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Posted on Apr 19, 2022 Print this Article

Army Scraps Gender-Neutral Standards Pushed by Discredited Social Engineers

If structural engineers design a bridge that collapses, they figure out what went wrong before they replace the bridge.  When a military social experiment collapses, “social engineers” and “experts” who designed the experiment never admit their mistakes. 

Misguided social policies are rarely reversed, but this just happened when the U.S. Army reversed course on the much-anticipated Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT).  Shortly after the Obama Administration opened combat arms units to women in 2015, officials decided to create the ACFT as a replacement for the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT).  

The ACFT was supposed to have “gender-neutral” standards identical for men and women, but the structure of gender equality has crumbled under the weight of reality.  Due to persistently high failure rates, primarily among female trainees, the Army has decided to scrap the concept of gender-neutrality in the ACFT. 

Instead, exercise requirements and test scores will be gender-normed and different for men and women, with some standards lower than before.  This matters because the entire experiment with women in combat has been built on egalitarian theories that did not survive contact with reality. 

As explained in this detailed CMR Policy Analysis, the Army’s stunning reversal belied numerous promises from social engineers and “experts” advising the Pentagon on what should be done to gender integrate direct ground combat units such as the infantry:  

In 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ignored the request of Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford that some infantry and Special Operations Forces units remain all-male.  Carter ordered all combat positions to be opened for women, vigorously denying that they would receive special treatment in training. 

In subsequent weeks, all of the military services repeatedly promised that if women were assigned to the infantry, armor, artillery, and Special Operations Forces, “Concerns about possible reductions in combat effectiveness can be addressed by “effective leadership” and “gender-neutral standards.”

Now the Army has given up on gender-neutral standards, due to high failure rates among women during three years of “diagnostic” trials.  The tougher six-event combat fitness test will be gender-normed like the three-event physical fitness test that the Army used for 40 years. 

This did not happen because of solid research that the Marine Corps produced in 2015, but because of recent data produced by RAND, a Defense Department contractor that has long supported progressive policies that are deeply embedded in today’s woke military. 

The Army’s reluctant recognition that gender-neutral standards do not work raises another question:  With “diversity” assigned priority in today’s woke military, why would gender-neutral standards work any better in advanced training for the infantry or Special Operations Forces? 

Costs, Controversies, and Contrived Solutions

The previous physical fitness test involved gender-normed sit-ups, push-ups, and a two-mile run that could be done anywhere.  The new six-event ACFT, initiated by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Army Sgt. Major Dan Dailey, required expensive equipment, gender- and age-neutral standards, and considerable time to prepare for and administer the test.

Requirements for all participants included the leg tuck (pulling the knees up while suspended on a high bar); a 25-meter sprint, drag, and carry of a 90 lb. sled and two 40 lb. kettlebells; throwing a 10-lb. medicine ball backward over the head; hand-release push-ups (hands and arms lifted at the bottom of the push-up); and a two-mile run.

Controversy also centered on “age-neutral” standards that absurdly suggested that a 4-star general, female X-ray technician and an 82nd Airborne soldiers should have to meet the same physical fitness standards.

The original ACFT tried to tailor requirements for individuals with a range of different requirements for heavy, significant, or moderate physical demands in various occupations.  An infantry-bound soldier, for example, had to perform 30 hand-release push-ups to earn a minimum score on that event, compared to 10 push-ups for others headed for less strenuous occupations.

The experiment started to fall apart in 2019, when 85% of female soldiers failed to pass.  In response to congressional pressure, ACFT 2.0 allowed the choice of a two-minute plank exercise instead of the leg-tuck, and an optional 2.5 mile walk instead of the 2-mile run. 

Version 3.0 of the ACFT contrived a system to evaluate women’s scores in “performance bands” or “tiers” comparing women’s performance to men’s.  The top 1% of both men and women, for example, would be rated in the Platinum group, even though their performance levels were dramatically different. 

This color-coded “gender-neutral” tiered illusion fooled no one, especially when women continued to fail at significantly higher rates. 

What RAND Reported

Congress ordered an independent study of the increasingly controversial ACFT.  The RAND Corporation conducted the study in 2021, gathering data from 630,000 tests with 460,000 soldiers.  The results were dismal.

  • Only 52% of active-duty enlisted women, compared to 92% of the men, were able to pass the ACFT.  Among officers, women’s pass rates were higher – 72% compared to 96% of male officers.  (Pass rates were lower in the National Guard and Reserves.) 
  •  RAND also noted that the top ten MOS pass rates for Regular Army enlisted women ranged from 89% to 65% and the bottom ten were from 44% to 31%.  In comparison, pass rates for Regular Army enlisted men in the top ten MOSs were quite high – 100% to 98%.  Pass rates for men in the bottom ten ranged from 86% to 83%.

The RAND report provided several caveats, but the empirical data were quite clear.  Theories about physical gender equality in military combat training were inconsistent with physical realities.

Army Combat Fitness Test 4.0

Shortly after release of the RAND report in March, the Army announced ACFT 4.0, which reneged on previous promises to implement gender-neutral standards

The new gender-normed test changed requirements and scoring tables, dropped the leg-tuck event all together, and abandoned attempts to “match the person to the job” with tougher test requirements for heavier occupations.  Like the old Army test, the ACFT 4.0 measures basic physical fitness, not readiness for advanced combat training. 

