Short answer? Absolutely.
It is widely believed within the ranks that the Air Force's relatively recent Physical Fitness Test (PFT), doubling of testing from every year to twice year, and failure policy (booting airmen after four failures within two years) is less about saving money on future health care costs, and more about saving money by reducing the force. As recent military retirement overhaul discussion shows, only seventeen percent of those in the service retire and collect health care benefits.
The service is drawing down and has taken some drastic measures to thin the force, including showing the door to 157 majors with fifteen years of service, despite law mandating that officers with less than six years until retirement be normally allowed to continue until retirement.
As I age and near retirement eligibility, I have unfortunately found that the PFT is not as easy as it once was. I had assumed since the test had age brackets, my aging would be compensated for in some way and things would continue as long as my lifestyle stayed the same. I have never been on a medical profile, but my body is telling me that something is different. So I decided to dig into the numbers a little bit to see if the only thing changing was my body ache and soreness.
We all age and have to fight to stay in shape. I have never enjoyed running and I have consistently only done so when required by the Air Force. Physical fitness was a priority and a vanity in my younger years, but as I've gotten older I've found other things to be more worth my time. In my first four years taking the Air Force PFT, I ran the mile and a half in 9:30, and felt like I was doing little more than jogging. My best time was 8:34. I was twenty-years old. Almost two decades later, I have to train in order to run it in under 14:00.
I have noticed that the test has become much harder for me to pass, and I wondered if the scoring system for the test hadn't been engineered to target, like the promotion board that separated the 157 majors referenced above, service members just before they are eligible for retirement. After all, kicking out those service members who have given 75% or more of twenty years of war time service without a pension, makes a lot of sense fiscally. At least in the short term, and on paper.
Charting the numbers shows that is likely the case. Those between 30-39 years of age have the most difficult PFT testing standards in the Air Force. That is the age group approaching a twenty year retirement. Enlisted personnel likely will reach retirement eligibility at age 38, while officers have to punch through to age 42 to earn a pension. The Air Force PFT treats those nearing retirement more harshly, and differently, than it does anybody else serving. I'll explain how I came to this conclusion. I'll limit my observations to males and the three brackets representing the ages up to a twenty year retirement. This information can be checked using the Air Force PFT scoring charts.
ABDOMINAL CIRCUMFERENCE IS CONSTANT FOR ALL AGES
In all age brackets, the target abdominal circumference is the same at 37.5 inches. The maximum is also the same at 39 inches, and the score component is the same for all ages. Unlike the other components of the test, service members do not get any leeway for their waist size as they age. This portion of the test, therefore, affects all age brackets equally. Therefore we can dismiss it and turn to the other PFT components.
TARGET NUMBER AND MINIMUMS
The target number of push-ups for the under 30 crowd is 44 (the minimum required to pass the test is 33). For those 30-39, it is 36 (the minimum is 27). And for those retirement eligible at over 40 years of age, it is 29 push-ups (the minimum is 21).
The target number of sit-ups for the under 30 crowd is 46 (the minimum is 42). For those 30-39, it is 42 (the minimum is 39). And for those retirement eligible at over 40 years of age, it is 37 sit-ups (the minimum is 34).
The target run time for the under 30 crowd is 13:14 (the slowest it can be run is 13:36). For those 30-39, it is also 13:14 (the slowest it can be run is 14:00). And for those retirement eligible at over 40 years of age, it is 14:25 (and the slowest they can run it and still pass is 14:52).
ABOVE THE MINIMUM
If a service member scores more than the minimum required for a component, they get more points. The number of points, however, differs by age bracket and also gives an indication of the age correlation to the test.
Somebody in the under 30 crowd that does one more push-up than the minimum, earns an additional .3 points. Somebody 30-39 will also earn .3 additional points. Somebody 40 years old will, however, earn .5 points.
Somebody in the under 30 crowd that does one more sit-up than the minimum, earns an additional .3 points. Somebody 30-39 will also earn .5 additional points. Somebody 40 years old will also earn .5 points.
Somebody in the under 30 crowd that shaves 22 seconds off the maximum run time, earns an additional 2.6 points. Somebody 30-39 that shaves 24 seconds off the maximum run time, earns an additional 3.0 points. Somebody 40 years old will, if they shave 27 seconds off the maximum run time, earn and additional 2.9 points.
MAXING A COMPONENT
Somebody in the under 30 crowd must do 67 push-ups for the full ten points. Somebody 30-39 will need to do 57 push-ups for the full ten points. Somebody 40 years old will require 44 push-ups for the full ten points.
Somebody in the under 30 crowd must do 58 sit-ups for the full ten points. Somebody 30-39 will need to do 54 sit-ups for the full ten points. Somebody 40 years old will require 50 sit-ups for the full ten points.
Somebody in the under 30 crowd must run in 9:12 for the full sixty points. Somebody 30-39 will need to run 9:34 for the full sixty points. Somebody 40 years old will need to run 9:45 for the full sixty points.
THE IN BETWEEN (DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS)
The real question is how much effort must be put in to score the most points? How much is gained by each additional push-up, sit-up, or second of run time? This is where we can really see if the test gets any easier to pass as our bodies age. Note: for a better look at the charts, click them.
The group close to retirement age, between 30-39, gets an extra 24 seconds to keep from failing the run event, while those of retirement age in their forties get a whopping 52 extra seconds of run time. Not only that, but those in their forties also get significantly more gain for running faster, while a crusty thirty-nine year old gets absolutely nothing beyond what the eighteen year old gets. Age is barely considered at all, when it comes to run, for the 30-39 year old group approaching retirement unlike every other age bracket. It's almost as though they haven't aged at all since they graduated high school.
In addition, the 30-39 year bracket gets penalized for "just making the run time," unlike every other male age bracket. The same is true for the female age brackets, with the exception of 60+ year old women who serve in the Air Force (if there are any). This means the 30-39 year old group that just barely passes the running portion, must make up at least three extra points to be treated as the other brackets. To get these three extra points, they must do an extra 23 push-ups, or an extra 13 sit-ups, or have a two inch smaller waist measurement to get the same points all other age brackets get for just barely passing the running portion. This point clearly demonstrates that the Air Force PFT singles out those approaching retirement, and gives them the most difficult physical fitness test in the service.
ROCK BOTTOM LINE
Those who are coming close to retirement eligibility have a relatively harder Physical Fitness Test than the youngsters who enter the service, and than those in their forties who are eligible to retire. If you want to retire, you have to work harder the closer you get in order to achieve it.
It's interesting that those who implemented this new PFT program were likely already past the 30-39 age bracket.
ETA: For those interested in the Female Charts, those approaching retirement have a more difficult push-up standard, and the run standards are similarly biased against those approaching the twenty year service point.