Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) on Thursday pressed Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller on his decision to ease hiking standards for prospective officers seeking to graduate from the service's punishing Infantry Officer Course amid troubling attrition rates.
Though Marines are still required to participate in nine hikes as part of the course, the Marine Corps Times reported in February that Neller had quietly reduced the number of evaluated hikes from six to three. Marines must pass all three evaluated hikes to graduate, whereas previously they had to pass five of the six evaluated hikes.
"I find that a little worrisome given that overall physical fitness testing standards have increased for everyone to include enlisted Marines, which means we may be lowering standards for our infantry leaders compared to our enlisted marines on something that is, I would say, a pretty core competency for an infantry leader," Cotton said to Neller during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on force posture.
Recent Stories in National Security
Cotton cited remarks by Brig. Gen. Jason Bohm, the commanding officer of Marine Corps Training Command, who told reporters earlier this year "the principal driver behind" modifications to the course was "not about lowering attrition" but to make "students more successful to complete the course." Attrition rates are currently under 10 percent, but Bohm said he would like those numbers at or below 5 percent.
"I don't really understand the difference between lowering attrition and making students more successful to complete the course," Cotton said. "Both of those sound like you're tailoring the standards not to the mission, but to the graduation rates that you have at the course."
Neller never directly answered whether or not he felt the shift to standards had eased standards, but said the change was made because "a couple of" the original six evaluated hikes were unrelated to events in the training and requirements manual for infantry.
The change is the latest easing of IOC requirements. In November, Neller dropped the demanding Combat Endurance Test as a must-pass requirement to graduate from the 13-week course.
A former Marine Infantry Officer, who now serves as a congressional aide, told the Washington Free Beacon in February that modifications to IOC have raised flags among service members who feared the Corps would lower standards after the Obama administration opened all military combat roles to women in 2015.
The course is considered among the military's toughest training programs, with about a quarter of all students failing to complete it, according to the Washington Post. Most of the 30-plus women who have attempted IOC dropped on the first day during the combat endurance test.
Only one female Marine has graduated from the course since former Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all military combat roles would be open to women in 2015.