Commenting on this option, the RAND Report cautioned that gender-norming the ACFT would “ensure parity in pass rates between groups, but it would also require the Army to accept differences in potential combat readiness among soldiers who are held to different testing standards.”

The Army accepted that tradeoff, so where does his end?  If the “experts” could not deliver gender-neutral standards on a preliminary fitness test, why should anyone believe that officials pursing “diversity” will maintain gender-neutral standards in advanced training for the combat arms?  

New Special Operations “Norms” Softening Standards

In August 2015, the Obama Administration ordered that all combat arms units be opened to women, without exceptions.  Women have served with courage “in harm’s way,” but the all-male units affected are trained to attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action.

Attention focused on three female soldiers at Fort Benning, who deserved congratulations for getting through the tough Ranger School course.  However, as Ranger-trained author James Hasson reported in his book Stand Down: How Social Justice Warriors are Sabotaging America’s Military, in some cases the female trainees were forgiven major errors that would have caused male trainees to be dropped from the course.

Defense Secretary Carter dismissed the controversy, promising that every service member would have to meet the standards of the jobs they wished to fill, and “there must be no quotas or perception thereof.”  

The Air Force also promised strict adherence to a “merit-based system,” without “special preferences” or “undue pressure to increase numbers at the expense of merit.”

Nevertheless, as CMR reported previously, in March 2021 Gen. Richard D. Clarke, Commander of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) issued a paradigm-changing Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Plan, which repeatedly stated without evidence, “Diversity is an operational imperative.” 

This SOCOM mandate appears to have changed “norms” in Air Force Special Tactics training for combat controllers who operate closely with Special Operations Forces commando teams.

In January, Air Force Times reviewed and reported on a detailed letter written by a whistleblower, which claimed that an unnamed female combat controller trainee was failing the tough Special Tactics Training Squadron (STTS) and tried to quit twice.

Unlike the 70%- 80% of men who fail to meet combat controller requirements and are routinely assigned elsewhere, this woman was invited back and scheduled to resume her training in April. 

The STTS commander, Lt. Gen. James Slife, insisted that standards had not changed, even though details revealed by the unknown whistleblower were not contradicted.  CMR exclusively noted the effect of SOCOM diversity mandates on changing training “norms.”

The unknown female trainee should not be blamed for policies made by others, but officials who have assigned priority to diversity and inclusion mandates, superseding concerns about combat readiness and lethality, should be held accountable.

Potential adversaries, of course, don’t care about diversity.  Winning in battle should be the primary consideration.

This is not the first time that dubious predictions of social policy benefits have been proven wrong.  In the early 1990s, feminist activists claimed that if women entered tactical aviation and other combat units, rates of sexual harassment and assault would decline.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey repeated that claim at a January 2013 news conference, predicting that ground combat assignments would increase respect for women and reduce assaults. 

Instead, the opposite happened.  Annual Pentagon reports have shown that sexual harassment and assault cases have accelerated to new heights every year since 2007, with no end in sight.

Is There a Better Way?

Army officials can justify its decision to abandon ACFT gender-neutral standards, but only if they also re-evaluate female combat assignment policies that still rely on the mistakes and miscalculations of the same feminist “experts” and social engineers who designed the ACFT.

To fix the problem, current policy makers should revisit recommendations of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces

After a full year of study, the commission supported women’s exemption from direct ground combat units.  The panel also concluded that gender-normed standards are acceptable in basic, pre-commissioning, and entry-level physical fitness/wellness training, provided that gender-normed programs are not used to qualify personnel for advanced combat training. 

With women eligible for the combat arms, gender-normed tests and scores are no longer tenable. 

Policy makers should reconsider the wisdom of assigning women to direct ground combat units and take an honest look at the consequences of disproportionately higher rates of injuries, attrition, non-deployability, and inability to perform physically strenuous tasks.

The Army “adjusted” ACFT standards to help women pass the test, but the high-risk tradeoffs and inverted priorities likely will not stop there.

Lessons Learned

Unlike structural and other engineers who must respect rules of physics in the real world, social engineers constantly ignore the science of human biology and behavior.  Members of Congress should stop trusting social engineers whose claims repeatedly have been proven wrong. 

There should be a long-overdue, in-depth review of all women in combat policies that are based on discredited social theories and experiments.  Instead of receiving testimony only from Pentagon officials who defend their own policies, congressional hearings should invite independent witnesses who are prepared to challenge the unsupported beliefs of diversity advisors and social engineers who are responsible for mistakes like the ACFT fiasco.

Reality compelled the Army to gender-norm the ACFT, and the Army’s stunning reversal set a new precedent likely to be extended to all combat arms communities, including Special Operations Forces, under the SOCOM Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Plan. 

The next President and Congress should defund and abolish all Pentagon offices and mandates established to promote divisive percentage-based demographic quotas, not meritocracy and non-discrimination.

Responsible oversight requires principled steps to restore high, uncompromised standards and sound priorities.  Academic “experts” and un-credible advocates who are blinded by ideology should not be making policy for the only military we have.

* * * * * *


The Center for Military Readiness (CMR) is an independent, non-partisan public policy organization, founded in 1993.  More information on this topic is available here: CMR Policy Analysis: Combat Fitness Test Fiasco Forces Army to Drop Gender-Neutral Standards and on the CMR website,
Posted on Apr 19, 2022 Print this Article