The Army is changing its recruitment system to allow for the growing number of overweight and unfit teenagers who are applying to join. New physical tests, being introduced next April, could also bring women into front-line jobs from which they are now excluded.
The new tests are derived from real battlefield activities and will decide what sort of tasks recruits are best suited to. They are designed not to discriminate against women, following a two-year research project carried out by the Defence Research Agency at Farnborough, Hampshire.
"There is a crisis in recruitment in terms of both quality and quantity," Mark Rayson, who headed the project, says. "School leavers are declining in physical robustness and are less active. The Army is convinced that they are less fit than they used to be."
At present, the initial tests for men consist of two pull-ups to a bar, 20 sit-ups in one minute, and a mile-and-a-half run in 12 minutes. Women perform easier pull-ups but the same number of sit-ups and have an extra minute for the run. Five per cent of applicants fail immediately, while 30-50 per cent fail the initial 10-week training course which culminates in a six-mile march with a full backpack and various strength and agility tests.
The new tests were designed by measuring 64 tasks that soldiers carry out, such as lifting artillery shells, performing long marches with packs and building bridges. These were then adapted to measure the necessary strengths of applicants. New tasks include carrying filled jerry cans over a short distance, running with a backpack on, lifting a 20kg (44lb) ammunition box and repetitive weightlifting.
"Soldiering is still very physically demanding, despite the computer age," Mr Rayson says. "But the advantage of these tests is that with women especially, we will be able to find what tasks they are best suited to. That could put them in front-line jobs - where presently they're excluded just on the basis of gender -if the tests show they have the necessary strength and skill."