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Research Questions

  1. What methods could be used to identify physically demanding tasks performed by airmen?
  2. What methods are available for identifying the physical demands of occupational specialties?
  3. How can the Air Force use information about the physical tasks and demands to establish Tier II, occupationally relevant fitness standards?

Military occupations can be physically demanding, yet few attempts have been made to determine the physical readiness of today's airmen to perform their jobs. Although the Air Force conducts fitness testing of all its airmen, these tests and standards are not based on validated job requirements. As part of a broader Air Force effort to measure the physical readiness of airmen to perform their jobs, this report describes a methodology for establishing physical fitness standards for four physically demanding Air Force occupational specialties — combat controller, pararescue, special operations weather team, and tactical air control party. Airmen in these specialties are collectively known as battlefield airmen.

The authors sought to identify the physically demanding tasks required of battlefield airmen and ways in which fitness standards might be established to ensure that individuals in these specialties are able to perform these tasks. They reviewed the research literature and relevant military documents, conducted focus groups and interviews with battlefield airmen and other subject matter experts, and analyzed the movement patterns and physical abilities associated with each task. They found a high demand across the four specialities for strength and muscular and cardiovascular endurance, followed by agility, anaeroboic power, and equilibrium, whereas they found flexibility to be less critically important. The authors recommend that a validation study be conducted next, to (a) ensure that tests measure important physical abilities required for successful mission or job performance, (b) ensure that performance on tests is a good indicator of mission or job performance, and (c) identify minimum test standards that are associated with acceptable mission or job performance.

Key Findings

Physical Abilities Identified as Critical for Battlefield Airmen

  • The physical abilities identified as critical for each of the physically demanding tasks required of battlefield airmen were muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, anaerobic power (ability to do high-intensity, short duration activity), equilibrium, flexibility, and coordination and agility.
  • There is a high demand across the four specialities for strength and muscular and cardiovascular endurance, followed by agility, anaeroboic power, and equilibrium.
  • Flexibility seems to be less critically important for phsyically demanding battlefield airmen tasks (but flexibility may be associated with fewer overall injuries among airmen).

Recommendations

  • A critical next step for the Air Force is to engage in a systematic program of research and development to produce valid and reliable Tier II tests and standards to (a) ensure that tests measure important physical abilities required for successful mission or job performance, (b) ensure that performance on tests is a good indicator of mission or job performance, and (c) identify minimum test standards that are associated with acceptable mission or job performance.
  • At least two tests should be used to measure each ability.
  • Tests should integrate job simulations, in part because basic fitness tests (e.g., pull-ups, three-mile run) are potentially biased in favor of smaller, leaner operators.
  • Consider using a compensatory model, in which stronger performance on one or more tests can make up for slightly weaker performance on other tests.

Research conducted by

The research was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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