Major Nick Barringer says the Army’s new OPAT is garbage, but the Army’s leadership can’t see why that matters
There is a deep current of skepticism among our strategic leadership that exceptional physical fitness is a guarantor of success in modern combat operations.
By Jim Gourley
Chief of Best Defense bureau of physical fitness
Army Major Nick Barringer recently took his service’s Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) to task in an Army Times op-ed. Comparing the qualifying metrics for the “heavy” category of most combat arms occupations to peer-reviewed studies in physiology, Barringer concludes that the Army will accept men and women into the infantry if they can demonstrate “the lower body power of mediocre 12-year-old, the upper body power of an elite 14-year-old, the strength of an average 13-to-15-year-old who works out, and the endurance level of a fit senior citizen.” With a doctorate in kinesiology and experience developing fitness programs in the 75th Ranger Regiment, he’s the physical fitness equivalent of a NASA engineer coming into mission control with a clipboard full of numbers and announcing “we have a problem.”
But in the case of Barringer’s complaint the problem isn’t actually the problem. He’s not wrong. It’s just that he’s perhaps the twentieth guy in the last few years to come in with a clipboard saying there’s a problem. The Defense Department has been inundated with reports of deteriorating measures of physical well-being across all services for more than a decade. Soldiers today fail miserably at the physical fitness test administered to WWII GIs. Obesity is now a significant problem among active duty service members. Overuse and orthopedic injuries — mostly in the lower extremities and predominantly caused by running — cost the military nearly half a million lost man-hours annually. The TriCare system today must perform serious accounting measures to manage payments for diabetes and heart disease medications among active duty and retired personnel alike. Knowing the military isn’t as fit as it used to be isn’t the problem.
Each branch has implemented changes to reverse these trends, from changing field manuals governing the conduct of physical training and overhauling dining facility menus, to revamping old fitness tests and inventing new ones. Today, an American passing from the recruiter’s office in Anytown to his or her first infantry unit will take an initial Army Physical Fitness Test and score a minimum of 50 points in each event to get into boot camp, a second one with a minimum score of 60 points in each event to graduate, the OPAT with qualifying score to gain entry to a combat MOS, another APFT with a passing aggregate score on the 17 to 21-year-old grading scale with an added 20-second flexed-arm hang event if they want to go to Airborne School, another APFT (that’s four, for those counting) to get into Ranger School, and then a five-mile run in 40 minutes, a 16-mile march carrying a 65-pound pack, and a 15-meter swim with combat gear on to graduate. Ranger School is an option few soldiers pursue, but it’s worth mentioning because the program — inarguably one of the toughest in the military — has neither deviated in its testing requirements or standards in more than 20 years. So while testing and standards are a problem, they’re not the problem that Barringer and his peers should be focusing on.
The problem is that nobody cares.
To be more precise, there is a deep current of skepticism among our strategic leadership that exceptional physical fitness is a guarantor of success in modern combat operations. The contemporary wisdom is best summarized as “machines, not men.” Cyber warriors stake out bandwidth long before their shadow counterparts’ boots hit the battlefield. And even those troops now carry a dizzying array of drones, laptops, and laser-guided gadgetry on their broad shoulders. SOF capabilities are measured as much by brain pan as bench press. Still, much has been invested in physiological therapies to mitigate the damage done to the spines and cartilage by all that time SOF troops spend under that weight, while no one has even suggested the same for conventional infantry units. Similarly, no one argues that conventional U.S. infantry forces are softer and bigger around the middle than they used to be. That no consideration has been given to serious measures aimed at fixing the problem is the biggest indicator that no one thinks it actually is a problem. To suggest the physical state of infantry forces has reached crisis levels is tantamount to admitting that those units may be called upon to fight an “old school” battle, where air superiority and rapid maneuver warfare aren’t enough to win the day and mass formations have to stand toe-to-toe. Such a scenario borders on the preposterous, so the need for soldiers prepared for it is dismissed.
The conviction that Americans will never again have to fight D-Day has led to the delusion that the physical taxation of warfare will be reduced to the sweat equity of a Richard Simmons video. The common soldier will attest that nothing could be farther from the truth. Meanwhile, we continue to wring our hands over the fatigued state of our top-tier special operations forces and wonder aloud where the next crop of terrorist hunters will be found. They are likely currently serving in conventional combat arms units. The data and experts indicating our policy failings and overall physical decline is clear. Barringer is not wrong to warn DOD leadership that the tests and their accompanying standards fail to even approximate the stresses of combat, but the case has been made. What he and his cohort should be doing instead is trying to convince leadership that there is a clear and compelling relationship between soldier fitness in garrison and soldier survival on the battlefield.
This sort of comparison is much less speculative than one might think. The strength, physiology, health, and well-being of soldiers in conflicts has been recorded in surprising detail since the Napoleonic Wars. One need not go too far to draw the relationship between greater physical fitness and better results with fewer losses and casualties. Or, to make the argument more compelling, configure the data to answer these not-so-irrelevant questions: How would you kill Bin Laden if your SEALs were only as physically fit as an infantry platoon at Fort Hood? How much better would the United States have fared in the mountains of Afghanistan if we had deployed the same troops who took the Eagle’s Nest? Neither the OPAT nor the APFT do well at forecasting how well a soldier will do in the next conflict, but past combat performance seems much more apples-to-apples. Looking back yields a trend line of metrics synchronized with combat performance, which remains the critical missing element of Barringer’s warnings.
Jim Gourley is a regular contributor to Best Defense and the author of Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.
Photo credit: Niko Lipsanen