The Test is not the Territory

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The recent changes in the Individual Physical Proficiency Test standards have met with mixed reactions. Described as a way to ensure National Servicemen would be better able to train for and pass the test, the new format has raised questions over whether fitness standards will be compromised. It is time to take a step back and look at the big picture, to understand the rationale of having an IPPT in the first place.

Different types of fitness

There is physical fitness, and there is psychological  fitness. The former is a baseline standard of health. The latter is physiological adaptation to task. It is fair to say that an Olympic-class weightlifter is as biologically fit as a sprinter in the same league, but as they have trained for different sports one is better than the other in their respective sports.

From a military perspective, troops need both kinds of fitness. They need to be of good health, and they need to be able to do their jobs well. Modern-day militaries have dozens, if not hundreds, of different specialities, each with their own specific tasks and requirements.

An infantryman would have to be able to march long distances hauling heavy loads, and be able to sprint from cover to cover in a firefight. An artilleryman must be able to set up, load, tear down and move his assigned piece all day long. A Naval diver will have to swim long distances quickly and stealthily, then emerge from the water and execute the mission.

Different vocations have different fitness requirements, which are best met through training specific for that vocation. But this kind of specialised training needs a foundation of good health to build upon. It is that baseline that the IPPT seeks to test for and establish.

Fitness to Task

Regulars and Full-time National Servicemen are the first in line for combat. They are able to train full-time for their specific jobs. Their concern is not simply passing the IPPT – it is being able to do their jobs well. Combat fitness is outside the scope of this article, but if they can pass the new IPPT standards, these soldiers will have a foundation upon which to build the kind of fitness they need for their specific roles.

National Servicemen who have completed their full-time NS liability are the nation’s second line of defence. In times of crises, with the NSFs and regulars holding the enemy at bay, NSmen would be furiously equipping and being trained to task before being sent out into the fray. The purpose of annual in-camp training is to refresh and maintain their technical skills first, and then physical fitness. In pre-deployment training, the same priorities would likely apply. It’s more important to ensure reservists can use their equipment properly first, so they can actually do their jobs. Any leftover time can be dedicated to physical fitness, so they can do their jobs better and longer. The higher the level of baseline fitness, the faster and easier it is to bring the NSmen up to speed, and the sooner they can be sent to the front.

For that to happen, NSmen must be fit, and must be able to train.

The compromise

The new IPPT, at heart, is about finding the best compromise between baseline fitness and ability to train for National Servicemen. Full-time soldiers can train often, but not reservists accustomed to civilian life. If a reservist finds it difficult to train for a test, laziness may set in. He will not train for the test, and therefore will not be fit.

The new IPPT format is made completely of calisthenics that do not require any equipment beyond a pair of running shoes. Anybody can train for the IPPT anywhere. By making it convenient to train, the military planners are hoping that soldiers will become fitter as a result.

Will it work? Foreign militaries with similar tests seem to have good experiences. The Israeli Defence Forces and the United States Army use the same exercises the new IPPT uses. The Australian military has a shuttle run in lieu of a distance run.

On the other hand, the British Army requires a shuttle run, lifting a weighted bag onto an elevated surface, and completing a set course while carrying two full jerry cans of water. Danish troops undergo three or four exercise blocks to test different parts of the body, with multiple stations per block. The Canadian Armed Forces has four stations: a sandbag lift, intermittent loaded shuttle run, 20-metre rushes and a sandbag drag.

The Israeli, American and Australian militaries favour simple exercises that anybody can train anywhere. The British, Danish and Canadian forces use more comprehensive tests to assess full-body fitness and simulate combat tasks.

All six nations have performed favourably in modern war.

Based on this, it is safe to say that the new IPPT is adequate for its current task of establishing a baseline fitness level for the entire armed forces, and to encourage reservists to train through simplicity. If calibrated properly, the three-station test standards holds up favourably to the rigours of war, and against more sophisticated tests.

Where the layman is concerned, the real question is not whether the new IPPT is good enough. It’s whether National Servicemen will be willing and able to train.