Earlier this year, the Army laid out its plans for the new physical fitness test it plans to implement by 2020—the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). The strongest argument in favor of the new test is that high correlations between the ACFT exercises and the demands of ground combat should force units to better train soldiers. Still, it has generated considerable debate. Some argue this shift in training culture will decrease injuries, while others worry these new exercises may injure poorly trained soldiers. Moreover, fielding the new test will cost about $30 million. And problems may be magnified in the National Guard and Reserve, where the test’s longer duration will bump up against limited mobilization hours and widely distributed units.

Assuming those problems are surmountable, though, we still see a gap in the discussion: What about the special operators, foreign area officers, and soldiers assigned to remote locations or any of the 800 small bases abroad?

Fortunately, the ACFT is not the first time the Army fielded an expensive new test to improve a fundamental component of soldiering. We recommend the ACFT program managers at the Center for Initial Military Training take a page from the past and develop an alternate test: the ACFT-Expeditionary. As rifle marksmanship has the ALT-C test, the ACFT needs an alternate that is just as challenging, but less resource- and space-intensive.

Lessons from the Army’s Marksmanship Training

Unable to build sufficient pop-up or “Trainfire” rifle ranges between 1956 and 1987, the Army adopted the less resource-intensive ALT-C alternate marksmanship tests. The ACFT should take two lessons from its marksmanship compromises. First, just as many soldiers did not have access to Trainfire ranges, some soldiers will not have access to the ACFT’s equipment or space requirements. Without these resources, the ACFT will be impossible, necessitating an alternate test. Second, Army policy can ensure units prioritize complete ACFT testing to meet the program’s goals. Because the alternate marksmanship tests are less resource-intensive, units sometimes favor them. However, recent policy changes penalize units who use the alternate test without sufficient justification.

Army leaders should pay attention to lessons from the marksmanship program as they are similar across three dimensions. First, both tests seek to improve fundamental soldier skills: target identification and marksmanship in the 1960s versus physical fitness today. Second, both proposals include expensive, complicated fielding plans. Finally, significant debate accompanied both the ACFT and the Trainfire marksmanship program.

After the Korean War, the Army developed and adopted the resource-intensive Trainfire system. Amid concerns about soldier lethality during war, the Army Research Institute found the old marksmanship test wanting. The old test would be familiar to soldiers who train on known-distance or “KD” ranges. On these ranges, soldiers fired their rifles from one hundred–yard intervals at circular targets. After firing, soldiers received feedback on their shots before adjusting their sights or refining their marksmanship fundamentals. This old test assessed a soldier’s ability to engage circular targets at known distance—hardly a realistic test. Similar motivations are driving adoption of the ACFT today.

Trainfire improved acquisition and marksmanship, but at a high cost. The Army Research Institute proposed a test modern soldiers would recognize. Soldiers fired forty rounds at human-shaped silhouettes at ranges from twenty-five to three hundred yards from a variety of shooting positions. This test combined target detection with marksmanship, while reducing the number of hours and bullets required. However, the new test required electronic target lifters that sensed bullet impacts and dropped. Though the new test required fewer bullets and training hours, the costs of building and maintaining these new ranges were tremendous.

Since Trainfire’s introduction in the mid-1950s, we estimate the Army has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Trainfire and its successor programs. Each new range cost about $6 million in inflation-adjusted currency. In 1959 alone, the president’s budget requested almost $16 million in 2018 dollars to construct Trainfire ranges. This program began in the mid-1950s and continues through today, though the ranges are now called automated record fire ranges.

Despite emphasis on fielding these ranges, access remained a problem. Table 1, from a 1987 Army Research Institute study, found huge gaps in access to record fire ranges necessary for rifle qualification even thirty years after Trainfire became the Army’s only rifle qualification test.

Table 1

The statistics drove the Army to find a solution—alternate tests on known-distance and twenty-five–meter ranges. These alternate tests sought to mimic the Trainfire test. Under time constraints, soldiers fired forty rounds at paper targets. While the KD alternate test was weakly correlated with record fire scores, the twenty-five–meter test was not significantly different from the Trainfire test. Based on this research, the Army adopted both KD and twenty-five–meter alternate tests. However, comparatively low costs and the perception that it is easier leads some units to favor the easier-to-administer twenty-five–meter alternate test over the full test. These soldiers miss key components of Trainfire not tested by the alternate tests: engaging at long distances and target acquisition.

The Army’s draft 2018 Integrated Weapons Training Strategy pushes back against abuse of alternate tests. Only colonels and higher can authorize alternate tests, and even then soldiers will only “validate” their annual requirement. This means soldiers “will not be eligible for badges or promotion points, even if they qualify ‘Expert’ on the Alt-C target.” With Army policy firmly behind the full test, units will prioritize individual marksmanship and only use alternate tests when deployed to austere locations.

Army planners should take two lessons from the rifle marksmanship program. First, fielding challenges will require an alternate test. Though the Army invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new rifle ranges over thirty years, remote units still did not have access to the necessary equipment. An alternate test that took advantage of existing, common equipment ensured every unit could qualify on their weapons. Second, policy can curb abuse of “easier” tests. The Army’s 2018 weapons strategy provides strong incentives towards the regular test, requiring units to forecast and plan better training.

The ACFT-Expeditionary

We propose an alternate test that incorporates the Trainfire’s two fielding lessons: the ACFT-Expeditionary (ACFT-E). This test stresses similar movements and energy systems, but removes space and equipment requirements that will make the ACFT impossible for some units to execute. Like the ALT-C qualification, the ACFT-E fills a gap in resource allocation that may never be filled for units in remote or austere locations. Unlike the ALT-C qualification, the ACFT-E will be just as challenging as the ACFT. Our proposed exercise substitutions (Table 2) will stress the same energy systems as the original ACFT and still be transportable across the world.

