war on the rocks

America’s Army: Measuring Quality Soldiers and Quality Officers

April 13, 2016

After four decades of the great experiment called the All-Volunteer Army, it has become abundantly clear that recruiting and retaining quality soldiers is a vital prerequisite to the success of America’s Army. While superior American technology, competent training, and efficient logistics are undoubtedly critical aspects of battlefield dominance, it is the Army’s resolute reliance on high quality officers and soldiers that has kept the All-Volunteer Army the world’s premier fighting force.

One might assume — given the critical national security role of the Army — that consistent, rigorous metrics are part of the accessions effort for soldiers and commissioned officers. Surprisingly, quality metrics in enlisted accessions are measured and monitored closely, while quality metrics for officer accessions are uneven and oftentimes meaningless. Thus, despite the Army’s focus on achieving cognitive dominance on the future battlefield, officer accession quality standards are inconsistent, sometimes non-existent, and not on par with enlisted accession standards.

American enlisted soldier quality, as defined by the Department of Defense, is measured by two fairly straightforward indicators: a high school diploma and performance on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). A high school diploma is a metric that, at first blush, appears to characterize academic success. Rather than indicating intellectual ability, however, the high school diploma provides evidence that a potential soldier has the persistence and stamina to complete an enduring challenge. A diploma is merely a proxy for perseverance and motivation. It serves as a signal that candidates have the stick-to-it-iveness required to make it through their basic training and term of enlistment.

The AFQT score, on the other hand, reflects aptitude and trainability. The AFQT score points to a potential soldier’s capacity to learn and master new skills. AFQT scores are percentiles that are normalized to the American youth population. A score of 60 represents the 60th percentile and means that 60 percent of the U.S. youth population scored at or below that score. The Army strives to bring in as many high quality soldiers — those having both high school diplomas and AFQT scores above the 50th percentile — as possible. But the Army’s quest for high quality is more than just wanting to populate the ranks with above-average individuals. In fact, the case for quality is remarkably well supported.

Empirical studies have shown that high-quality soldiers are more likely than low-quality soldiers to complete their enlistment and will have fewer instances of indiscipline during their time in the Army. Additionally, the evidence repeatedly confirms that high-quality soldiers — those with higher levels of motivation and aptitude — perform better in training and execute complex military tasks more proficiently. Studies show that high-quality soldiers make better communication specialists, Patriot air defense missile operators, and Abrams tank crewmen.

If soldier quality is an essential ingredient in fielding a force that will confidently confront the ambiguity and complexity of future war, how is the Army currently doing in accessing high-quality soldiers? For fiscal year 2015, Army recruiting numbers show that 60.2 percent of Army enlisted accessions had a high school diploma and an AFQT score of 50 or better. Although the Army has seen both better and worse years (for example, 76.4 percent high-quality in FY92 and 44.2 percent in FY07), it is important to note two critical aspects of the Army’s focus on high-quality accessions. First, the Army carefully tracks the quality of its enlisted accessions over time. As a result, quality metrics may prompt senior leaders to redirect resources or adjust policies in order to ensure recruit quality. Second, including a normed aptitude score in the definition of quality accounts for societal shifts in aptitude. Essentially, enlisted soldier quality is “inflation-adjusted,” allowing comparisons over time.

The situation in the accession of U.S. Army officers, however, is a bit more complex, mainly because officers enter the Army through a variety of paths with differing standards. For the 12 percent of officers who are commissioned through Officer Candidate School (OCS), the assessment of quality parallels the motivation and aptitude approach used in enlisted accessions. The high school diploma requirement is replaced by a bachelor’s degree, and the AFQT score is replaced by a minimum GT score of 110 (the GT score is the General Technical subscale of the AFQT). For comparison, the minimum GT scores for an enlisted public affairs specialist and a Special Forces candidate are 107 and 110, respectively.

For officers commissioned through the U.S. Military Academy and ROTC 3- or 4- year scholarship programs, a bachelor’s degree is also the metric for motivation. Instead of the AFQT, however, the measure of aptitude for this group of officers is the SAT (or the ACT). The average SAT score for this year’s West Point class is 1260. ROTC cadets who graduated last year with a 3- or 4- year scholarship had an average SAT score of 1229.

