Fresh from the news that the Navy will retain 48,000 sailors who stood to be cashiered for failing their physical fitness tests, rumors are flying in personnel circles that the Air Force will soon follow suit with what’s being called a “temporary freeze” on fitness-driven discharges.

The idea was previously discussed in late 2016, when it briefly appeared as though the Air Force would substantially overhaul its fitness program. Strong arguments were made at that time that given acute shortages of experienced airmen, fitness could no longer be justified as a stand-alone rationale for discharge — especially with respect to veteran airmen beyond their initial enlistments.

In the end, senior officials reasoned that the perception of relaxed standards was too dangerous to justify the payoff of such a policy. Even if it would be worthwhile, it was argued at the time, the service was constrained by DoD policy from relaxing discharge rules.

This was, of course, pure rubbish … as the Navy’s rule change exposes. The services have a duty to conduct fitness and wellness programs, but they also have broad latitude in executing those programs. The fact the idea is back on the table reflects the grave seriousness of the Air Force’s unfolding manpower crisis, which seems to be finally tipping a few sacred cows.

For the Navy, the calculus became clear: nothing is more important than retaining able-bodied sailors to perform the mission. To the extent someone can fail the fitness assessment and still contribute to the mission, the Navy sees a duty to retain them.

This reflects a mature view that the Air Force has yet to adopt or even entertain. As its retention woes have worsened, there’s been no meaningful revision to fitness policy. Even as mission critical billets are gapped, airmen capable of filling them are getting booted, in some cases for missing the required push-up or sit-up count by one or registering a half-inch too high around the waistline.

In some cases, this is warranted, with repeat fitness failures reflecting an airman’s inability to meet standards more generally. In other cases, the service is recklessly cutting loose great airmen whose lone sin is that they don’t conform to the body image currently desired by the institution, and are unable (given competing demands on their time) to expend the energy necessary to align with that image.

The Air Force’s decade-long active refusal to limit the fitness test to an appropriate priority for a service that has only a tiny sliver of itself engaged in martial tasks reflects a greater struggle with organizational dysfunction. Since the initial fielding of a revised fitness program in 2004, the chain of command has made fitness a requirement without giving airmen the resources (primarily time) to achieve it.

This hypocritical approach has made fitness a driver in declining retention. Because USAF commanders have been too gutless to make their fitness standard part of the budget, airmen have been forced to expend personal time in order to pass their tests. This is an engine for resentment.

If fitness is part of the job, it must be part of the duty day. If it’s not part of the duty day, it’s not part of the job. If it’s not part of the job, it can’t be measured as a job standard or used as justification to remove someone from a job.  This is why testing should be indexed and directly related to job requirements. Firefighters have a different fitness requirement than dental technicians, and so on.

But this hasn’t been the organizational reality. Giving the Air Force’s managers a quantifiable measurement gifted their lazy brains with a seemingly clear tool for culling the herd. Never mind that it was the wrong tool … the ability to draw a clear line supported the administrative imperative for clear, efficient, and centralized decisions requiring little judgment. Blue-suited bureaucrats lapped it up.

Aided by in-service wellness fanatics whose self-love is matched only by their seething envy of people who get to carry big guns to work, USAF managers turned fitness into a glaring example of over-emphasis. They morphed a program into a test and then morphed the test into a single-issue referendum on the value and worth of an airman. Anyone questioning the primacy of the test in judging an airman’s worth was denounced as a heretic. Little wonder it’s become the most divisive and negative element of the service’s culture.

But in the wake of the Navy’s policy change, the Air Force has a new opportunity to exhibit a mature attitude about the place of fitness in its culture. An attitude that should help reflect and affirm its institutional and identity … rather than an attempt to shore up its image at the expense of its people, or worse, to ape other services in a pathetic display of self-loathing.

Now is the moment to halt the current program and implement new and greatly simplified fitness rules. They should vary by clan and measure actual readiness rather than grading body types. The goal should be to help and support airmen who fall below a fitness or wellness mark, not to hunt and harass them.

Will the current leadership have the stones to do this? It remains to be seen. But to discharge a single airmen for fitness in the middle of this personnel shortage would be (continued) malpractice.

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