Is the Smartest Officer the Best Officer?

April 20, 2016

Stephen Gerras and Leonard Wong argue that officers should take the same test currently administered to enlistees in order to track intelligence longitudinally towards the goal of improving officer quality. This is a sound recommendation. As Michael Klein and I documented last year, there has been a steady decline in the scores of Marine officers on intelligence tests over the past three decades. In light of this and other research, I have previously argued for the military to administer the same test to officers that we give to enlistees in order to track intelligence longitudinally and improve quality. I would add some additional context and refinements to their argument.

First, a technical issue: the AFQT (Armed Forces Qualifying Test), which they suggest using for all officers, has not existed as a separate test since 1972. Instead, the AFQT score is now calculated from the scores of several subtests of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). Besides the fact that the AFQT is not administered separately, there is some evidence that the best predictor of officer aptitude involves using subtests of the ASVAB that are not included in the AFQT score. This does not change the validity of their thesis, but would change its implementation.

More substantively, I would expand the argument. Since World War I, it has been assumed (and occasionally shown) that officers with higher intelligence test scores do better at basic training and in service. Gerras and Wong echo this long-held view in pointing to a study by the Strategic Studies Institute. Unfortunately, they could have chosen better evidence, as the authors of that study specifically state, “Let us be clear — we are not arguing that scholarship officers are more talented than others” (14), and there is no statistical test to show “significance.”

To show that a new testing regime is needed furthermore, the current selection process must be insufficient. The authors do not cite any evidence for this, but it exists. For example, the Marines give an unchanging aptitude test to all of their officers. The scores have been declining for the last 35 years in a way that seems to be linked to the secular increase in college attendance. It was also shown that in 2007 35 percent of Army officers commissioned from OCS scored below a 65 on the AFQT portion of their ASVAB; this was up from 15 percent in 1997, representing a dramatic decline in intelligence for officers in a cohort other than the zero- or two-year ROTC scholars that the authors mentioned.

In terms of the recommendation, establishing a minimum score would either be too low as to not be binding (one of the commentators on their article claims that the current GPA score is not binding for cadets in AROTC), or it would reduce minority participation in a way that is unacceptable to the current mission of increasing diversity (as happens with minimum ASVAB scores for enlistees). Establishing minimum intelligence scores would put the services in the dilemma of either lowering standards or not making diversity goals. Rather than establishing a minimum standard, therefore, I suggested simply taking the test results of the ASVAB into account during accessions decisions. We might want our new officers to have the phenomenal average PFT scores of today (273 for the Army and 279 for the Marines), but this comes at the expense of intelligence; administering the ASVAB would help clarify what exactly that tradeoff is before we change accessions standards. In order to do this, lengthy studies will have to be made and the structure of OCS changed to deemphasize physical fitness.

Overall, however, I’m glad that smart people are taking interest in this vital area, and that they have reached a similar conclusion. I hope that policymakers will heed the call to administer the ASVAB to officers as a low-cost way to provide some measurement of longitudinal trends in our officer corps.


Matthew Cancian served in the Marine Corps as an artillery officer from 2009-2013, deploying to Sangin, Afghanistan as a Forward Observer. He is currently finishing a Master’s at The Fletcher School and will be attending MIT in the fall for a PhD in Political Science.


Photo credit: Cpl. James Marchetti, U.S. Marine Corps