GI Schmo

Fred Kaplan, Slate, Jan. 9, 2006

Three months ago, I wrote that the war in Iraq was wrecking the U.S. Army, and since then the evidence has only mounted, steeply. Faced with repeated failures to meet its recruitment targets, the Army has had to lower its standards dramatically. First it relaxed restrictions against high-school drop-outs. Then it started letting in more applicants who score in the lowest third on the armed forces aptitude test—a group, known as Category IV recruits, who have been kept to exceedingly small numbers, as a matter of firm policy, for the past 20 years. (There is also a Category V—those who score in the lowest 10th percentile. They have always been ineligible for service in the armed forces and, presumably, always will be.)

The bad news is twofold. First, the number of Category IV recruits is starting to skyrocket. Second, a new study compellingly demonstrates that, in all realms of military activity, intelligence does matter. Smarter soldiers and units perform their tasks better; dumber ones do theirs worse.

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In a RAND Corp. report commissioned by the office of the secretary of defense and published in 2005, military analyst Jennifer Kavanagh* reviewed a spate of recent statistical studies on the various factors that determine military performance—experience, training, aptitude, and so forth—and concluded that aptitude is key. A force “made up of personnel with high AFQT [armed forces aptitude test] scores,” Kavanagh writes, “contributes to a more effective and accurate team performance.”

The evidence is overwhelming. Take tank gunners. You wouldn’t think intelligence would have much effect on the ability to shoot straight, but apparently it does. Replacing a gunner who’d scored Category IV on the aptitude test (ranking in the 10-30 percentile) with one who’d scored Category IIIA (50-64 percentile) improved the chances of hitting targets by 34 percent. (For more on the meaning of the test scores, click here.)

In another study cited by the RAND report, 84 three-man teams from the Army’s active-duty signal battalions were given the task of making a communications system operational. Teams consisting of Category IIIA personnel had a 67 percent chance of succeeding. Those consisting of Category IIIB (who’d ranked in the 31-49 percentile on the aptitude test) had a 47 percent chance. Those with Category IV personnel had only a 29 percent chance.

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Smarter also turns out to be cheaper. One study examined how many Patriot missiles various Army air-defense units had to fire in order to destroy 10 targets. Units with Category I personnel had to fire 20 missiles. Those with Category II had to fire 21 missiles. Category IIIA: 22. Category IIIB: 23. Category IV: 24 missiles. In other words, to perform the same task, Category IV units chewed up 20 percent more hardware than Category I units. For this particular task, since each Patriot missile costs about $2 million, they also chewed up $8 million more of the Army’s procurement budget.

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