Another sizeable group — about 28 percent of all officers — enters the Army through ROTC with either a 2-year scholarship or no scholarship. As with other officer cohorts, motivation for this group is assessed through the requirement of a bachelor’s degree. With this group, however, aptitude is measured not with the AFQT or SAT, but with a GPA of 2.5 or higher. This sounds reasonable since a 2.5 GPA seems to be about average. Unfortunately, the last time a college GPA of 2.5 was average was in the 1950s. According to recent studies, the average GPA at public colleges is now 3.0 and at private universities, it has risen to 3.3. Grade inflation over the decades has rendered the 2.5 GPA requirement essentially meaningless. The unfortunate reality is that while the Army fastidiously strives for high quality in recruiting the enlisted force and much of the officer corps, over a quarter of Army officer accessions are given a pass in aptitude. The Air Force, in comparison, requires all potential officers to pass a qualifying test that assesses verbal and math skills (much like the GT score). The Marines require minimum scores on verbal and math college entrance tests or a minimum score on an AFQT subscale.

Of course, one could argue that as long as all officers perform the same regardless of how they were accessed, using an outdated GPA as a measure of aptitude is of minor importance. Unfortunately, analysis of officer performance data provides evidence to the contrary. Take for example the likelihood of receiving an above-average officer evaluation report during initial tours as platoon leader, company executive officer, company commander, or battalion executive/operations officer. The percentage of non-scholarship and 2-year scholarship officers who receive an above average rating is significantly lower than the percentage of officers commissioned via 3- or 4-year ROTC scholarships or the Military Academy. Similarly, the percentage of officers selected for battalion or brigade command is significantly lower for officers with non-scholarship and 2-year scholarship commissions. Just as quality soldiers make better soldiers, quality officers appear to make better officers. If one of the three lines of effort in the Army’s Human Dimension Operational Approach is to establish cognitive dominance, it seems that one small step in that direction would be the establishment of a single standard for officer quality.

We suggest a simple approach: Continue to use the bachelor’s degree as a measure of motivation. For aptitude, we suggest paralleling the enlisted model by using the AFQT (or more precisely, the GT score) for all potential Army officers. Instead of requiring a minimum score of 110 as OCS currently does, however, we recommend raising the minimum GT score to 115 since it is not unreasonable that the standard to become an officer is slightly higher than the standard to enlist in many of the Army’s occupational specialties. This modest proposal would accomplish three things.

First, it would allow the Army to track officer quality — specifically aptitude. With AFQT data for all officers, the Army could identify schools producing officers with lower scores and shift resources accordingly. If the Army continues to downsize and demand for officer accessions decreases, AFQT scores may provide another metric to consider when determining who gets commissioned and who does not.

Second, establishing the AFQT as a measure of aptitude in the officer corps indicates to the force that the effort to establish cognitive dominance in the Army is more than wishful thinking. If the Army says it needs agile and adaptive leaders, then considering aptitude in the commissioning of all Army officers is a cost-effective, logical first step.

Finally, using the bachelor’s degree and AFQT as indicators of quality in officer accessions provides a flexible tool for senior leaders that can be adjusted in times of duress. If it becomes necessary to ramp up officer accessions, the bachelor’s degree requirement could be changed (as it has been in the past) to an associate’s degree with the promise of attaining a bachelor’s degree in the future. Similarly, the 115 GT score requirement could be waived for individuals or adjusted during periods of high officer demand. The main point is to establish a standard, track it, and use it to inform policy decisions.

The Army’s Human Dimension White Paper notes that:

To dominate on the battlefield of the future, the Army must not only invest in long-term technological and equipment solutions, it must also invest in its people as the most agile and adaptive Army resource.

As the Army re-establishes itself for the uncertain and complex battlefields of the future, the demand for agile and adaptive leaders has never been greater. High-quality soldiers led by high-quality officers will ensure that America’s All-Volunteer Army will continue to dominate over every situation or adversary it encounters in the future.


Stephen Gerras is a professor of behavioral sciences in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. Leonard Wong is a research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. The views in this article are their own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.