In 2017, the United States Army rolled out a new objective physical standard test to determine eligibility for different job classifications, what the Army calls “military occupational specialties (MOS).” The four-event Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) applies to recruits and to soldiers seeking to change MOS. The test standards are not scaled for age or sex—the raw performance metric determines your physical suitability for groups of specialties. Another six-event test is being rolled out as a periodic test of physical readiness for deployment, also neutral on scoring and possibly with minimum scores per specialty. All of this intersects with the policy disputes over male-only specialties and men and women working together.
This is in compliance with the 1994 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). No, that is not a typo. Back in the early 1990s, there was great contention over the presence of women in traditionally male military specialties. Young officers, commissioned into Air Defense Artillery (ADA) in 1986, and trained as Patriot officers, had fired some of the first shots in anger in the first Gulf War, answering Saddam’s Scud missiles with Patriot missiles, cued by software hastily modified to detect and respond to this threat inside a limited engagement envelope.
It should not have been news that women could operate missile firing controls as well as men. Nor should there have been any great shock that women can fly aircraft as well as men. Yet, it was disconcerting to many for various reasons.
Now, there was talk of opening further assignments to women. Could this be done without placing our national security at risk? Unfortunately, we had a history of bad faith claims by exclusively white senior military officers, who had lied through their teeth about the performance of African-American combat veterans and their suitability for high status, heroic, military specialties like the infantry and armor. These white men had been especially vehement about excluding black men from the officer corps. So in the 1990s any male senior officers who might testify with chests full of medals, in support of claims that women were unsuited to join their club, would face legitimate skepticism.
Congress responded by putting language into the 1994 NDAA that covered both sides’ bases. The services were invited to establish objective physical standards for various jobs, provided that the standards were gender-neutral, not differential.
SEC. 543. GENDER-NEUTRAL OCCUPATIONAL PERFORMANCE STANDARDS.
(a) GENDER NEUTRALITY REQUIREMENT.—In the case of any military occupational career field that is open to both male and female members of the Armed Forces, the Secretary of Defense—
(1) shall ensure that qualification of members of the Armed Forces for, and continuance of members of the Armed Forces in, that occupational career field is evaluated on the basis of common, relevant performance standards, without differential standards or evaluation on the basis of gender;
(2) may not use any gender quota, goal, or ceiling except as specifically authorized by law; and
(3) may not change an occupational performance standard for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the number of women in that occupational career field.
(b) REQUIREMENTS RELATING TO USE OF SPECIFIC PHYSICAL REQUIREMENTS.—(1) For any military occupational specialty for which the Secretary of Defense determines that specific physical requirements for muscular strength and endurance and cardiovascular capacity are essential to the performance of duties, the Secretary shall prescribe specific physical requirements for members in that specialty and shall ensure (in the case of an occupational specialty that is open to both male and female members of the Armed Forces) that those requirements are applied on a gender-neutral basis.
(2) Whenever the Secretary establishes or revises a physical requirement for an occupational specialty, a member serving in that occupational specialty when the new requirement becomes effective, who is otherwise considered to be a satisfactory performer, shall be provided a reasonable period, as determined under regulations prescribed by the Secretary, to meet the standard established by the new requirement. During that period, the new physical requirement may not be used to disqualify the member from continued service in that specialty.
(c) NOTICE TO CONGRESS OF CHANGES.—Whenever the Secretary of Defense proposes to implement changes to the occupational standards for a military occupational field that are expected to result in an increase, or in a decrease, of at least 10 percent in the number of female members of the Armed Forces who enter, or are assigned to, that occupational field, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to Congress a report providing notice of the change and the justification and rationale for the change. Such changes may then be implemented only after the end of the 60-day period beginning on the date on which such report is submitted.
The Army did not take Congress up on the offer, made in 1994, until 2017. That is, they did not get past concept testing to actual testing of new entrants until that year. Here is how the Army explained the Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT):
Army Recruiting Command estimates that the OPAT will be administered to about 80,000 recruits and thousands of cadets annually. Soldiers moving into more physically demanding MOSs also will have to meet the OPAT standard, said Jim Bragg, retention and reclassification branch chief for Army Human Resources Command.
Under the OPAT, there are four physical demand categories, Bragg explained.
The events are standing broad jump, seated power throw, strength deadlift, and interval aerobic run. You can read further on each OPAT event in an Army Times article. This test is not the same as a physical fitness test given to all soldiers in their units annually or semiannually.
The wheels are also in motion to replace the venerable three-event Army Physical Fitness Test (push-ups, sit-ups, two-mile run) with a much more equipment-dependent test. The new six-event Army Combat Fitness Test will be gender- and age- neutral, unlike the APFT which grades by different scales for age groups in all events, and scores men and women differently on push-ups and the two-mile run. Naturally, the Army has a cool ACFT homepage with illustrations, videos, and apps. A test phase manual suggests that, like the entry qualification test, the ACFT will set minimum scores based on MOS, depending on the level of physical demand of the specialty.
So, for the “heavy” physical demand category, the draft standard is a minimum of: three reps 180-pound deadlift, 8.5-meter power throw, 30 release technique push-ups, two-minute, nine-second sprint-drag-carry, five leg tucks, then run two miles in 18:00. These push-ups require you to dip all the way down, then lift your hands and reset before pushing up again, harder than the current continuous effort form.
Mens’ Work? A View to the Politics of Position
Going back to the mid-1980s, with President Ronald Reagan’s military rebuilding program near completion, the All-Volunteer Force made tentative moves to open more specialties to women. The sticking point was “combat,” more specifically “direct combat.”
