A group of 27 House Armed Services Committee members has asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld whether the Army is angling to allow female soldiers to serve closer to combat.
The congressmen’s letter to Mr. Rumsfeld came after the Army submitted documents to the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) that indicated it was reviewing current regulations.
An Army spokesman, however, told The Washington Times that the service is not seeking to change the rule against women in direct ground combat.
DACOWITS, an all-civilian panel made up predominantly of women, persistently has urged the Pentagon to open up new opportunities for women that would take them closer to battle. Women currently are barred from units that fit the definition of the Pentagon’s 1994 direct ground combat rule.
“As members of the House Armed Services Committee, it has come to our attention that the Army has proposed changes in the definition of rules regarding direct ground combat,” said the lawmakers’ June 28 letter to Mr. Rumsfeld. The letter asks the defense secretary to conduct a thorough review of Army policies concerning the assignments of female soldiers. Mr. Rumsfeld has a military background. He served in the Navy from 1954 until 1957 as a naval aviator.
The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, and signed by 24 Republicans, including five subcommittee chairmen, and three Democrats.
Some lawmakers fear the Army is moving women, inch by inch, toward the front lines. The Army has introduced a pilot program to train male and female officers together in a basic leadership course at Fort Benning, Ga., home of Army infantry training, a combat role currently off limits to women. The Army also has graduated the first female soldier from sniper school.
The congressmen’s suspicions were heightened when the Army submitted documents to DACOWITS this spring that a review of regulations concerning female soldiers “is currently being staffed.”
But an Army spokesman at the Pentagon issued a statement to The Times this week that said “the Army follows established Department of Defense policy in regard to the ‘ground combat rule’ and is not seeking a change.”
“The draft update to the Army regulations mentioned in your query merely consolidates previously existing guidance on this subject into a single source document for use by the Army in the field,” the Army statement said. “This is simply a periodic update to Army regulations to reflect this standing policy. The Army is not seeking any change to the 1994 [Department of Defense] policy.”
Elaine Donnelly, a former DACOWITS member who opposes women in combat, remains suspicious.
“DACOWITS is trying to manipulate the Army. If you change the definition of land combat, that will in very short order open up all the land combat positions to women,” said Mrs. Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness. “And the majority of women soldiers are not in favor of this.”
The public debate on women in combat largely faded in 1994, after the Pentagon wrote a definition of what constituted ground combat and barred women from serving in units that met that criteria. The Pentagon did lift prohibitions against women serving on combat aircraft and ships. The policy exempted submarines because of tight living quarters, and special operations helicopters because of their crews’ likelihood of confronting the enemy on the ground.
Since 1994, DACOWITS has continued to press the services to open more roles to women. It also has asked for briefings to explain how the direct ground combat rule is used to designate a unit all-male, or “P1” as the military calls it.
The committee has urged the Pentagon to open two fields that remained closed to women even after the 1994 liberalization: multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries, a long-range artillery system, and special operations helicopters. Artillery is off limits to female soldiers, as are infantry, armor and combat engineer units.
The Pentagon defines direct ground combat as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect.”
Asked to justify the rule, the Pentagon told DACOWITS that “there is public reluctance for women to be in positions involving direct (hand-to-hand) ground combat,” according to committee documents. “Most women would not meet the physical qualifications for some rigorous career fields (Rangers, SEALS, Special Forces) or the physical requirements for close-in, hand-to-hand combat in other career fields.”
DACOWITS also has asked U.S. Special Operations Command to defend the policy of barring women from its combat helicopters in light of the fact that other combat choppers, such as the Apache, are open to women.
“There is insufficient evidence that [special operations forces] rotary wing aviation crews ‘collocate’ with units involved in [direct ground combat],” the 33-member committee wrote in recommending to the defense secretary that the jobs be open to women. “Generally, SOF aviators have the potential to be exposed to contact with the enemy on the ground only when the mission fails.”
But Gen. Charles R. Holland, who heads Special Operations Command based at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay, Fla., pointedly defended the ban in a letter to senior Pentagon officials who oversee personnel policies.
“[The command] does not concur with the conclusions of DACOWITS … with respect to the assignment of women to crew positions in SOF rotary wing aviation,” Gen. Holland said. “SOF rotary wing aviation crews are doctrinally required to collocate with ground combat units during many SOF mission profiles. … Direct action has always been a primary mission of SOF, and contrary to the DACOWITS assertion, involves direct ground combat.”