Publicly and privately, U.S. commandos are casting doubt on the sexual revolution looming over Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Force and Green Berets.
The Pentagon staged a press briefing last week to announce a two-year study to refine combat physical standards and find the best way to install women in the male bastion of infantry, armor and special operations. A decision on which combat roles will be open to women is expected in 2015.
It is the special "ops" group — with its secretive isolation in small teams where physical stamina matters most — that has commandos the most nervous.
"The only option now is to offer reasons why they can't do it," said an Army special operations veteran who believes U.S. Special Operations Command will cave to White House demands to include women. "I haven't heard that anyone has the courage to say they can't do it, either. Maybe the new [military occupational specialty] can be 18P — Special Forces camp follower. Is that PC enough?"
An Army Special Forces soldier said the qualification course at Fort Bragg, N.C., to earn the Green Beret is so demanding that the Army will have to lower standards for some tasks in able for women to succeed.
"The real outcry will begin if the current standards are significantly lowered," the soldier said. "Genderless standards will cause many SOF courses to completely reassess how they select the best candidates."
Most tests of strength and endurance, the soldier said, "currently rely on a candidate's ability to endure physical hardships as a fundamental aspect of their assessment."
Studies and tests
Retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, the Navy's top SEAL in the early 1990s, said there is more to combat than whether a woman can run as fast as a man.
"It's not marathon times. It's not your speed in a 400-meter run or swim," Adm. Worthington said. "It's how do you do it after 52 hours of being totally awake. Sand in your crotch and leeches and mosquitoes. How do you take that? It's military conditioning, not Olympics stuff."
Part of the two-year study will examine ground combat standards and recommend whether they should be changed to give women better chances.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that if a service wants to keep a job as a male-only occupation because of its high physical demands, the service will have to show why those tests should not be lowered to accommodate women.
Tests of strength are particularly important to special operations. About 15,000 combat positions, a fraction of the 1.4 million active force, are subject to integration.
But it is the elite SEALs, Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers that have led the global fight to find and kill Islamic terrorist leaders, including al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden. Special ops is expected to be active in Afghanistan and globally long after a big U.S. troop withdrawal next year.
Army Maj. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick is a former Delta Force combatant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows firsthand the rigors of close-in combat. He appeared at the Pentagon last week representing U.S. Special Operations Command (SoCom) in Tampa, Fla., and he was decidedly cautious at the press briefing.
His concerns do not focus so much on the physical rigors of special ops. He indicated that the general population includes women who can carry heavy loads up a mountain, scale walls, swim rivers and kill terrorists.
He spoke of "genuine concerns" about the key principle of "preserving unit readiness, cohesion and morale." He spoke of a "particular concern" over how integrating women would affect "our mission set, which predominately requires our forces to operate in small, self-contained teams."
He said SoCom's Joint Special Operations University is conducting multiple studies on "the social implications of integrating women at the team level."
Meanwhile, the Rand Corp. think tank will look at the "behavioral and cultural aspects" of putting women in remote operational environments.
The two-star general told reporters three times that no final decision has been made to put women in the most demanding units.
"We haven't made any decisions whatsoever," Gen. Sacolick said.
Elaine Donnelly, who directs the Center for Military Readiness, said all of the red flags raised by the general might cost special operations dearly.
"The behavioral issues that Maj. Gen. Sacolick mentioned will cause divisions and distractions that could cost lives in dangerous covert missions," Mrs. Donnelly said. "All of these consequences and more will be the legacy of the current military chiefs and their successors, who will be chosen by President Obama to advance 'gender diversity.'"
"The news conference on Tuesday was embarrassing for all concerned, including the military chiefs of staff who were not there," she said of the June 18 briefing. "Instead of presenting factual data, such as the results of physical strength tests and a major troop survey that the Marines conducted in 2012, the Pentagon briefers based their case on wishful thinking and disingenuous suggestions."
The Pentagon has pledged "gender-neutral" standards once women start combat training. But that does not mean individual tasks, such as marching with a 70-pound rucksack, will not be lowered to, say, 50 pounds, based on an argument that modern combat does not require such heavy loads.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer, won approval of an amendment to the pending 2014 fiscal defense budget that tells the Pentagon this: If you lower any combat standard, it must be done for men as well as women.
"Duncan's amendment is now more important than ever," said his spokesman, Joe Kasper. "It will require in law that the services have gender-neutral standards. If they lower them, they have to lower them for everybody. We're going in with the mindset the Pentagon is not willing to take less-qualified people. If they do make that move, the services are going to resist."
For now, Gen. Sacolick is repeating the special ops talking point that its standards today remain relevant to the mission and will not be lowered.
"If I throw a 70-pound rucksack on a student in a qualification course or in [SEAL training], it's because I anticipate he's going to have to carry that weight in combat," he said. "But the concern, once again, is there are privacy issues. So there's all those things that we're concerned about, probably more so than the actual standards in our qualification courses."
The study period will include surveying male combat veterans.
"Ultimately, these young men have volunteered multiple times," Gen. Sacolick said. "And we have a lot invested in them. And they've got to embrace it. I might add that sometimes we underestimate the capacity of our younger troops to embrace change, to embrace diversity, and I just want to provide them an opportunity to voice their concerns in this survey."
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