Attrition: The Reality Check

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July 9, 2014: The Philippines recently reduced the standards for its semi-annual military physical fitness test. The timed run (time to finish depends on age) distance was reduced from 3,200 meters to 2,000 meters. Other nations in the region had done the same when they, like the Philippines, found that a lot of the troops, and especially officers, could not pass the test and some even collapsed (often because of the tropical heat common in that part of the world) trying. Rather than do what the tests demand (increase physical training and dismiss officers and troops who cannot meet the standards) the standards are being quietly reduced for the sake of the health of the soldiers and the politicians they work for.

The physical testing mania was another side-effect of the war on terror. After September 11, 2001 many nations noted how effective American troops were and studied how the Americans had selected and trained their troops to achieve these high standards. Physical fitness was a major part of the selection and training process and many other nations tried to adopt American methods. Many nations found that this conflicted with local standards, customs and political realities. This was especially true with officers in many nations, who depended more on political connections and loyalty to maintain their position that physical fitness.

Even the United States ran into a lot of problems enforcing physical fitness standards. After 2007 the U.S. Air Force and Navy joined the army and marines and made a major effort to get all its personnel into good physical shape. This was quite a chore because the air force was the least physically active of all the services. The key to making this effort succeed was mandating that all personnel pass a new and tougher physical fitness test. This effort has been too successful, at least according to most air force personnel. Consider the fact that back in 2007, the air force discharged 156 people for failure to pass the physical fitness test. By 2012 about ten times as many people are being tossed out for failing the test. Airmen can also be demoted for failure to pass the test but that is not nearly as good a motivator as the threat of losing your job.

A major problem was that these standards did not give some airmen enough time to lose weight and get into shape. The rules were changed so that you got discharged only if you failed four tests in 24 months. Even then commanders could make exceptions. This was became some commanders pointed out that if they tossed airmen out as the new standards demanded some essential jobs would not get done. After all the air force was more of a technical organization that a physical one. Despite this push-back, the air force pressured commanders to find replacements for essential personnel who could not get into the kind of physical shape now demanded.

Air force personnel get tested every six months, although tests are conducted every month so as not to overwhelm the testers and the gyms. A key factor in the higher failure rate was the use of civilian fitness specialists hired to conduct the tests, rather than local NCOs and officers. It was also noted that older airmen (especially officers) tended to get higher scores than the youngsters. There appears to be a generation gap here, with those who came up before everyone had video games and Internet, were, and remain, in better physical shape. In any event gyms on air force bases have been mobbed since the PT standards were implemented, with a lot more people seen running outside or participating in sports. The troops got the message and scores, and pass rates, have been going up each month but not enough for the hard core out-of-shape.

A lot of this physical fitness mania has to do with too much food and not enough exercise. Overweight airmen have long been a problem. Some bases found that over 40 percent of their personnel were overweight. So the air force changed menus in its dining halls and what snacks are allowed in stores on base. More exercise programs were created and physical fitness standards are being enforced.

By service the air force is the fattest (6.7 percent overweight) and the marines the thinnest (1.2 percent overweight). Weight is more of a problem with older troops. Thus 6.6 percent those 40 or older are overweight, compared to only 1.6 percent of those under 20. As in the civilian world, women have a harder time with weight. Fifteen percent of military personnel are female and about half of them are currently overweight.

Ever since conscription was eliminated (in the early 1970s) the military has periodically cracked down on personnel who were not fit. The military would discharge troops who were fat, although a fair amount of leeway was given. The military makes an effort to get chubby troops down to a safe weight. But each year overweight troops who fail are discharged from the service. For many of those who served in a combat zone, and dealt with the stress via food, they are just another casualty of war. A career dies even if the soldier involved does not. The air force, however, needed skills more than physical fitness for most of its jobs and was always the most lax about strictly enforcing the standards.

Even before September 11, 2001, the air force brass were becoming alarmed at a weakening resolve among their troops and commanders to stay in shape. There was an ongoing crackdown after September 11, 2001 and the new PT test was one result. The army and marines have always been stricter about staying in shape. But this time around the air force and navy got religion as well. Both of these services have imposed stricter weight and physical fitness standards that must be met, otherwise you get discharged (fired).

One motivator for the air force was 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. The problems those airmen encountered helped spur the rise in physical fitness standards. Many air force personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan found that they were in poor physical shape, especially for service in a combat zone. They noted that army troops were in much better shape, even those doing the same support jobs as the air force "augmentees." Being in better shape helped you survive the dangers of combat. In short, being fit was a matter of life or death. Pilots and members of air force security (a small army of light infantry for guarding bases) have always known and accepted the need for physical fitness. But this attitude never spread to the other 80 percent of air force personnel.

The main reason for the latest changes (which only raise 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 was expected that there would be a big increase in the number of troops failing the test because of the new rules.

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. But the main reason for raising physical standards was the battlefield reality check thousands of air force augmentees received. Most airmen got the message as well and turned around the air force image as soft and out-of-shape.

 


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