by Mark Welsh during his tenure as Chief of Staff was a decree that he would not even consider substantial changes to the service’s fitness program despite sound arguments from airmen at all levels that it wasn’t effectively supporting the mission. When a four-star makes such a decree in the vertically oriented, leave-your-spine-at-the-door Air Force, it has the effect of muzzling dissent and choking off constructive input.

In this case, Welsh’s obstinacy helped extend the life of a serious problem with the fitness program: official test tracks that were too long or too short for accurate testing. As we reported here recently, the service is in the midst a comprehensive review after finding initially that 17 of its tracks measured something other than 1.5 miles. With morale and careers having been unwisely tethered to the fitness program, the track issue is serious. Tracks too lengthy result in false failures. Tracks too short provide airmen with unfair advantages over those at other installations.

Some of the response to the recent story suggests deep cultural maladies. Many airmen, reflecting the “do what I say and stop bothering me with details” mentality of the current leadership corps, argue that someone who doesn’t pass because of a 360-foot measuring error is probably a slacker anyway and should be jettisoned without remorse. After all, why waste time on a donut-muncher who lacks the discipline to pass so easily as to make the standard irrelevant?

Thing is, a 360-foot difference isn’t trivial. Someone just meeting the standard on the 1.5-mile run is clocking roughly 6.6 mph, or 9.7 feet per second. At this speed, 360 feet equals 37 seconds. That’s an eternity, especially with a career or a promotion on the line.  But in Air Force terms, when we’re doing it right, it’s an eternity regardless of context. We measure success in fractions of seconds. That’s the operational standard, and it must therefore be the support and administrative standard. When it’s not, you get the grotesque outcome of strong performing, mission-hacking airmen drummed out of the service or left in the career dust because they officially failed a test they didn’t actually fail.

But this isn’t really about time and distance calculations.  It’s about the toxic combination of ineptitude and authoritarianism that have characterized service life for the past decade — roughly the lifespan of the PT program. In that time, the Air Force has forgotten a basic principle of leadership: before you can hold people accountable, you must entitle yourself to do so. You do this by enabling their performance. This means giving them the resources to meet your expectations. In the case of the USAF PT program, this means giving people (among other things):

  1. Time.
  2. Clarity of purpose.
  3. A suitable facility for preparing and testing.
  4. A voice to identify legitimate issues.

By this test, Air Force leaders get an F- on fitness.

In its first major revision of the program, just a couple of years after it was rolled out, the service removed the mandate that commanders give airmen time during the duty day to exercise. This was a dumb move. If it’s part of an airman’s duty, it’s part of the duty day, plain and simple. Typical Air Staff chicanery to expect something from nothing, but the generals and chiefs should have objected. They know that in a time-constrained environment, anything not mandatory doesn’t get done. Under the USAF construct, fitness only becomes mandatory at the instant an airman has just enough time before the test to get fit enough to pass it. In this construct, other mandatory stuff will take precedence until that moment.

Airmen don’t really know why the fitness program is important beyond the consequences. Is it a war readiness program? If so, don’t need the waist measurement, and the balance of it doesn’t apply to most people (as Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso seemed to say recently) because they don’t need physical strength or endurance to do their wartime jobs. Is it a wellness program? That’s the only reading that makes the waist measurement valid, but it orphans the rest of the test. Is it a force shaping tool? This is a cynical idea, but the Air Force has done nothing to invalidate it. Whatever it is, the Air Force has never been honest about it, and airmen are too smart to take “because I said so” as a rationale. They’re also too clever to be fooled into false clarity by 200-page manuals purportedly describing a simple, robust program.

The Air Force has obviously failed to provide adequate facilities. Tracks of incorrect length are the tip of the iceberg. Understaffed fitness centers with anemic hours and bitchy, entitled desk clerks are par for the course. And there’s nothing like being chased off a running track when running because … wait for it … other people are running on it for their tests. Add up the number of tests required and you quickly devolve running tracks into exclusive test facilities, meaning no one really ever runs under the conditions the test contemplates. Fighting like you never trained … a recipe for military failure.

But the biggest failure is the failure to listen. That some of these tracks were too long is not “very surprising” as Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly falsely claimed, even if he believed what he was saying. Airmen have identified to many of these bases that they were hitting 1.5 miles on their runs before reaching the finish line. They provided GPS tracks to fitness centers and chains of command. In other words, they identified an important flaw in the testing process. They were told to shut up and color. And this is where we arrive full circle at the Mark Welsh declaration that fitness was off-limits … a “subject forbidden” in his front office. This shut down the conduit for critical feedback … like the fact that airmen were being cheated out of their careers by incorrectly measured tracks.

The Air Force’s leadership created a culture in which the fitness test was a way to get rid out non-conforming airmen by the thousands. It had (and has) nothing to do with the mission. We know this because airmen who fail fitness tests continue to be deployable and deployed. They continue to do the mission.

But as too often happens, out-of-touch generals and their spineless toadies got carried away with flexing their power. They crushed careers, livelihood, and families over a single sit-up, a half-inch of waist measurement, or 10 seconds of run time. They did this to superb, valued, needed airmen. This allowed them to look and feel tough. But it wasn’t good for the Air Force.

Questions we would be asking if I were Secretary of the Air Force include, but are not limited to:

  1. Who certified these tracks?
  2. What is the process for inspecting and recertifying? Was it followed?
  3. When was the last UCI at these bases? Who performed it? Did they measure these facilities?
  4. Is there a record of airmen complaining about these facilities? If so, what was done about it?
  5. What’s our return on investment for the fitness program? What does it do for us and what does it do to us?
  6. Is there a better, more effective way to accomplish the fitness objective? By implication, what is the objective?

There is no practical, legal way to make whole the airmen who were trashed in this process. The only way to dignify them now is to hold accountable those who screwed them, and perhaps stand up a general amnesty program to re-admit those discharged for fitness failures. We could sure use the manpower.

Once we’re done with that, it’s time to scrap the useless PT program and concentrate on being an Air Force again. We’re not the Army. Best we remember that.


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