Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper meets with journalists from the Defense Writers Group, an association of news outlets with reporters that cover national security issues, at the Fairmont Hotel Aug. 29. (Photo by John Perrino)
Sgt. Bruna Galarza demonstrates the deadlift event during a pilot for the Army Combat Fitness Test, a six-event assessment designed to reduce injuries and replace the current Army Physical Fitness Test. (Photo by Sean Kimmons)
"If you can't pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, then there's probably not a spot for you in the Army," said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper.
"That doesn't mean you'll immediately get kicked out," he added. It means there will be some sort of remedial program, the details of which are still being worked out.
Esper addressed a range of issues, from recruiting and acquisition to offering a tribute to the late Sen. John McCain, during a Defense Writers Group breakfast Aug. 29.
The current Army Physical Fitness Test, which has been around some 40 years, is flawed, Esper said.
"I grew up in the Army with the APFT and I personally never thought it was a good indicator of combat physical fitness, nor did many of my colleagues. The testing has proved that out," he said.
The secretary said studies done by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command show that the APFT captures "maybe 30 or 40 percent relevance of what you demand in combat ... the ACFT is upwards of 80 percent."
The main purpose of the ACFT is two-fold, he said. First, the test ensures Soldiers are ready for combat. Second, preparation for the test improves physical fitness as it relates to injury prevention.
Losing Soldiers to injuries during PT or field exercises contributes to decreased readiness, he added, because injured Soldiers can't deploy.
At one point, upwards of 15 percent of Soldiers were categorized as non-deployable, he said. That's about 150,000 Soldiers across the entire force. Now, that figure has been reduced to 9 percent, and there are vigorous efforts underway to lower that percentage still more.
"If you're not physically fit for combat, then we're not only doing you an injustice, we're doing an injustice to your colleagues and peers as well," he said, explaining that if a Soldier can't deploy, that means someone else has to deploy twice as much.
"At the end of the day we need Soldiers who are deployable, lethal and ready," he emphasized.
Beginning October 2020, all Soldiers will be required to take the ACFT, which TRADOC fitness researchers term "gender- and age-neutral."
There's a need to grow the active Army to at least 500,000, with associated growth in the Guard and Reserve, Esper said.
To do that, the Army is planning a modest annual increase spread out over the next several years to get to that number, he said. The additional Soldiers will be used to fill current units that are undermanned and grow additional capabilities.
Asked if he'd consider lowering standards to meet the end-strength goal, the secretary said the Army is not lowering standards, and will not.
"We've raised standards, such as limiting Category IV accessions from the DOD higher end of 4 percent to the Army higher end of 2 percent, putting more stringent requirements on issuing waivers and making sure we truly take into account the holistic person to ensure persons who receive waivers are high-quality recruits," Esper said.
As to attaining higher end strength, Esper said the Army needs to do a better job of recruiting.
One step being taken includes letting Soldiers go home for a number of weeks to assist recruiters by doing outreach, he said.
This is particularly important in areas without a military presence, he added. The Army has increasingly become "a family business." Almost all of the Soldiers he's spoken to have told him they have veterans in their immediate family. And, most senior Army leaders have or have had sons or daughters in the military.
Fewer and fewer young people know someone who's served, he said, and so to them, the Army is unknown.
Other efforts to attract quality recruits include putting more recruiters on the street -- an effort that began in the spring, and moving recruiting stations to more optimal locations, he said.
Some other approaches include better utilizing Army public relations assets like the Golden Knights and Army bands, he said.
Long-time senator John McCain, of Arizona, died Aug. 25 after a bout with brain cancer. McCain was a Navy aviator, a Vietnam War veteran, and a prisoner of war. He served as the U.S. senator from Arizona since 1987, was a fixture on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and since 2015, served as chairman of the SASC.
Of McCain, Esper said: "His care was always for the Soldiers, the service members and our ability to support our diplomatic efforts -- and if diplomacy failed, to fight on the battlefield."
Esper said he knew the senator for a number of years, not only in his current position as secretary, but when he worked on the Hill in a number of positions.
When it came to the Army and the other services, McCain "talked a lot about the Army's failures over the years when it comes to acquisition and the need to take a bold and different approach to acquisition, and I was fully supportive of that."
The new Army Futures Command, which McCain supported, is addressing some of the senator's concerns, Esper said. Goals for the new command include streamlining the Army's acquisition process and getting more prototypes and demonstrators to the Soldiers for testing early on in the process to reveal strengths and weaknesses of systems and components.
McCain was "very cleared-eyed about what his expectations were of the U.S. military with regard to acquisition matters and he was spot on," Esper said. "He knew it and the military knows it: that we need to field items more quickly and items that are capable that enable Soldiers to fight and win."