Best Defense

Now that the gay thing is resolved, can we let soldiers be openly female in combat?

There was some loose talk in the comments last week about women in combat. Here’s some factual background. Take it away, Donna. By Donna McAleer Best Defense giant slalom correspondent In March 2011, the Military Leadership Diversity Committee issued a report to President Obama and the 112th Congress recommending the elimination of the Combat Exclusion ...

Israel Defense Forces/Flickr
Israel Defense Forces/Flickr

There was some loose talk in the comments last week about women in combat. Here’s some factual background.

Take it away, Donna.

By Donna McAleer

Best Defense giant slalom correspondent

In March 2011, the Military Leadership Diversity Committee issued a report to President Obama and the 112th Congress recommending the elimination of the Combat Exclusion Policy. 

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, commission chair, said the recommendation is one way the congressionally mandated body suggests the military can get more qualified women into its more-senior leadership ranks. "We know that [the exclusion] hinders women from promotion," Lyles said in an interview with American Forces Press Service. "We want to take away all the hindrances and cultural biases" in promotions.

Written in 1994 combat exclusion policy, precludes women from being "assigned" to ground combat units, but women have for years served in ground combat situations by serving in units deemed "attached" to ground units, Lyles said. That distinction keeps them from being recognized for their ground combat experience — recognition that would enhance their chances for promotion, he said.

In mid-November Rowan Scarborough of the Washington Times reported that top defense officials are wrestling to find a collective position on whether to allow women in direct ground combat.  This seems to be a never-ending, perpetually debated and continually unresolved issue.

Earlier this year, Australia lifted all gender-based restrictions on its servicewomen.  Other nations where women are able to serve in active combat roles include Holland, Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and Israel.  The Dutch repealed formal restrictions on women in combat roles in 1979.

The United States has been engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than in any previous war. More than 230,000 American women have engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Women make up nearly 15% of the active-duty force.

In 2011, National Defense Authorization Act Congress required the defense and service secretaries to review policies "to determine whether changes are needed to ensure that female members have an equitable opportunity to compete and excel in the Armed Forces." That report was due to Congress on April 15. The Pentagon requested an extension through October.  As of Nov. 16, 2011, that reported had not been submitted.

Given the perpetual debate, perhaps it is not surprising that the Department of Defense failed to meet an October deadline.

Marine Corps General James Conway was quoted, "I don’t think you will see a change because I don’t think our women want it to change. There are certain demands of officers in a combat arms environment that our women see, recognize, appreciate and say, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ " 

I beg to differ with Gen. Conway.  There are others who say: I would do that, I want to do that and I am doing it. Many servicewomen and veterans particularly those serving in engineering, military police and military intelligence units find it insulting considering so many have patrolled mounted and dismounted in the same areas of operation as infantry units.

General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, has publicly acknowledged he wants and supports some of the restrictions being lifted such as female intelligence and signal officers being able to serve below the brigade level in combat battalions.  Women are a combat multiplier.

"We need them there. We need their talent," the Army chief said. "This is about managing talent. We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions. So I have to work toward us taking a better look at that."  This was a similar position taken by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in the October 2010 announcement decision to open two of the four classes of nuclear submarines to women.

Women play a critical role in counterinsurgency operations (COIN) in Afghanistan.  More than two years ago, the Marines created Female Engagement Teams (FETs) as a force multiplier to engage and interact with both Afghan women and men in a way not possible for male soldiers.

Recently, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command began deploying servicewomen as part of front-line commando units.  Cultural Support Teams (CST), as they are known, assist Special Forces and Ranger units with the female and child population in Afghanistan providing intelligence support and social outreach. 

The combat exclusion policy was instituted for a linear battlefield with front and rear lines of combat clearly demarcated. Today’s asymmetric battlefield requires soldiers to prosecute the war and engage in combat in a 360-degree environment. Women are everywhere on the battlefield. The law has not yet caught up to the historical as well as present reality of war. The exclusion policy does not keep women out of combat, but it does prevent them from gaining the battlefield experience required to rise to positions of strategic decision-making and national and international security influence.

"The challenge facing the president will be to identify leaders who will provide him with disinterested advice, informed by a concern for the national interest, and in, doing so, to avoid the appearance of the reality of politicizing the senior leadership," said Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University. Following a decade of war, budget cuts and economic turmoil, senior military leaders will contend with even greater fiscal constraints, the need to modernize, and to improve significantly the health and morale of Armed Forces personnel stretched beyond their limits.

While the US Army has its first female 4-star general, women comprise less than 6 percent of that service’s senior leadership, despite constituting more than 17 percent of the Army’s active duty officer corps. Including women at the senior most strategic leadership and decision-making levels is an issue of national security. No women are eligible to serve at the top ranks within the military itself.

United States would be well served by increasing the number of sharp minds at the planning and negotiating tables. To do this, the ground combat exclusion policy must be abolished to grant women the opportunity to gain the same experience as their male counterparts. If abolished, it will take a generation, at least 30 years, for military women to gain the appropriate tactical, operation and strategic experience.

Perhaps the inclusion of a few more women with broad tactical and operational experience would provide some fresh thinking on waging war, creating peace and influencing international security.

Combat is the core of the profession of arms. The military has an absolute right to expect servicewomen to engage in combat, as female Americans have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.  This debate has been going on for decades, with advances that seemingly are at times best measured with a micrometer. Nothing spotlights better gender equality of our military in the field than this fact: women are shedding blood and dying on battlefields side-by-side with men.  Bullets, RPGs, and IEDs know no gender.

How many reports will be required to determine that eliminating the combat exclusion policy will increase the military’s ability to maintain an agile, flexible, committed and responsive force?

It is time for the Department of Defense and service chiefs to stop skirting the combat exclusion policy and eliminate it all together.  This should be a matter of institutional integrity for the military’s senior (male) leadership.

Donna McAleer of Park City, Utah, is a West Point graduate, a former Army officer and the author of  Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line (Fortis Publishing, 2010).

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola