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Posted on Feb 19, 2018 Print this Article

Have the Marines Lowered Combat Endurance Test Standards?

. . . If Success Is Optional, They Have!

A proud Marine Corps tradition has just ended, not with a bang but a whimper.  Historically, the Marines have fought to maintain high training standards, especially in the combat arms.  Infantry officers aspiring to lead others into battle had to pass the grueling Combat Endurance Test (CET) – the first and toughest challenge in the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) at Quantico, Virginia.

The deliberately exhausting pass-fail CET, starting before dawn, involved long marches under heavy loads and unpredictable land navigation challenges in rugged terrain.  Success demanded technical knowledge, weapons proficiency, extraordinary physical strength, stamina, and survival skills needed to fight the enemy and win.  Trainees who failed pursued different careers.

The Combat Endurance Test worked to separate the best from the rest.  It was not broken, but last November, Marine Commandant General Robert Neller quietly decided to “fix” it. 

Without public notice, General Neller downgraded the CET from a must-pass endurance test to a success-optional “Combat Evaluation Test.”  The acronym remains the same, but now the CET is just another evaluation data point. [1] 

The USMC Training & Education Command (TECOM) insists that the course itself has not changed.  The new system, they say, will better tie student assessments to “operating force requirements.”  Removing fear of failure, however, changes everything.  The “requirements” in question are not operational, they are political. 

In May 2014, retired Army Colonel Ellen Haring, a feminist senior fellow at Women in International Security (WIIS), criticized the Combat Endurance Test as an “initiation rite” that unfairly “filters out” most female aspirants.  Marine 2nd Lt. Emma Stokien rebutted Haring’s op-ed, explaining practical realities and the philosophy behind the demanding course. 

“Officers are expected to set the example for and lead our enlisted Marines,” wrote Stokien.  In the infantry, “faith in and respect for your leadership can make all the difference in attaining victory and preserving Marine lives.”  Stokien added that if the course is changed to accommodate women, female Marines would enter the infantry “under the dark cloud of perceived lowered standards.”  [2]  

Army General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted in January 2013, “[If] a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it,” the service must explain . . . “Why is it that high?  Does it really have to be that high?”  [3] 

To achieve what Gen. Dempsey called a "critical mass" of women in the combat arms, training standards have to be eliminated, modified, or scored differently.  General Neller, unfortunately, has applied the “Dempsey Rule” to the Combat Endurance Test. So much for promises that if women entered the combat arms, qualifying standards would not change. 

Have Standards Eroded Already?

When the Marine Corps Times reported what it described as a “slight change” to the Infantry Officer Course, TECOM officials said that the average attrition rate for the CET between 2012 and 2017 was less than 3 percent,” and in 2017 less than 1 percent failed the test.  These comments raise serious questions: Have CET standards eroded already? 

  • C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, who had passed the CET himself in 1988, visited the course in July 2012.  Chivers described infantry trainees suffering bloody feet and mind-blurring exhaustion, and noted that 76 out of 96 Marines passed – an attrition rate of 20 percent[4]
  • In July 2013, Washington Post military reporter Dan Lamothe visited the Infantry Officer Course and followed two female officers who were attempting to succeed on the first-day Combat Endurance Test. [5]  One of the women and five men fell too far behind to continue and the other became the first of about 30 spirited female officers who failed the test.  Lamothe reported, “In total, 61 lieutenants passed the CET this month, and 18 failed. . . . The attrition rate at IOC typically is about 20 to 25 percent.  Of those, about half do not make it past the CET.”
  • In a 2014 report about three female trainees who did pass the CET, Anna Mulrine of the Christian Science Monitor reported similar high attrition rates on the Infantry Officer Course. [6]  One hundred Marines attempted the CET, wrote Mulrine, but only 70 passed – an attrition rate of 30 percent.

Either the New York Times, Washington Post,  and Christian Science Monitor got their numbers wrong, or something has changed at the CET, ensuring that almost everyone will pass. 

The practice really is not kind to women.  Comprehensive Marine research in 2015 found that women are two- to six-times as likely to be injured in training, especially when marching under loads and performing heavy tasks that average men accomplish easily. [7]  “Revalidating” infantry standards sets up women for debilitating injuries and failure, not career success.

Infantry Officer Course Different from Enlisted Training

In September 2014, I was privileged to visit Quantico, together with retired Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, an expert in military medicine.  We were briefed by Col. Todd S. Desgrosseilliers, Commander of The Basic School (TBS), and Maj. George J. Flynn III, Director of the Infantry Officer Course.

