In 2016, the then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, went on video record to that that if women “wanted to serve on the front-line in combat units then I don’t think we should bar them from doing so”. He cited a number of other armies that were making changes to allow this to happen.
At about the same time, reports were emerging of an initiative to revamp the Army’s fitness training and tests. Some claimed it was due to a need to allow women to work in front-line units and that current tests were biased to a “male physiology”. According to some analysis, only about 30 women a year would be able to pass the tests imposed on front-line troops.
The main issues stem from the different body masses and distribution of muscle, a higher fat mass, and a lower cardio output leading to a more rapid depletion of energy reserves for a typical women. When tested by traditional methods such as press-ups and running etc. women would almost inevitably fare worse than men. It was also shown that women suffer twice as many musculoskeletal injuries as men in their basic training.
Many viewed proposals to change the system with concern; some serving soldiers said they would resign rather than stay in an army of mixed combat troops (which, to be fair, included a range of issues other than fitness). A number of retired personnel have also issued warnings, including Richard Kemp who said: “You will have infantry soldiers who are less capable than they are today.”
Anecdotal evidence seemed to support this view. In one informal test involving taking a fighting patrol out at night, a number of reserve male and female soldiers were asked to select their patrol members from those on the course. All the male soldiers selected at least one female”because they thought it was the done thing”, while the female patrol leaders chose all male teams “because they wanted people who could carry them out if they were hurt”. Other examples included the question of whether female truck drivers in forward supply echelons were physically able to change a wheel in the event of a puncture. Both might seem like small-beer in the big picture, but enough of these emerged to make it important that any changes were seen to be impartial and not in any way watering-down standards.
The Army naturally denied this might be the case, issuing the following statement:
“The MOD is undertaking a review to establish the physical standards required for ground close combat, which is due to complete in 2019. It will be based upon the principle that any standards will be related to the required role rather than individual characteristics. No decisions have been taken and any claims of what this will involve are pure speculation.”
The then CGS, Gen Carter also weighed in, saying:
“I want to make it very clear that there will be no lowering of training or qualifying levels for soldiers in ground close combat roles.”
However, it is widely understood that modern recruiting trends mean that the Army is likely to fall short of its manpower requirements if nothing is changed to allow more people to join, and then to be allocated to fighting units. And so, behind the scenes the MOD accepted that they had to develop and then implement a training regime that reflected modern combat roles for both men and women, reflecting an increase in the numbers of women in combat roles.
The results of their studies are the new In-Service Physical Employment Standards (PES) for all ground close combat roles which will come into effect from 2019. According to the Army, the new physical fitness standards “are objective, measurable, role-related and gender-free to ensure Army personnel have the physical capability to meet the necessary force preparation and operational requirements“.
PES will be incorporated into a new structured suite of Army Role Fitness Tests – a series of tests to assess whether personnel are fit for a specific role, based on detailed analysis of roles, with the scientific research being conducted by the University of Chichester. The new tests will include casualty extraction from a vehicle, repeated lift and carry exercises as well as the sort of physical activity required when in battle such as fire and movement. Soldiers will have to do a 4km march carrying 40kg of kit in less than 40 minutes, followed by a 2km march carrying 25kg in under 15 minutes. They will carry out a fire and movement test, followed by a 20m drag of a 110kg simulated casualty. They will also have to carry two 20l cans, each weighing 22kg for 240m in under four minutes, followed by a lift and three minute hold of a 70kg weight.
Here are the main programme details:
New Physical Employment Standards (PES) for all Ground Close Combat (GCC)
1. New Physical Employment Standards (PES) for all Ground Close Combat (GCC) personnel will be phased implemented from 1 Jan 19; and in-Service from 1 Apr 19. The new PES are objective, measurable, role-related, and gender-free. They will provide selection/entry and in-Service physical fitness standards for all GCC personnel. PES for non-GCC personnel will follow in 2021.
2. The PES have been incorporated into a new, structured suite of Army Role Fitness Tests (RFT):
a. RFT Soldier (RFT S) – replaces the Annual Fitness Test (AFT) to become the in-Service physical test for all Regular GCC personnel.
b. RFT Alternative (RFT A) – a gym based alternative to the RFT S that replaces the AFT to become the in-Service physical test for all Reserve GCC personnel.
c. RFT Entry (RFT E) – replaces PSS(R) and PSS(O) to become the scientifically valid standard to start Army basic training, GCC in this initial case, and the RMAS Pre-Commissioning Course Briefing Course (PCCBC).
3. The RFT suite is supported by the Soldier Conditioning Review (SCR) and the Army Physical Training System (APTS) . The SCR is a gender-free, age-free gym-based in-Service strength and conditioning diagnostic tool used to benchmark the effectiveness of individuals’ and units’ strength and conditioning programmes; and subsequent success on at the RFT. The SCR will be phased implemented for all personnel (GCC, non-GCC, Regular and Reserve) from Jan 19, coinciding with the removal of the Personnel Fitness Assessment (PFA) on 1 Apr 19.
4. The lifting of exclusions of women from GCC roles provided the imperative for strategic change and the catalyst for research in the physical and legal risks of women in GCC roles; however the new PES are not directly linked into women in GCC roles and will not lead to a lowering of standards.
5. The scientific methodology of the PES research programme is internationally recognised. It has been built on the experiences of, and engagement with, other nations, and legal precedent, assured by the tri-Service PES Technical Working Group. The scientific research has been conducted by the University of Chichester but all standards will be set by a Military Judgement Panel (MJP). PES is aligned with Programme THOR and will achieve higher and more appropriate physical performance levels; it is expected to reduce musculoskeletal injury (MSkI), and increase deployability levels
The tests are based on recent combat experience in the Middle East and Asia, and are far more relevant to actual combat situations than the old sit-ups etc. To that extent they clearly make more sense. However, the results of the test data need to be assessed carefully in order to see whether men perform them significantly more easily than women and whether a greater proportion of men now pass them compared with current tests. If that is the case the bars will have to be adjusted or it will inevitably lead to a general feeling that the overall capability of front-line troops will have been “compromised”.
It is also reported that initial testing of potential recruits is to reflect the new PES structure. Once again, the question will be whether the changes maintain overall standards or not. In this regard it is interesting to note the recent changes in the Gurkha recruit tests in Nepal which, whilst allowing women to take part for the first time, have not in any way changed the standards applied. As soon as the results of this year’s tests are made available TMT will report them as a follow-on to this article.