soldiering

In Defense of the APFT

One of the first topics of this blog was a discussion on how you can’t seriously discuss certain things with military folk. Physical training is one of them. The source of the problem – I think – is that since every single soldier does PT every day (a questionable assumption), every single soldier has developed some level of experiential expertise on the subject.

I’ve very rarely heard anyone say anything good about the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which consists of two minutes of push-up, two minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. The idea behind the event is to get a general idea of a soldier’s fitness through a maximum effort test.

From FM 7-22, Appendix A (Army Physical Fitness Test):

The APFT provides a measure of upper and lower body muscular endurance. It is a performance test that indicates a Soldier’s ability to perform physically and handle his or her body weight.

The problem, as has been written about at length, is that the test doesn’t accurately measure the types of fitness that will likely be required in combat. Typical jokes include “I’ve been on 3 deployments and not once did I ever have to run 2 miles.”

Back in February, Jim Gourley explored the current struggle with embracing different fitness programs in the military at The Best Defense. In it, he captures some of the issues with the current APFT:

Palkoska admits that some aspects of the “legacy doctrine” persist in the form of the Army Physical Fitness Test. “One of the problems of the old fitness model is that units trained to the test, and that resulted in overtraining to certain aspects of fitness.” More than generating injuries in a large population of individual soldiers, it created an unbalanced paradigm of fitness in the Army at large. Efforts to change the APFT to reflect the new model of fitness have been going on since General Peter Schoomaker’s tenure as Chief of Staff. Though the old APFT remains the standard, Palkoska says that new initiatives aim to update it in the next few years.

Without question, there is pressure to do well on the current APFT – not just as an individual, but as a unit. The quantifiable score that comes out of the APFT becomes the easiest measure of “success” for a young platoon leader trying to impress his Commander. Raising the platoon’s APFT average is a simple, quantifiable means of “doing well.” The problem, as the argument goes, is that this often results in physical training regimens that train to the test, emphasizing the ability to do 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and run 2 miles as fast as possible at the expense of other, more “combat focused” physical training.

And it is true, that just because a soldier can score a 300 on their APFT doesn’t mean they can perform their physical job better than someone who scores less.

When I was in basic training, I was the first in my platoon to score a 300 on the APFT. Nonetheless, I was one of the weakest foot marchers in the platoon. I only weighed 140lbs at the time, and my ability to do a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups and breeze through the run didn’t help me much when I was carrying a heavy rucksack, a weapon, and walking up and down Sand Hill.

It wasn’t until I started weight lifting and packing on some muscle that carrying a rucksack became less of a burden. Preliminary research from StrongSwiftDurable also correlates upper-body strength with rucking ability.

So I am in agreement that the APFT is not an absolute measure of physical ability. And I am sure there are a host of really fantastic fitness tests out there that could eek out a better way of identifying where individual soldiers stand when it comes to their physical ability to actually perform their jobs.

However, what those tests lack – and I’ve seen a number of the proposed tests – is practicality and feasibility.

Soldiers in the active duty Army are supposed to take two “record” APFTs a year. In all of the years I’ve been in the military, the only time I’ve ever seen that enforced was when I was in a TRADOC environment, and taking APFTs was part of the course. In the operating force, it is a miracle to get a whole platoon doing physical training on a regular basis, and usually takes signficant prioritizing to get everyone together for an APFT.

The beauty of the APFT is that it requires no special equipment or space and can be completed for most elements during normal PT hours (usually between 0630 and 0745). All of the proposed fitness tests either require a bunch of extra equipment or space, and in some cases need to be tested over multiple days.

Additionally, there is evidence that performing well on the APFT generally corresponds with success in physically demanding courses, such as Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The below is from USAREC’s notes on how to adequately prepare for and succeed at SFAS. In it, they make a direct correlation between APFT score and ability to pass the course.

Again, having a high APFT score does not mean you are in great physical shape for everything, but it does correspond to being in good shape generally.

