Attrition: Air Force Weaklings Cast Out


September 17, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is again (on January 1st) raising its physical fitness standards. This has become an almost annual event in the past few years. Even before September 11, 2001, the air force brass were becoming alarmed at a weakening resolve, among their troops, to stay in shape. There has been an ongoing crackdown as a result.

The army and marines have always been more strict about staying in shape. But this time around, the air force and navy got religion as well. Both of these services have imposed more strict weight and physical fitness standards that must be met, otherwise you get discharged (fired). Part of this arose because of feedback from the thousands of air force personnel who were sent to help the U.S. Army carry out support functions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many air force personnel found that they were in poor physical shape, especially for service in a combat zone. They noted that army troops were in much better physical condition, even those doing the same support jobs the air force "augmentees" were performing. Being in better shape helped you survive the dangers of combat.

This resulted in higher physical standards for airmen, and those that could not make it were cast out. As a result, in 2003, 331 air force personnel were discharged for not being fit, or thin, enough. The rules were then changed to give more slack on the weight (which often penalized body builders) and instead imposed a simple fitness test (1.5 mile run and timed push-ups and sit-ups, the number varying with age and gender). Thus in 2004, only one airman got thrown out for failing the physical fitness test (many more got medical discharges for infirmities suffered because of work related incidents.) In 2005, seven got discharged for failing the fitness tests, and in 2006, that rose to 73. In 2007 (which ends on September 30th in the military), 119 were discharged. But this year, someone at the top noted a general slackening when it came to enforcement. Thus the new changes, which include civilian contractors administering the tests (rather than air force personnel). The main reason for the latest changes (which only up the physical standards a bit) was the realization that many commanders were not pushing physical fitness as much as the brass wanted. The reason for that was a quiet revolt in the ranks against all the new emphasis on being buff. For many unit commanders, it was a morale issue, and the work doesn't get done as well when the troops are in a bad mood. It's expected that there will be a big increase in the number of troops (10-20 percent of them) failing the test because of the new rules. This will result in lots of activity in the gym, and all over bases, as airmen hustle to prepare for the next test (which is now held every six months.)

The air force thought it would be able to tighten up physical standards partly because they have been shrinking their personnel strength over the past few years. Automation and downsizing have been having an impact, just as these trends have been showing up in so many civilian organizations. It still hurts when you lose scarce technical specialists, but these fellows are constantly tempted with higher paying civilian jobs anyway. Not so much now, with the recession going on, but the threat is always there.

In the last year, the air force also went through a leadership shakeup, partly due to sloppiness in handling nuclear weapons, partly due to the personnel cuts, and partly due to arguments over how many F-22s to buy, and how to pay for it. But apparently it wasn't only the nukes that were being mishandled. Commanders were not ensuring that subordinates took their physical fitness tests, and some were not allowing time for physical conditioning. So the new physical standards, and how they are tested, is yet another aspect of an effort to improve how the air force is managed.



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