Making women in combat work

After considerable study and decades of debate within the broader national security community, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has announced that all military positions will be open to women. To date, most women in uniform have been in the Air Force and Navy. But the Army and Marine Corps had excluded women from many positions, especially those best described as involving close combat—largely in the infantry.

Secretary Carter’s decision has important domestic and international consequences. It affects the nature of the nation’s connection to its armed forces. It speaks to how we view war today and the volunteers who wage it in our behalf. It opens up what has been a diminishing recruiting pool and it will likely impact how friends and adversaries view us.

Most women can make a crucial contribution to the U.S. military—which, with 15 percent of its ranks filled by women already, cannot go to war without them—even if they are not able to carry out all tasks.

Women have fought, and sometimes died (women have accounted for about 2 percent of total American casualties), in many jobs ranging from piloting to truck driving to intelligence gathering throughout the wars of the 21st century. Yet the U.S. ground forces had previously kept them out of infantry-like jobs. With this announcement, the final 220,000 or so military positions—about 10 percent of the total—that were closed to women will now be open. 

The issue has been and is being extensively studied, with many brave women volunteering for the most physically demanding tasks in the armed forces. They have attempted various intensive infantry training regimens. Most have failed, generally because the typical women (and even many athletic ones) are of course built differently than men, with less structural ability on average to carry heavy weight. In tasks requiring that 100 pounds or more be hoisted on one’s back through long marches and other challenging missions, this has often been a challenge. 

By contrast, women tend to have as good endurance and mental toughness as men. As a result, some have passed the various courses and tests; virtually all have demonstrated incredible fortitude and commitment in the effort. 

Keeping standards high

Whatever one thinks of the decision, it is now a reality. The key must be to implement it well—in a way that maximizes the strength of the U.S. armed forces and the rights and interests of women, especially those brave souls who will be charting the path forward.

There must be clear attention to two key issues:

1) Physical standards can be reassessed, but should not be easily relaxed. The rule going forward must be that gender-neutral standards for physical and other capacities are not open to debate. They exist, in general, for good reason.

We have had cases already that reveal the kinds of risks that will now be widely faced. For example, in the U.S. Army’s training course for paratroopers, the ability to perform six pull-ups was requisite for male trainees, but not females. This standard was explained as a way to ensure operational safety: The only way to steer the most commonly-used parachute of the day was to reach up and pull a portion of the parachute’s suspension down and hold it to the chest, partially collapsing the canopy and allowing paratroopers to move through the air laterally in a chosen direction. This allowed them to “slip away” from collisions in the air or dangers on the ground. Either pull-ups were a good measure of the ability to attain and maintain some control in the air, or they were not; either female paratroopers were put at risk, or male paratroopers were subjected to an unnecessary hurdles.

Perhaps worse, gender-norming of standards undermines the credibility of those who are held to lower standards. This is essentially the argument of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano, who has argued forcefully for demanding the same standards of performance of all Marines, regardless of gender, during initial entry training. 

[G]ender-norming of standards undermines the credibility of those who are held to lower standards.

2) Women should be empowered to make their own choices, but fully informed of the challenges. A wide range of experience and data is available now to indicate that women, in aggregate, may find it more difficult to handle the kinds of infantry jobs that are at issue, and will face greater health risks. Other countries’ armed forces and our own have examined the question in detail.

A recent United States Marine Corps study—criticized in some quarters for its design, but whose results are in line with similar studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere—indicated the top 10 percent of women overlaps with the bottom 50 percent of men in both aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and that the top 25 percent of women matched the bottom 25 percent of men in anaerobic power. The study also points to the disparate impact on male and female anatomy that the types of tasks these Marines were called on to perform can have. For instance, musculoskeletal injury rates were 40.5 percent for women, compared to 18.8 percent for men. 

The specific issue is upper body strength. While the Marine Corps and Army may slightly overemphasize the importance of upper body strength relative to other attributes in assessing overall capabilities, there is no doubt that moving around in armor while strapped to mortars or heavy machine guns or other such crucial equipment is essential even on the modern battlefield. 

The hard part: Follow-through

Most women can make a crucial contribution to the U.S. military—which, with 15 percent of its ranks filled by women already, cannot go to war without them—even if they are not able to carry out all tasks. This message should be underscored even as the policy changes are made.

Whether one is for or against this decision, done right it can and will strengthen the nation’s military. But now comes the hard part—doing it right. The Pentagon will need the utmost focus on this task, as well as close monitoring by the Congress and a dedicated high-level implementation panel that keeps close watch on the issue, if it is to succeed.