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Female Air Force special operators could see combat by 2018

By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 2, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Air Force could field its first female special operators by 2018 after a months-long review of physical standards required for its 4,000 special ops members, according to military officials.

The military services have until the end of this month to petition Defense Secretary Ash Carter for an exception to allowing women into ground combat roles. By Jan. 1, all of the military's jobs, including special operations, will be open to women unless Carter grants an exception.

"My best bet is, if the secretary of Defense opens up the career field in January, two-plus years from then we'll see Air Force women in (special operations) career fields," said Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, a top Air Force personnel official.

Barriers to women in combat have been toppling in recent weeks. Two female soldiers graduated from the Army's demanding Ranger school. Adm. Jonathan Greenert,  chief of naval operations, said his service plans to accept women who can complete the Navy's grueling training to become SEALs. And a Defense official, familiar with the issue but who was not authorized to speak publicly, told USA TODAY that it is unlikely that any of the services will be granted an exception.

The 4,097 Air Force positions in six fields closed to women represent a fraction of the 240,000 male-only military jobs in all the services. But they have outsize significance because if women meet the demands for the highly selective special ops units, they'll likely pass muster for the infantry, armor and artillery units. Those fields hold the vast majority of jobs off-limits to women.

Air Force officials, special ops airmen and scientists will develop recommendations for new standards based on 39 physical tests that reflect the tasks demanded of its special operators, including pararescue jumpers, highly trained airmen who retrieve troops trapped behind enemy lines, Kelly said.

Currently, pararescue jumpers must meet standards that include timed tests for running 1.5 miles, swimming on and under water, 10 pull-ups in one minute, 54 sit-ups in two minutes and 52 pushups in two minutes, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Thus far, 71 female airmen have taken the new tests and many have performed well, leading Kelly to predict female special operators could begin performing missions as soon as 2018. It would take up to two years additional because the training to become an Air Force special operator, including emergency medicine, is extensive.

Kelly was quick to note that the recommended new tests will not diminish the standards demanded of Air Force special operators. The testing is based on "what's required on battlefield." All told about 200 airmen took part in the testing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

"Are you lowering standards? No," Kelly said. "The standards are tied to the operation."

Lt. Col. Travis Woodworth, an Air Force special operations officer who worked on the study to develop the standards, said special operators who took part demanded tough training requirements.

"From an operational perspective, our bottom line is not to decrease the standards as they currently exist," he said.

One of the tests requires an airman to lift and carry 110 pounds as part of a two-person team to mimic evacuating a wounded 220-pound servicemember. That has to be accomplished while wearing up to 60 pounds of protective gear, including vest, rifle and helmet, and additional gear weighing up to 80 pounds. The weight has to be hauled up the ramp of a cargo plane or helicopter.

"That's a pretty good replication of what we have downrange," Woodworth said.

A female Air Force captain who took part in the study predicted women would be able to qualify to become special operators. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak about the tests publicly.

She's 6-foot-1, fit and athletic. Runs carrying weight and climbing over obstacles were not a problem, she said, adding some of the tasks "any girl could do." More problematic for her were tests that required pull-ups.

"If I really had my heart set on it, I'd go out and train and I'd make sure I could do all those tests," she said. "It's not impossible. If you wanted to do it, I think you could train to do any of these tasks."

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