WASHINGTON -- "If you can't pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, then there's probably not a spot for you in the Army," said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper.

"That doesn't mean you'll immediately get kicked out," he added. It means there will be some sort of remedial program, the details of which are still being worked out.

Esper addressed a range of issues during a Defense Writers Group breakfast Aug. 29.

The current Army Physical Fitness Test, which has been around some 40 years, is flawed, Esper said.

"I grew up in the Army with the APFT and I personally never thought it was a good indicator of combat physical fitness, nor did many of my colleagues. The testing has proved that out," he said.

The secretary said studies done by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command show that the APFT captures "maybe 30 or 40 percent relevance of what you demand in combat ... the ACFT is upwards of 80 percent."

COMBAT READY, PHYSICALLY FIT SOLDIERS

The main purpose of the ACFT is two-fold, he said. First, the test ensures Soldiers are ready for combat. Second, preparation for the test improves physical fitness as it relates to injury prevention.

Esper said losing Soldiers to injuries during physical training or field exercises contributes to decreased readiness, because injured Soldiers can't deploy.

At one point, upwards of 15 percent of Soldiers were categorized as non-deployable, he said. That's about 150,000 Soldiers across the entire force. Now, that figure has been reduced to 9 percent, and there are vigorous efforts underway to lower that percentage still more.

"If you're not physically fit for combat, then we're not only doing you an injustice, we're doing an injustice to your colleagues and peers as well," Esper said, explaining that if a Soldier can't deploy, that means someone else has to deploy twice as much.

"At the end of the day, we need soldiers who are deployable, lethal and ready," he emphasized.

Beginning October 2020, all Soldiers will be required to take the ACFT, which TRADOC fitness researchers term "gender- and age-neutral."

GROWING THE ARMY

There's a need to grow the active Army to at least 500,000 Soldiers, with associated growth in the National Guard and Reserve, Esper said.

To do that, the Army is planning a modest annual increase spread out over the next several years to get to that number, he said. The additional Soldiers will be used to fill current units that are undermanned and to grow additional capabilities.

The Army will not lower its standards to meet the end-strength goal, the secretary said.

"We've raised standards, such as limiting Category IV accessions from the DoD higher end of 4 percent to the Army higher end of 2 percent, putting more stringent requirements on issuing waivers and making sure we truly take into account the holistic person to ensure persons who receive waivers are high-quality recruits," Esper said.

He said the Army also needs to do a better job of recruiting.

One step being taken, he said, includes letting Soldiers go home for a number of weeks to assist recruiters by doing outreach.

This is particularly important in areas without a military presence, Esper added. Fewer and fewer young people know someone who's served, he said, and so to them, the Army is unknown.

Other efforts to attract quality recruits include putting more recruiters on the street - an effort that began in the spring, and moving recruiting stations to more optimal locations, he said.

Some other approaches include better utilizing Army public relations assets like the Golden Knights and Army bands, he said.