Lastly, while it’s true that I’ve seen soldiers who could adequately do their jobs yet still perform average or even poorly on the APFT, I have never seen the opposite. That is, most soldiers I know who score well on the APFT generally are able to perform their jobs well and do not “suck” any more than other soldiers.

The APFT in its current form provides a good baseline measure of physical fitness while being relatively easy to administer. For those reasons, we should be very careful about discarding it altogether simply because it is not the perfect measure of combat fitness.

soldiering

Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

soldiering

PlatoonLeader.net: The Junior Officer’s Best Kept Secret

Platoon Leader

I remember stumbling upon the now re-appropriated companycommand.com many years ago when I was still enlisted. I must have been searching for something Army related, and found myself on the site. I remember quickly closing the window in the same way you would if you accidentally clicked a “link too far” and found yourself on a website you really ought not to be looking. The gleaming silver bars on the page spooked me, reminding me of the seemingly omnipotent officers I knew in the 82nd Airborne Division. The thought of chatting with one or being in any way associated with a bunch of Captains – COMMANDERS – was terrifying to my younger, non-commissioned officer self.

I knew that the site existed though, as a resource for officers, at a time when social media was just budding and internet forums were intimidating and reigned supreme.

Fast forward to today, and the site still exists (although now in a more official capacity). But there’s also Company Command’s younger brother, Platoon Leader, which exists both in an official capacity (CAC required) and an easier to access, unofficial capacity.

The sites are great resources for junior leaders managed by a dedicated team of Army officers who aim to create a space to share ideas. It’s the same team behind the Company Commander and Platoon Leader blog on Medium which kindly published my article on the problems Lieutenants face when they write (as an aside, you should seriously consider writing for them as well).

Unfortunately, the sites are severely under-utilized.

Part of this is due to the difficulty it is in getting to the “full” site which requires a CAC login, milSuite registration, and then a submission to join the forum. There’s been few times that I can remember having the time at work to browse through the CAC site uninterrupted – there’s always something going on. For most junior officers, that means their prime time to explore the site will be when they’re at home and off work, which makes the likelihood of making a successful “hook up” low, especially, if like me, you have a Mac.

However, the seemingly unscalable technological wall is actually quite scalable. It usually just takes an hour or two of dedicated, uninterrupted time and a large cup of coffee. Once done, you’re in.

Thankfully, there’s a non-CAC version of the forums that simply requires a username and password to join. Whatever the question is, there’s an answer out there. There are few new problems facing junior leaders today, and even the news ones are being faced by more than one of us. The forums provide a space for junior leaders to have those conversations outside of regular social media, where the replies are more likely to be snarky than helpful.

BLAB (Bottom Line at Bottom): Basically, if you’re a junior officer, you should sign up.

soldiering

The Platoon Leader’s Most Powerful (and annoying) Weapon

IMG_2067

The entrance of the modern TOC.

Traditionally, it’s the radio.

But today, in an era where the PL spends much more time managing personalities and painting a picture for higher than analyzing terrain or calling for fire, it’s hard to argue that there is any tool more useful than the smartphone. Instant communication, regulations at your fingertips, emergency GPS, calendar and task management – all combined to provide a powerful tool for the modern platoon leader.

It’s the camera, though, that makes the smartphone invaluable today.

When I first joined the Army in 2001, NCOs and officers bemoaned the recent intrusion of email in their daily lives and longed for days when they had regularly scheduled meetings and if they needed something, they just sent runners. When I got out in 2006, I was just beginning to see some of the more senior officers carrying around BlackBerry’s, furiously tapping out emails between events.

The iPhone wouldn’t be released for another year.

Without question, the most striking thing about the way the military has changed since I got out (2006) and when I rejoined (2011) is the prevalence of the smartphone. Just about everyone has one. And the scourge of NCOs everywhere are soldiers sitting around on their phones, tapping away at games, text messages, or social media.

In the good old days, soldiers just sat around.

