While preventing women from entering into combat related fields, the Combat Exclusion Policy also prevented women from serving in the career enhancing assignments and entering the tactical career fields associated with promotion to flag/general officer grades.
Women have fought beside men in the US military in every major conflict since the American Revolution. In Iraq and Afghanistan, where the potential for engagement in direct ground combat is ever-present, and the absence of a clear line between enemy and friendly territory, every soldier regardless of gender must be combat-ready. This has served to make the policy increasingly obsolete.
In May of 2013, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were to submit their plans for ending the policy that had prevented women from serving in ground combat positions. All of the forces then have until 2016 to fully open more than 200,000 positions in the military to women. If after 2016, a service feels the need to keep some fields closed to women, authorization from the defense secretary will have to be approved- with a good reason as to why to keep them closed.
Without question, the most difficult part of this transition will be developing gender-neutral standards that do not lead to weaker standards, so that women are able to qualify for all jobs, including combat infantry. Gender will no longer be the conclusive factor, but physical strength can be, as strength is key to many infantry jobs. The Pentagon has indicated that some specialties may not open up right away.
A physically demanding 13-week program that prepares Marine officers to lead infantry platoons in combat, the U.S. Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course (IOC) opened to women volunteers in September of 2012 to evaluate whether more combat jobs should be opened to women. Since the lifting of the combat exclusion ban, IOC is becoming the centerpiece for the US Marines’ program to implement the integration. However, last fall, the first two female volunteers failed to complete the course. One, a distance runner, was dropped on the first day, known as the Combat Endurance Test. The second, a soccer player, endured for over a week before instructors pulled her out because of a stress fracture in her foot. Results of the USMC’s second attempt consisted of two female volunteers failing the course on the first day when they were unable to complete an obstacle in the time allowed.
There is a confidence that women will eventually pass the course but for this to happen, potential female candidates will need to strengthen their upper bodies, do more hiking carrying weight and study infantry history.
Women already have shown they can overcome bias and sexism, as well as engage the enemy, but on average, they have less body weight and are weaker than men. For a woman to assume the role of infantry soldier, one of the biggest challenges she will face is the weight that an infantry soldier has to carry on their backs. Infantry soldiers must carry a load often weighing more than 80 pounds for many hours at a time over rugged terrain in some cases.
The current standards designate strength requirements for infantry as “very heavy”. This means that a soldier will occasionally have to lift more than 100 pounds, but frequently or constantly be capable of lifting more than 50 pounds. In fact, infantrymen carry anywhere from 60 to 120 pounds of gear in the field depending on their job.
Program Executive Office Soldier recently began fielding body armor sized specifically for a woman’s body shape with the intent of allowing females to carry their load more efficiently.
Despite these improvements, there are some battlefield necessities, such as water, that the Army can’t make lighter. Often dismounted infantrymen carry six to eight liters of water on a multiple-day patrol. That adds approximately 12 to 17 pounds to an individual’s load.
Infantrymen also have to carry ammo. A 100-round box of 7.62mm machine gun ammo weighs about seven pounds. A two-man M240 machine gun team often has to carry 1,000 rounds, or 70 pounds, for a multi-day operation.
The Army plans to recruit new female soldiers who want to enter six MOSs in 80 units that had never been open to women, and it also is seeking soldiers who want to reclassify and retrain into these jobs. They are:
• Multiple Launch Rocket System crewmember, 13M.
• MLRS operations fire detection specialist, 13P.
• Field artillery fire finder radar operator specialist, 13R.
• M1 Abrams tank system maintainer, 91A.
• Bradley Fighting Vehicle system maintainer, 91M.
• Artillery mechanic, 91P.
Soldiers attending advanced individual training for the 13 series jobs will go to Fort Sill, Okla., while 91A and 91M training takes place at Fort Benning, Ga. The 91P trainees will go to Fort Lee, Va. At Fort Benning, home of the infantry and armor schools, preparations are underway to receive female trainees. All trainees will go through the exact same training. The overall mission is to develop disciplined and competent mechanics, ready to contribute to their units. The mission doesn't change, the No. 1 criterion must be the ability of the unit to perform its combat mission. Everything else has to be secondary to that. It won’t matter, if they're male soldiers or female soldiers.
It’s going to take time. Determining the best path forward to integrate women into the ground combat units will require hard-nosed honesty, careful management and compelling leadership.