The Marine Corps Is Not Lowering Fitness and Training Standards

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Two years into integrating women into combat arms roles, the debate has been reignited by a recent change in graduation requirements at Marine Corps Infantry Officer Corps (IOC) training. The new policy removes a high-attrition, pass/fail hike known as the Combat Endurance Test (CET) as a graduation requirement and the blowback illustrates the need for clearer, gender-neutral standards for male and female Marines in the service. 

The discussion focuses on old arguments about female physical ability compared to males, while the reality is that a change to IOC is one in a long history of changes to physical evaluation and training in response to operational realities, rather than gender. Prior to the change, only one woman of 36 had passed the course, leading some to believe the change allows women greater entry to combat arms. However, the backlash illustrates the failure of Marine Corps leadership to communicate the reasons for such changes.

Physical testing standards have changed regularly since the Corps’ inception with Marines demonstrating grit and physical toughness throughout these shifts. For example, two seminal battles of Marine Corps lore—the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood and the 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir—occurred during a period where the Marines had no physical fitness test. While there has been a resurgence of adjustments to testing standards stimulated by the Department of Defense’s demand for gender-neutral testing, the subsequent changes are designed to offer equal opportunity.

Compared to the other services, the Marine Corps has struggled to integrate women in combat arms. A popular narrative holds that efforts to improve training success and prevent injury following gender-integration lower standards and enable women entry to combat arms. This gendered lens ensures female Marines will not be assessed for their successes but questioned for their opportunity.

Some of this expectation bias originates in the gender differences of the Physical Fitness Test (PFT) that evaluates the general physical ability of a Marine. While the same three events (crunches, pull-ups, and a distance run) have been maintained since the 1970s, regular changes to the PFT have elevated the physical requirements, setting a high bar for Marines of all ages. However, until 1996, female Marines ran 1.5-miles compared to male Marines’ 3-miles, and until 2013 had the option of the flexed arm hang (‘girl pull-up’) instead of the pull-up. Today, PFT events are the same for male and female Marines, normed by age and gender, while the option remains to trade pull-ups for push-ups, although a perfect score can only be achieved by completing the pull-up event. 

Only in the past few decades have the Marines so clearly focused on muscular endurance. In contrast, the pre-World War I test, in keeping with the demands of combat at the time, required line officers complete a 50-mile walk and staff officers a 90-mile horseback ride. Nor have the standards always been as rigorous: the original 1956 test required Marines older than 30 to finish a quarter-mile run without stopping—with no time limit. Since the 1965 introduction of the PFT, it has experienced six major revisions, including the addition of the Combat Fitness Test (CFT) in 2009 to measure Marine readiness for contemporary combat operations, while both the PFT and CFT were overhauled in 2016.

Routinely reviewing and shifting physical testing and occupational training strengthens the Corps’ ability to respond to operational realities. The changes to the PFT brought the tests closer to a demanding universal and gender-neutral standard. However, changes to IOC training have become the focus of critics who assume the change is a lowering of standards. The CET, known as the ‘grunt stakes’ for its long-distance heavy load hike, was first introduced to IOC in 1994 and made a graduation requirement only in 2012. IOC itself was not created until the 1980s. Although passing the CET is no longer required for graduating IOC, Gen Neller explained its “purpose remains as originally intended—a demanding physical/mental/resiliency test to evaluate the potential of an officer to successfully complete IOC.” Marines who enter IOC training have already proven themselves, having already passed the gender-neutral combat initial strength test (IST), OCS screening and evaluation, and The Basic School. To improve training and injury prevention, Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM) introduced a two-month comprehensive IOC preliminary course. Given improved preparation, IOC attrition dropped significantly. Changes made to IOC graduation requirements illustrate that the reevaluation of CET is part of a larger training review, not simply a lowering of standards.

As with lowered IOC attrition, improved physical training and preparation raises the ability of all Marines, including female Marines. TECOM implemented the Force Fitness program to train Force Fitness Instructors to teach “Marines how to stay in shape by improving their physical fitness as well as proper nutrition and injury prevention.” Marine Corps has recently partnered with USA Rugby to recruit women considered strong enough to withstand grueling training. 

The service owes a standard that is public and measurable as a clear benchmark. Implementation of MOS-specific, gender-neutral physical standards—the MOS classification standards—for combat arms positions is a move in the right direction to ensure all Marines in combat arms meet the same standard. For too long, there has been an ingrained attitude doubting the success of female Marines. As illustrated with other changes to physical fitness and training requirements, when a standard changes, Marines shift to meet it.

TECOM formally reviews standards every three years; training and physical fitness standards are an evolution in response to operational and occupational requirements, with the inclusion of women into combat arms roles as just one reason to review standards. As Gen Neller alluded, he is no less a Marine for joining prior to the creation of IOC; the addition or removal of a requirement does not negate or make a qualified Marine. As LtCol Misty Posey, USMC said, “It seemed that when the Marine Corps realized women could be more fit and needed female Marines to be more fit, we became more fit.” Communicating changes to standards that indicate clear benchmarks for success will be critical for performance and cohesion across the service.

Emma Moore is a researcher for the Military, Veterans, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

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