Table 2

The most obvious alternative, of course, is the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT); after all, it requires little in the way of specialized equipment. But simply retaining the APFT as an alternative test will not work for three reasons. First, the APFT does not address the strength, speed, agility, or power elements of the ACFT—key components of functional fitness. Second, basic training will likely cease training APFT movements, like the sit-up, after upcoming revisions to FM 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training. Finally, APFT retention will not push physical training past push-up/sit-up improvement and long, slow distance runs.

What could the ACFT-Expeditionary look like? It would replace and modify events that require a combination of special equipment and space, making a test for soldiers in austere or remote locations. We propose the following changes:

The Deadlift: The ACFT-E swaps the hex bar for a straight one. We recommend that the three repetition maximum deadlift event be modified to allow the use of the standard forty-five–pound straight barbell. A 2016 study revealed that despite different muscle activation patterns, there was ultimately no significant difference between one-rep max values in a population of twenty men with deadlifting experience exercising with a hex bar or straight bar. There is no unit or location that does not have access to a standard forty-five–pound straight barbell. Removing the requirement for units to procure hex bars would save significant space and money.

The Standing Power Throw: A standing broad jump should replace the standing power throw. The broad jump has long been used as a norm-referenced test for measuring anaerobic power in adolescents. A 2017 study identified the broad jump as a suitable field test for peak power output. Unlike the standing power throw, this event only requires a tape measure while still allowing a commander to measure a soldier’s power, flexibility, balance and coordination.

The Sprint-Drag-Carry (SDC): We propose simplifying the Sprint-Drag-Carry to integrate commonly available equipment with an event called the Sprint-Drag-Carry (Modified). This replaces kettlebell carries with the carry of objects of like weight and sled drags with soldier carries. The Sprint-Drag-Carry is the most resource-intensive event included in the ACFT. On top of the equipment needed to execute the test, the test venue needs twenty-five meters of suitable dragging surface. Army units are currently deployed to many locations around the world that do not lend themselves to the amount of gear or terrain that this event requires. A deployed unit could, for example, replace the kettlebell with ammunition cans. For units stationed at embassies or other locations, dumbbells or any other carryable items that weigh forty pounds (+/- two pounds) can be used. As stated, the drag component would be replaced with the soldier carry (Exercise 3, Guerilla Drill from FM 7-22) utilizing a soldier within twenty pounds and six inches of the individual being tested. Both ammunition can carries and buddy carries are also utilized by the Marine Corps’ Combat Fitness Test’s “Maneuver Under Fire” event, which also measures a soldier’s anaerobic capacity and agility. We recommend removing the drag component because of the requirement for an acceptable dragging surface.

The Two-Mile Run: Though the two-mile is a staple of Army fitness testing, we’d swap in the “beep test.” Units deployed to expeditionary locations or smaller embassies may not have access to a two-mile run route. In the past, units deployed to these places have either completed the run on treadmills, an unsanctioned modification to the APFT, or skipped the APFT completely. During a 1986 study completed by the Exercise Physiology Division of the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, researchers concluded that performance on the two-mile run was correlated closely with VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake), and therefore a good predictor of aerobic capacity. With that in mind, a more field-expedient method of predicting VO2 max and aerobic capacity would be the use of the twenty-meter multistage shuttle run test, otherwise known as the “beep test.” Multiple studies dating back to 1989 have confirmed the efficacy of using the twenty-meter shuttle run as a predictor of VO2 max and aerobic capacity. The test is universally exportable and can be conducted indoors or outdoors and on a wide range of different surfaces, making it a fair substitute for the two-mile run.

ACFT-E Validation and Implementation

Given the recent ACFT validation at the United States Military Academy, we propose West Point also pilot test the ACFT-E. Strong correlations among West Point’s cadets on both tests would provide sufficient evidence for a wider pilot. Following testing at West Point, we recommend testing at embassies and austere locations around the world.

ACFT-E implementation would require monitoring from inception, something that the ALT-C qualification did not originally do, but is now correcting. We propose the first O-6 in a unit’s chain of command authorize ACFT-E testing based on mission or resource constraints. Soldier Record Briefs would annotate the type of test most recently completed.

We embrace the ACFT’s goals, but hope the Army incorporates two lessons from fielding the Trainfire system. First, equipment rollout and space requirements will prevent some soldiers, be they National Guard, Reserve, or those forward deployed, from taking the new test. The Army should not wait thirty years to realize it did not field enough equipment for everyone to take the ACFT. Second, firm policy on acceptable use of the alternate test must accompany its fielding. Units will prefer to take the easier-to-administer test unless sufficient incentives orient them towards the ACFT.

The AFCT-E will still challenge soldiers and meet the test’s intent, while making concessions for units in austere environments. Proactive Army leaders should lean forward and pilot the ACFT-E. The alternative is to leave units to figure out unstudied, unsanctioned methods to complete the test. Our proposed ACFT-E test deserves study so that the soldiers of the United States Army are as lethal and ready as possible, regardless of unit or location.


Maj. Zachary Griffiths is an Instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He is also an Army Special Forces officer and Resident Fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute. He earned his MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2017. He tweets at @z_e_griffiths.

Capt. Andrew Ferreira is an Infantry officer and Survival Swimming Instructor in the Department of Physical Education at West Point. He holds a master’s of education degree with a focus in kinesiology from the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development and a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: 1st Lt. Verniccia Ford, US Army