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Cotton: U.S. Army’s Affirmative Action For Women ‘Is Going To Get People Killed’

Army training
Image CreditThe U.S. Army/Flickr

Only 52 percent of active-duty enlisted women, compared to 92 percent of the men, were able to pass the Army Combat Fitness Test.


It was gratifying to watch Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton questioning Christine Wormuth, the first female Secretary of the Army, at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Sen. Cotton, a Ranger-qualified infantry veteran, respectfully chastised Wormuth for the “fiasco” that the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) has become. For the past three years, the Army has tried but failed to implement “gender-neutral” standards in the new Combat Fitness Test — mainly because of high failure rates among female trainees.

After women in combat rules changed in 2015, the Army designed the ACFT to be sex-neutral, with identical requirements and scoring tables for men and women. The new ACFT would replace the long-standing Army Physical Fitness Test, which was sex-normed with different requirements and scores to allow for male/female physical differences. 

At that time, women were not eligible for direct ground combat (infantry) assignments. Now that they are, sex-normed training standards are untenable. There is no sex-norming on the battlefield.

Cotton read back to Wormuth her own 2021 testimony promising that the new ACFT would have sex-neutral standards. When former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered all combat positions to be opened for women in 2015, he and the Army’s official Implementation Plan promised that concerns about combat effectiveness would be addressed by “effective leadership” and “gender-neutral standards.”

Dangerous Lowered Standards

Nevertheless, after several versions of the ACFT failed, this year the Army dropped sex neutrality and reinstated sex-norming. Secretary Wormuth acknowledged the Army’s stunning reversal, suggesting that the new ACFT was “more challenging.” Cotton responded bluntly: “The new standards are pathetic — They are absolutely pathetic.”

Cotton noted that soldiers qualifying for the infantry will have to do only 10 push-ups instead of 35. He also quoted the Army’s Frequently Asked Questions webpage stating that commanders may not set higher standards for acceptance or retention in a combat unit. “This,” said Cotton, “is going to get people killed.”  

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

Requirements 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 (lifting hands and arms at the bottom of the push-up); and a two-mile run.

Women struggled with the leg-tuck exercise, and the “age-neutral” standards raised questions. Why should an infantry team leader, a Pentagon-based three-star, and a 125 lb. X-ray technician have to meet identical physical fitness standards?

The original ACFT also tried to match individuals to various occupations with different requirements for heavy, significant, or moderate physical demands. 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.

Second and Third Attempts at Revised Test

The experiment started to fall apart in 2019, when 85 percent 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 percent of both men and women, for example, would be rated in the Platinum group, even though their performance levels were dramatically different.

Congressionally Ordered Study Reveals Dismal Results

This color-coded “gender-neutral” tiered illusion fooled no one, and failure rates for female and older soldiers remained high. In 2021, a congressionally ordered study of the ACFT was done by RAND, a Defense Department contractor that has long supported leftist policies. RAND gathered data from 630,000 tests, and the results were dismal.

Only 52 percent of active-duty enlisted women, compared to 92 percent of the men, were able to pass the ACFT. Women’s pass rates were higher among officers — 72 percent compared to 96 percent of male officers — but pass rates were lower in the National Guard and Reserves.

RAND also reported that for Regular Army enlisted women, pass rates in the bottom ten military occupational specialties (MOSs), ranged from 31 to 44 percent, and in the top ten, from 65 to 89 percent. In comparison, success rates for enlisted men in the bottom ten MOSs ranged from 83 to 86 percent, and they scored 98 to 100 percent in the top ten MOSs.

Even with several caveats, the empirical data clearly showed that theories about physical gender equality in military combat training were inconsistent with physical realities. RAND 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.”

Fourth Try at Test

Cotton faults Army officials for accepting that tradeoff. Shortly after release of the RAND report in March, the Army announced ACFT 4.0, which reneged on previous promises to implement sex-neutral standards.

The new sex-normed test adjusted requirements and scoring tables, dropped the leg-tuck event, and abandoned attempts to match individuals to heavier jobs with tougher requirements. Like the old Army test, ACFT 4.0 measures basic physical fitness, not readiness for advanced combat training.

Gender-neutral standards did not work in the ACFT, and as we have already seen in the Special Operations Forces Command, “diversity and inclusion” mandates encourage minimal standards, not meritocratic excellence.

A recent Rasmussen poll found that 59 percent of respondents favored women in combat, but even more, 66 percent, said that women should pass the same physical fitness requirements as male soldiers. What if women don’t meet equal standards?

Cotton said he was “disappointed and borderline appalled” by the situation, and he would not allow it to stand. He and Secretary Wormuth were talking about two different things — combat effectiveness on his side and “fairness” to certain “subgroups” on hers. Congress should re-evaluate female combat assignment policies, putting meritocracy and military readiness first.