As an aside, a significant decision that leaders have to make today is whether or not they will allow soldiers to bring their phones with them to the field during training. I’ve seen some leaders allow them and others outright ban them, going as far as conducting inspections and recommending Article 15s for soldiers caught in the field with them. Some might scoff at the notion of being allowed to bring smartphones to the field at all, arguing they have no place in training. Others might think banning them is overbearing and not taking into consideration changes in society. Interestingly, on the modern battlefield, many leaders and soldiers have cell phones with local voice and data plans.

Anyway, the fact that everyone has a smartphone and the effect this has had on work, relationships, and the like, and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing has been written about elsewhere. Here, I want to highlight its effect at the small unit level, in this case, the platoon leader.

Just as conducting classroom training and briefing has shifted to using PowerPoint as a default, the rapid proliferation of digital cameras – and especially smartphones – has resulted in documenting events with images as a near-requirement.

Stated another way, if training occurs, but no pictures were taken, did training really happen?

The “pics or it didn’t happen” adage has been unofficially adopted by Army leaders everywhere. In a media saturated environment (and the military is just as media-saturated as anyone else), pictures are the best way to rapidly highlight what’s going on to a higher headquarters. Leaders respond to subordinate leaders’ elaborate training plans with “Sounds great, make sure you get some pictures.”

In the past, if a leader wanted to capture images of an event, he or she would have to get a camera, usually through PAO, combat camera, embedded journalists, or some other coordination. If they were lucky, they might have a guy in the platoon with a camera and willing to expend some film. There was rarely a requirement to capture training events on camera because it just wasn’t practical.

The fact that just about everyone has a smartphone today significantly lowers the bar, and capturing images is now generally expected. Not only is capturing the event in a picture important, but capturing it and quickly getting that image to higher has become paramount. You’re only as good as your last storyboard.

With this, there are all sorts of pitfalls, operational security (OPSEC) being one of the chief concerns. It is easy to carelessly snap a picture that might contain something considered secret or confidential, which can rapidly become a significant emotional event for all parties involved, especially if the image is transferred to other devices or posted online.

There’s also the great annoyance of sending up pictures only to have them torn apart by an eagle-eyed NCO looking for uniform deficiencies or other violations. You can send up a photo of a soldier standing over the still warm body of Osama bin Laden, but let that soldier’s eye-protection be sitting on his forehead and watch as the wrath of Hades comes flying your way in the form of a nasty-gram.

And of course, the dumb things that soldiers do are now routinely captured in pictures or video and shared with the world.

While these developments may seem strange to some and terrible for the force in the same way people curse PowerPoint, these changes are not necessarily bad – just different. The landscape is changing, and the way wars are fought is changing. Just look at all of the wild pictures in the ISOF Gold series I’ve been running. While some of those photos are goofy, there is an effect that they have on the populace – by sharing candid photos of Iraq’s elite forces at work, a message is being sent that their security forces are out there. And when they conduct an operation, they make sure to take out the camera phones and start snapping pictures.

soldiering

The Universal Truths of Relief in Place

fig15-1

Relief in place, commonly referred to as “RIP,” is that process of one unit changing out with another. I first heard about it shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Our initial mission set was to jump into Baghdad Airport after the Rangers had jumped in and relieve them (aka, the greatest mission that never happened). My platoon sergeant described it as a process of literally finding your counterpart on the battlefield and relieving him of his position, so he could go on and do something else.

Today, the RIP process is less literal. The incoming unit comes in and is shown the ropes by the outgoing unit, usually involving a lot of conversation and questions and some version of the “left-seat, right-seat” ride. That is, the outgoing unit will “do it” (whatever “it” is, a patrol or manning towers, for example) with the incoming unit observing, and then at some point they’ll switch and the RIP will be complete.

I don’t really have much to say about the RIP process, other than there are three universal truths that I’ve discovered over time:

  1. The unit you’re relieving is fucked up.
  2. The unit reliving you is totally not prepared for this.
  3. Both units want the other to hurry up.