Saturday 21 October 2021
Whither our warriors?
Critics say the lowering of fitness standards to accommodate women has been instrumental in producing an army unsuited for soldiering.
Warrior or wimp?
One debate within Canada's military that doesn't go away is the argument that the Armed Forces is becoming a kinder, gentler and ultimately ineffective fighting machine.
In the army itself, some wonder if Canada's soldiers are out of shape and losing their fighting skills, a downhill slide they, wrongly or rightly, link to the introduction of women into combat jobs. Others note that the lessening of fitness standards has to do with changes in Canadian society in which fitness has generally deteriorated. Still others bemoan an increasingly common attitude that military life is just another job and not a profession that includes laying down your life for your country.
Canadian army physical fitness tests are designed to be gender and age neutral. Officers have been reprimanded for yelling at overweight soldiers. Recruits are no longer required to hurl a grenade into a designated target area. Just being able to throw one is enough.
"Training standards have gone down," says Howard Michitsch, a former army major who worked on the program to enlist more women into the Armed Forces. "Are we inherently getting rid of the warrior class? I think we are to a degree."
A master corporal writing from Bosnia several months ago called the large number of physically unfit people in the Armed Forces a public relations disaster. "If the buttons on your uniform are ready to pop off and possibly injure an innocent bystander, drop the bucket of poutine and waddle yourself down to the gym," wrote Master Cpl. D. London in a letter to the military newspaper, the Maple Leaf. "As for the policy, it appears to say that you can get as fat as you want, fail your (fitness) test if you feel like it, but you'll never be kicked out."
Military officials contend Canada's soldiers are fit and better trained than they have been in a long time. Training standards are now clearly laid out and understood. "We believe we've got a good product out there," says army Col. Stephen Appleton. "Can it get better? Absolutely. But it is a good product."
Canadian Alliance defence critic Art Hanger, however, believes training and physical fitness standards have decreased in the last decade because of what he calls "social engineering." Overall standards have been weakened so the military can recruit more women, in particular, he claims.
He is not alone. Surveys of male soldiers conducted during the last couple of years show they think standards have loosened to allow women into combat, something military officials categorically deny. A 1996 report to then-defence minister Doug Young also hinted the changes were linked to women's roles in combat. "Women should be and are eligible to serve in every area of the CF and at all ranks, but training standards must not be lowered further (the army is already one of the mildest training armies in the West) to achieve numerical quotas," states the report.
The outline of basic recruit training standards that Mr. Hanger obtained under the Access to Information Act clearly shows in 1984 the physical fitness test consisted of pushups, chin-ups, sit-ups, rope climbing, scaling a wall unassisted, as well as the ability to carry a wounded comrade. There were different standards for men and women. In 1996, along with a 13-kilometre forced march, standards included pushups, chin-ups, and sit-ups but the numbers required had been dropped for both men and women. Scaling walls and climbing ropes had disappeared.
The army now has one test -- a battle-efficiency test that consists of a 13.5-kilometre forced march while carrying 22.5 kilograms of equipment. That is followed by the "casualty evacuation drill," otherwise known as the fireman's carry.
In 1986, an infantryman had to throw two live fragmentation grenades 20 metres and one grenade had to land within a six-metre circle target. Using a short-range anti-tank weapon, infantrymen had to achieve a minimum of one hit on a stationary tank-sized target from between 150 to 200 metres away.
By 1996, two grenades still had to be thrown, but missing the target didn't mean the recruit would fail the test. Missing the target with an anti-tank weapon or a light mortar also didn't mean failure.
Despite the changes, Col. Appleton says the quality of the army's training is on the rise, although he readily acknowledges there is no way to measure his claim. He says it is important not to set standards so high at the recruit level that young soldiers may be prevented from continuing their careers. "We have to be careful we don't draw that line too soon," explains Col. Appleton, the director of land force readiness. "In some ways, weapons handling and weapons accuracy should not be that line." As soldiers progress, they become experienced in everything from weapons to surviving on the battlefield.
The army's age and gender neutral battle efficiency test, designed to be the same for men and women, is seen as leading-edge by other militaries, which are considering adopting it, says Maj. Kelly Farley, who helps design the army's policy for training and standards. The test is already being used by the Dutch armed forces.