I asked Maj. Flynn to respond to critics who argued that the CET for officers should be no more difficult than the Infantry Training Battalion (ITB) course for enlisted personnel.  Maj. Flynn explained that the course must be tougher because officers lead others who count on them for survival and aggressive ground combat mission accomplishment.  The cultural relationship is symbolized by courtyard sculpture titled “Follow Me,” which depicts an infantry officer turning and arching his arm to lead his men into battle.

Marine Public Affairs Officer Capt. Maureen Krebs explained that the CET was changed to an initial requirement in 2010, due to lessons learned from nine straight years of combat.  Wrote Krebs in a statement, “For Marine infantry units, combat in Iraq and Afghanistan was (and still is) incredibly intense, often in close quarters, and filled with uncertainty, in morally, mentally and physically demanding environments.  With platoon commanders distributed across the battlespace, far from senior officers, “the moral, mental, and physical stress on these junior leaders will increase even further.” [8]

Ironically, the Marines are depreciating the CET while the Army is redesigning basic training programs to improve discipline with higher physical fitness scores, more emphasis on drill and Army history, plus new “warrior tasks” performed in the field. [9]

Richard V. Spencer, the new Secretary of the Navy, should reverse the Marines’ unforced error with a phone call to General Neller.  Secretary Spencer also should restore sound priorities by revoking the Navy and Marine Corps “Diversity and Inclusion Roadmap,” an 11-page document that an Obama holdover signed three days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. [10]

The Navy Roadmap charted seven bureaucracies to enforce demographic “diversity” as a “strategic imperative.”  Ten to 25 percent gender diversity metrics (quotas), advocated by former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, cannot be achieved without equal but lower standards.   [11]

To make our military stronger, the Trump Administration should restore the CET as a pass-fail test, and discontinue all percentage-based demographic quotas.  New orders to put merit first would send a clear message to all promotable officers, including the next Marine Corps Commandant.  Demographic gender diversity is not a strategic imperative; superior training is.

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[1] Shawn Snow, Marine Corps Times: Passing Combat Test Is No Longer Required for Infantry Officers, Feb. 7, 2018.

[2] Ellen Haring, Can Women Be Infantry Marines? War on the Rocks, May 29, 2014, and Emma Stokien, War on the Rocks, The Mission Goes First: Female Marines and the Infantry, Jun. 3, 2014. 

[6] Anna Mulrine, Christian Science Monitor, In a First, 3 Women Pass Marines Combat Endurance Test, Toting 80-lb. Packs, Oct. 3, 2014.  Mulrine described the CET as “a test of physical and mental endurance” that is “shrouded in secrecy. . . How these officers respond to chaos, surprise, and pain, instructors here say, is the best way to figure out how capable they might be of leading their fellow Marines into battle.” 

[7] During nine months of field tests with the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force (GCEITF), simulating ground combat, University of Pittsburgh experts found that the musculoskeletal injury rates of highly-qualified who had already passed the enlisted Infantry Training Battalion (ITB) course were more than double those of men (40.5% and 18.8%, respectively).  Among enlisted women attempting the ITB, females were injured at more than six-times the rate of their male counterparts.  GCEITF research also found that all-male task force teams outperformed mixed-gender units in 69 % (92 of 134) of simulated ground combat tasks. CMR Statement for the Record, Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Feb. 2, 2016, (pp. 9-10 and p. 4) 

[8] Hope Hodge Seck, Marine Corps Times, Critique of Marines’ Combat Endurance Test Sparks Debate, but No Change, Jul. 6, 2014.

[10] Diversity & Inclusion Roadmap, signed by Asst. Navy Secretary (Manpower & Reserve Affairs) Franklin R. Parker on January 23, 2017, and issued with Navy News Release NNS170127-21, Jan. 27, 2017.  Several “Strategic Imperatives” and Appendices call for a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) to enforce demographic goals, and n organization chart shows five different Diversity Councils, Working Groups, and Boards, plus two more for the Marine Corps. (pp. 5-zS9)

[11] Derrick Perkins, Marine Corps Times: Mabus: 1-in-4 Marine Recruits Should be Women, May 26, 2015.

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The Center for Military Readiness is an independent public policy organization that reports on and analyzes military/social issues.  More information is available on the CMR website, www.cmrlink.orgTo support CMR with a tax-deductible contribution, click here.  You can also support CMR by visiting, liking, and sharing the CMR Facebook page.

Posted on Feb 19, 2018 Print this Article