This poorly conceptualized term assumed a linear battlefield, with a “front line” facing most of the risk, and risk diminishing with distance from this line. Never mind that everyones’ doctrine and weaponry had evolved to rain precision or lethal chemical fires first onto certain high-value targets in the “rear” areas.
Indeed, it was a recognition of such a risk that sparked the first software refinement of the Patriot Air Defense Artillery (ADA) system to recognize and fire in self-defense against certain Soviet missiles. These missiles were expected to carry chemical warheads to neutralize this new advanced killer of high-performance jet aircraft. This was a real three-dimensional chess match, with air and ground-based pieces.
My female Officer Basic Course classmates went to those units, while I rattled around in a Vietnam-era M113, leading short range, line of sight, ADA soldiers, all of us male. Not that I minded, indeed it was a much healthier organizational and political culture, because we were not operating at the NATO strategic (so political) level. If we had a rough training exercise, we just had to regroup and show improvement in the next iteration.
The big missile set was reputed to be led, to use a term loosely, by a general who flew around with a spare captain and lieutenant. It was said he would swoop down on a hilltop, get out, relieve the captain and senior lieutenant on the Patriot site, then kick the spares out of the helicopter, telling them he’d be back in a week and they had better be passing every drill. On the other hand, in the event of World War III, the lieutenants in the “front line” were alleged to have an estimated 24-hour life-expectancy. Thankfully the powers-that-be never decided to do it live.
Instead, Saddam Hussein started something he wasn’t prepared to finish. In the first Gulf War, the rough and tough all-male short-range ADA units never got to shoot at enemy helicopters or jets. It was an all-Patriot battalion show for ADA.
This only foreshadowed the larger change in the threat environment, with enemy aircraft becoming the prey of Air Force pilots, and ADA withering in much of its capacity, while rapidly growing its missile defense muscles. It was in that context that I watched the following vignette play out one Friday in the very early 1990s.
I had come back stateside, from commanding another all-male battery (think company) in Korea. The 2nd Infantry Division was our nation’s trip-wire but determined not to be just a speed bump if the Original Kim decided to go out with one last grab for glory. It was tough but satisfying duty, generally, training with a clearly focussed purpose. That duty in Korea coincided with Desert Storm.
After back-to-back overseas assignments, I was ready for a nice stateside post. It was also time for this young captain to pay his dues on a staff. I was blessed to be assigned to an operations section with a near military genius leading us. This made for great learning, satisfying duty, and less stress, usually.
On Friday afternoons, at least once a month, it was customary for the brigade’s officers to all go to the bar at the Officers’ Club at the end of the duty day. This venerable tradition was “Officers’ Call.” You were expected to show up, even if you just had a soda and paid your respects around.
As a brigade staff officer, I was not part of the battalions’ clusters. And clusters they were, junior officers of each gathered around their majors. Everyone wore the same Battle Dress Uniform, the old BDU woodland camouflage. One of the battalions had the big missiles, so was gender-integrated. Another battalion was of the towed, short range, smaller missile sort, and so was still all-male.
In the early 1990s, officers were very worried that if they had not gotten a combat patch, the visible token that they had been to the big show, they were doomed to fall short of their patched peers. This is long before 2001, and people largely believed we would not have another significantly sized combat deployment in many years.
Now the smaller missile unit male major had no patch, and the bigger missile unit female major did. The male major had entered the military with no female peers in his branch. The female major would have had to transfer over when the branch opened. The male major, a good-looking fellow, was also fond of referring to his own wife as “the pick of the litter.”
One Friday afternoon, I found myself positioned between the two battalion clusters. Naturally, as a good staff officer, I observed our units. The combat-patched female major, was having a good time with her officers and a cold beer by the dart board. The male major with no patch had his foot up on the bar rail, drink in hand, when he loudly proclaimed to the young men around him:
Of course, we know who the real combat arms unit is!
Yup. Major “Married to the Pick of the Litter” Little Missile was setting his young officers up for not so subtle resentment and career failure. At best it was a weak organizational-rivalry jibe, weakened by the universally understood subtext of cold mid-career fear. The man was hooked, well past the halfway mark to retirement eligibility. He would have to sweat making lieutenant colonel, and then fear he just wouldn’t get a good command, prerequisite to a bid for colonel’s eagles.
Jumbled up in that career anxiety was his sense of self, his concept of manhood, challenged by the presence of a peer who was female—with a coveted combat patch, and a Harley, if I recall.
Over the decades since then, I’ve seen my share of interpersonal dramas in units large and small. I’ve relied upon some amazing, competent, professional women of every rank. I’ve also seen some seriously messed up situations involving men and women in the military workplace, with fault variously attributable. I dealt with bad behavior inside units I commanded and was called more than once to investigate allegations in other units involving a senior person and subordinates.
I also have the academic and hands-on background to look warily at claims that every position and every unit should be open to both men and women. We have all seen news or opinion pieces making claims about women entering infantry units, as infantry soldiers. You can see the establishment of gender-neutral physical fitness metrics interacting with the political and social battle over “women in combat,” “gender integration,” and “military readiness.” I understand that it may be simultaneously true that:
- leftists wish to hijack the institution to further their identity politics goals and their long desire to make the military less militarily effective…and
- some conservative culture warriors, including a small professional crew focused on this issue, view almost any opportunity for women in the military to be an assault on womanhood…and
- there are many people, including some great soldiers I have known, muddling through the mess of life as it is.
And? Feel free to add your own branch or sequel. As you do so, I hope the facts, my memories, and my musings, help you frame your own thoughts on the subject of men and women in the military.