House lawmakers on Wednesday backed plans to overhaul Army fitness standards for troops in combat jobs, mirroring plans adopted by senators last week that could upend how the services test troops to ensure they are prepared for the rigors of the battlefield.
The proposal, included in the House Armed Services Committee markup of the annual defense authorization bill, calls for the secretary of the Army to “establish gender-neutral fitness standards for combat Military Occupational Specialties that are higher than those for non-combat MOSs.”
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee approved similar language in their authorization bill draft last week. Both committee votes were approved with bipartisan support, despite objections from some Democratic leaders.
“It is obvious that a 100-pound artillery shell or a 150-pound rucksack or a 200-pound soldier that has to be moved to the top of a hill is different than using a keyboard,” said amendment sponsor Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., during committee debate Wednesday.
“At the end of the day, this is about the standards that all Americans who want to serve this country need to meet to win wars. The jobs are different, and therefore they should have different standards.”
The provision represents the second rebuke in a week for Army leaders, who have spent the last several years tweaking their fitness test in response to previous criticism that the events were overly strenuous for service members in support roles.
Army officials launched their revised Army Combat Fitness Test in March, following an independent review ordered by Congress into shortcomings with the test. All active duty and full-time reserve component troops will have the new test count this fall, and part-time Reserve and Guard troops will take the test for record beginning next April.
The current ACFT is pared down from its predecessor, which was specifically designed as an age- and gender-neutral test with different standards based on whether a soldier’s job requires “heavy,” “significant” or “moderate” physical effort.
After large numbers of women were unable to meet those minimum requirements, the Army amended the events and created a new scoring system with different standards for age and gender, changing its messaging to describe the ACFT as an elevated fitness test, rather than a readiness evaluation.
But lawmakers have said the result was a fitness test that was too broad and does not adequately prepare soldiers for potential battlefield demands.
The language included in the authorization bill would require both the development of a new test for “combat MOSs” but also for service officials to better define what those jobs are, and who should be held to the higher fitness standards.
Report language accompanying the Senate authorization bill draft goes beyond the Army fitness test to include further examination by all of the services in their requirements. Senators included language requesting that the Defense Department come up with a list of close-combat jobs and briefings for Congress on the physical requirements for them.
That could force changes across the services in the future, although the proposals for now only apply to the controversial Army test.
The move would seemingly support DoD guidance from March directing the services to ensure their fitness programs “meet occupationally-specific, operationally-relevant physical requirements for physically-demanding career fields.”
The Army has job-specific fitness standards currently in its Occupational Physical Assessment Test, or OPAT, but they are considered bare minimums for initial entry into career fields.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., led opposition to the move, arguing that Army officials “know more than our committee about what standards are needed to meet their requirements.”
“This basically takes away that flexibility in any regard,” he said.
But for now, both chambers appear headed towards forcing a change in the test.
Both chambers will have to adopt their separate versions of the authorization bills before they can begin negotiations on a compromise measure. That work is expected to stretch into the fall.