WASHINGTON — A military advisory panel appears poised to recommend allowing female troops to serve in combat units without any restrictions, calling the current prohibition an out-of-date idea that unnecessarily discriminates against women.
If approved by military officials, the move could open front-line posts to military women for the first time. Until now, either U.S. law or Pentagon policy has prohibited female troops from serving in any unit whose primary mission is direct ground combat, although they may serve in combat support roles.
The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established by Congress two years ago, issued the recommendation as part of a draft report on diversity in the services. The final report is due to lawmakers this spring, and commission members are meeting this week in Virginia to debate final changes.
In the draft, commission members call for a phased approach to open additional career fields with ground combat units to qualified women, saying the current policy limits the ability of commanders to pick the most capable person for their missions.
“To date, there has been little evidence that the integration of women into previously closed units or occupations has had a negative impact on important mission-related performance factors, like unit cohesion,” the draft states.
“Furthermore, a study by the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services actually found that a majority of focus group participants felt that women serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a positive impact on mission accomplishment.”
The draft report notes that the restriction on combat posts prohibits women from serving in about 10 percent of Army and Marine Corps occupations, a “structural barrier” which could hurt their chances of promotion or advancement.
Proponents of women in combat roles have argued that the distinction is obsolete in the new combat environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, where support units have routinely found themselves involved in roadside bomb attacks and insurgent ambushes.
Since 2001, 114 female U.S. servicemembers have been killed in fighting in Iraq and 23 have been killed in fighting in Afghanistan.
But Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, said the commission’s recommendation confuses troops in harm’s way with those assigned to front-line, offensive combat missions. Performing heroically in an ambush is not the same as grueling front-line combat.
“Physical differences between men and women do matter,” she said. “The purpose of this change is to help with career advancement and diversity. But if they’re saying the purpose is to help better defend the country, then it’s divorced from reality.”
Donnelly said barring women from some military jobs does not diminish their contributions, but instead recognizes that only a small percentage of female troops can meet the strength and endurance requirements mandated in “brutal and uncivilized” front-line fighting.
But Genevieve Chase, founder of American Women Veterans, said the restrictions are largely an issue of semantics now. Commanders have gotten around the rules by “attaching” female troops to combat units when needed, allowing them to work in combat roles without having them assigned to combat units.
“But that becomes a records issue, what counts for promotion and experience,” she said. “We’re asking for women to be recognized and acknowledged for that work.”
Chase, an Army reservist who served in Afghanistan, said standards for female combat troops need to be the same as those for men, but also noted that brute strength is not the only qualification. Language skills, leadership experience, and other combat-related specialties can be just as vital to mission success.
The commission, which includes 24 senior retired and active-duty servicemembers, recommended that women already in combat-related roles should be open for assignment to combat units immediately, and the services should look for ways in coming months to open additional combat posts to women.
The report also notes that the recommendation was not unanimous, with several members opposed to opening the front-line posts to women.
Earlier this month, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said he expected the commission’s report, along with other ongoing military reviews, would reopen the debate into women’s roles in the military.
Removing the combat restrictions would not require approval from Congress, but defense officials are required to notify lawmakers of any such change at least 30 days before it is put in place.