The Cable

Pentagon Opens Up All Combat Jobs to Women

A years-long debate continues

PARRIS ISLAND, SC - FEBRUARY 25:  Female Marine recruits receive instructions before firing on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
PARRIS ISLAND, SC - FEBRUARY 25: Female Marine recruits receive instructions before firing on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About six percent of enlisted Marines are female. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In a historic announcement that promises to reshape the very nature of the country’s armed forces, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday that all combat jobs in the U.S. military will for the first time be available to women.

The decision draws to a close more than two years of often bitter debate which saw the Army, Navy, and Air Force eventually support the move, while the Marine Corps requested exemptions to continue to exclude women from infantry and other front-line jobs.

On Thursday, however, Carter said “there will be no exemptions” for any of the services, confirming that the changes will begin to take effect in 30 days, and the services will have to have their plans in place by April 1.

The new policy also opens up elite units like the Navy SEALs, the Army’s Rangers, and the Air Force’s Special Tactics units to women who can meet the rigorous requirements.

Carter has been working under a Jan. 1 deadline for deciding whether to end all gender-based restrictions in the military, or to grant waivers in specific cases to keep restrictions in place. The service chiefs submitted their recommendations to Carter in late September, and tensions quickly emerged over the differing viewpoints within the military’s leadership.

Parts of a controversial Marine Corps report recommending keeping combat roles male-only were made public this past fall. The study was signed by then-Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, who has since moved on to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The nine-month Marine study concluded that women were more prone to injury, were less accurate with weapons, and struggled to move wounded troops off the battlefield. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was highly critical of the findings, and caused controversy when he went public with his critique in September.

Dunford was notably absent from Thursday’s press conference, and while Carter acknowledged the general’s opposition to women in combat, the defense chief said Dunford was prepared to work to implement the changes fully.

In a short prepared statement, Dunford said he’s prepared “to lead the full integration of women in a manner that maintains our joint warfighting capability, ensures the health and welfare of our people, and optimizes how we leverage talent across the joint force.”

In August, the first two female graduates of the Army’s elite Ranger school pushed through to the end of the training program, and while the service originally said they would not be allowed to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment, Thursday’s decision now opens those positions up to them.

The response from Capitol Hill has been swift. In a joint statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.), chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, said the decision “will have a consequential impact on our servicemembers and our military’s warfighting capabilities,” and promised to “carefully and thoroughly review all relevant documentation related to today’s decision.”

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nv.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, added he plans to call Pentagon officials before his committee “to discuss the review process and how today’s decision was reached.”

In a statement to FP, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.), a former Marine infantryman, called the policy change “a straight political decision,” adding, “this is about small unit effectiveness and I’m not convinced this decision will make us more lethal in close combat.”

But Rep. Martha McSally (R-Az.), a retired Air Force colonel and the first female pilot to fly in combat said in a statement “it’s about damn time. Others were even more colorful. “I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight—of course women can serve in combat,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, (D-Wi.). Duckworth lost both legs while serving as a helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004.

Carter telegraphed his intentions earlier this year while speaking with troops during an October stop at the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily. “You have to recruit from the American population. Half the American population is female,” Carter said. “So I’d be crazy not to be, so to speak, fishing in that pond for qualified service members.”

Just days before, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Carter tied the issue of opening up more positions to women to his “Force of the Future” initiative, which seeks to retain more experienced troops in critical fields like cyber and engineering. “Attracting the best and staying the best means that wherever possible, we must open ourselves to the talents and strengths of all Americans who can contribute with excellence to our force,” he said. “Everyone who is able and willing to serve and can meet the standards we require should have the full opportunity to do so.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also offered some telling comments during an Army convention in October, telling reporters “as far as envisioning future warfare, right now, women are in combat, I don’t know what the debate is, actually, frankly, on women in combat. Because women have been fighting in combat for quite some time.”

 

Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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