Maj. Farley denies the fitness test was a result of the push to put women in combat jobs, although, he concedes, they coincided with that program. "There will always be this perception among some folks who see this as pandering to women in combat jobs," he says. "But it has nothing to do with that."
He says the annual test was designed three years ago because of the need for a fitness regimen that better reflected the tasks that soldiers perform, as well as to protect the Canadian Forces from legal challenges that such tests have to be job-related. "We knew women were coming into the combat arms so we wanted to develop a test that was gender neutral," explains Maj. Farley. "The legal perspective was certainly in the back of our minds. We wanted the test to withstand any challenge that was put to us."
Soldiers who don't pass the test are retested until they do. If they consistently fail there may be career ramifications, but troops generally acknowledge it is rare to be thrown out of the military for being unfit.
For those not in the army units, there is the EXPRES test which consists of a shuttle run, sit-ups and pushups based on gender and age. The standard is considered relatively low when compared to the rigours of combat.
Maj. Farley believes the level of army fitness during the decade has improved because of the increase in overseas assignments. "I think a lot of it has to do with Bosnia and that our army is now an army of veterans," he says. "People have an expectation that their professional standards, whether physical or technical, will be challenged not just in a formal way, but an informal way in operations, so they better have their act together."
Mr. Michitsch believes the army's fitness test isn't up to scratch but he stops short of blaming that entirely on the introduction of women into combat jobs. Pushups and pull-ups to build upper body strength, as well as scaling walls and climbing ropes, relate directly to soldiering, he notes. Warfare is highly demanding and high technology has done nothing to lessen the need for absolute fitness and skill. "We carry the same weight load today as Caesar's legions did," says Mr. Michitsch. "Instead of a bronze shield, you have a Kevlar flak jacket. Instead of short sword and spear, you've got a grenade-launching assault rifle."
According to Mr. Michitsch, the military's now-defunct Warrior program held the answer to the army's problems with fitness. Each year, every soldier in the army, without exception, had to complete the physical fitness and weapons skill courses. Depending on their results, they were awarded a badge, either bronze, silver or gold. "You knew exactly who you were dealing with," explains Mr. Michitsch. "If the guy had the badge, that meant you knew his level of qualification and his level of physical fitness and skill."
In particular, the Warrior badge program was a source of pride for many non-combat support troops, since a high standing helped gain them respect from infantry soldiers.
Tougher standards would likely be welcomed if Canada's soldiers ever found themselves in combat. It is not usual for a soldier these days to be carrying up to 45 kilograms of equipment, noted Maj. Richard Eaton writing last year in the Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin. Maj. Eaton also pointed out the consequences of soldiers not being physically fit: During the Falklands War one British army unit, used to travelling by armoured vehicles, was unable to march on foot to one battlefield because they weren't as physically fit as paratroopers and Royal Marine commandos also involved in fighting.
Maj. Eaton, who served with the British army's parachute regiment and the Royal Marines and is now in Canada's military reserves, also questioned the effectiveness of the existing fitness standards. "Canada's infantry battle fitness standards are currently ill-defined," wrote Maj. Eaton. "We must face reality and continue to seek ways to improve our physical standards while refusing to condone physical mediocrity at all levels in the infantry."
Those in the Canadian Forces who have raised questions about dwindling standards and the link to a kinder, more politically correct military, are not alone. Last fall, British army instructors were told to stop swearing at recruits in basic training so they didn't scare potential soldiers away. Two years ago, a former sergeant on the British army's parachute regiment recruiting team warned that many soldiers were overweight and undisciplined.
In the U.S., the army is changing its programs to help overweight and less-fit recruits pass basic training. A new remedial course is being given for obese soldiers who need an easier pace so they don't quit early in training.
Canadian military instructors have also toned down their language to avoid harassment charges. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bar a potential recruit because of poor fitness, others say.
Australia is one nation, however, which has acted on concerns about unfit soldiers. Last year, it weeded out almost 700 officers and other ranks for failing to meet army fitness requirements, including being capable of completing a 2.4-kilometre run in less than 12 minutes, a shooting test, overall medical fitness and the readiness to travel overseas within 30 days.
But with Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the desire of the Department of National Defence to avoid controversy, military analysts say such a widespread purge of unfit soldiers is unlikely to happen in this country.