The state of physical fitness in the United States has long been a topic of concern among the nation's leaders. Declining fitness measures on the part of military draftees played an important role in prompting President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to establish the President's Council on Youth Fitness. In 1960, John Kennedy, then the president-elect, felt so strongly about the subject that he wrote a multipage article, "The Soft American," for Sports Illustrated.
The problem, Kennedy scathingly asserted, constituted nothing less than a national security crisis:
"Throughout our history we have been challenged to armed conflict by nations which sought to destroy our independence or threatened our freedom. The young men of America have risen to those occasions, giving themselves freely to the rigors and hardships of warfare. But the stamina and strength which the defense of liberty requires are not the product of a few weeks' basic training or a month's conditioning. These only come from bodies which have been conditioned by a lifetime of participation in sports and interest in physical activity. Our struggles against aggressors throughout our history have been won on the playgrounds and corner lots and fields of America.
"Thus, in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security."
Military leaders share the same concerns today. Indicators show overall fitness to be substantially below the levels measured during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras. More than 70 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service, the Pentagon found in 2017. The interconnected issues of health and inadequate physical fitness constitute the two largest reasons for that. The deprioritization of school-based physical education programs have played a role in the current fitness crisis, which stands to have long-term effects on military preparedness.
In 2015, Frank Palkoska, who was then the head of the U.S. Army's Physical Fitness Training School, commented: "You acquire most of your basic movement patterns by first grade, and our youth today just aren't getting the physical education time they need. Lack of fitness is a societal problem. The injury rate (among recruits in basic training) is developing into a taxpayer concern in terms of medical care and lost training expenses. And the lack of qualified recruits is becoming a national security issue."
The Pentagon has struggled to find a solution to the problem, including deciding what to do with those among active-duty ranks who fall below fitness standards.
The Pentagon has struggled to find a solution to the problem, including deciding what to do with those among active-duty ranks who fall below fitness standards. Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced a policy whereby personnel who remained nondeployable for 12 months, whatever the reason, would be forced to leave the military. Substandard physical fitness was among the reasons that some 286,000 troops were so categorized. Given force requirements and the continuing rapid pace of operations overseas, the decision makes a good deal of sense. Even so, a realistic assessment of modern battlefield needs should be a component of recruitment and retention decisions.
I have written previously on the place of video game technologies in military recruitment, training and procurement as well as on the increasing emphasis on man-machine teaming in the Pentagon's research and development efforts. Fighting the wars of the future will require crucial investments in cyberwarfare and electronic warfare capabilities. How to recruit personnel with critical digital technology skills and, more importantly, retain them in those roles, has long posed a challenge for the Pentagon. With robust growth in private-sector tech industry projected to continue, and plentiful high-paying jobs available in the field, the military must find a way to compete. But the armed forces have lagged in the development of a clearly defined career path for cyberprofessionals. To take but one example, all 126 of the Air Force specialists who recently served a tour with the Pentagon's Cyber Mission Force ended up filling roles in the service outside the cyberwarfare realm after their tour with the command concluded.
Outlining a clear career path for technological specialists will be an important step in retaining their services. But retaining talent in high-technology military missions will take much more than that. Physical fitness policies will play a role in determining success of those efforts. It is no accident that the Pentagon began a sweeping review of military fitness requirements at around the same time the decision on nondeployable forces was made.
Jacquelyn Schneider, a faculty member at the U.S. Naval War College and a former Air Force officer, has made a case for rethinking military regulations based on job specialty. "Fitness requirements should reflect the needs of the mission and therefore the future warrior's health standards should better represent their combat and day-to-day duties," she argued. "In general, there is a baseline of good health that should be required whether you're sitting behind a computer terminal or on a foot patrol. But beyond good health, many of the more technical mission sets probably don't require two miles, 50 push-ups, and 50 sit-ups."
A precedent already exists for reducing physical training requirements for personnel in high-technology areas. As far back as 2010, concern over the need to attract sufficient numbers of technically proficient recruits induced the U.S. Navy to implement a direct commissioning program for cyberprofessionals. The U.S. Army has recently opened a similar initiative, which allows those experienced in the field to become officers without going through its Basic Combat Training course. Two enlisted Air Force personnel notably received officer appointments earlier this year because of their proficiency in cyberoperations. Even the tradition-bound Marine Corps contemplated whether an exception for tech-savvy recruits should be made to its core belief in the credo, "every Marine a rifleman." The proposal, which was not adopted, would have allowed enlisted recruits and officer candidates possessing critical computer skills to skip boot camp or The Basic School.
A tailoring of physical fitness standards for military personnel in high-technology areas seems logical at this point. In a perfect world, of course, a way would be found to reverse the deteriorating state of U.S. fitness and concurrent rise in obesity levels in society at large. And to be sure, a great deal of thought has been devoted to the problem over the past decade. But for myriad reasons, an effective set of policy solutions has yet to be implemented, and none are likely forthcoming any time soon. The Pentagon would do well to reflect upon this reality in the context of the changing nature of modern warfare.