Monday, December 13, 2004

Internal Army documents advocate changing Pentagon rules on mixed-sex units in a way that critics say will risk placing female soldiers in ground-combat situations.

The Nov. 29 briefing to senior Army officers at the Pentagon, presented as part of the service’s sweeping transformation of its 10 war-fighting divisions, advocates scrapping the military’s ban on collocation — the deployment of mixed-sex noncombat units alongside all-male combat brigades.

The briefing contained the phrase: “The way ahead: rewrite/eliminate the Army collocation policy.”

To some in the Army, the confidential briefing proves that the service is moving toward a decision to put women within direct combat units, despite statements denying such plans, including a Nov. 3 Capitol Hill briefing for senior congressional staff members by Army and Pentagon officials.

According to one aide, the Nov. 3 briefers assured the staff members that the Army was complying with the collocation rule and did not want it changed.

“We are not collocating,” a senior congressional aide quoted the presenters as saying.

But the Army’s Nov. 29 paper suggests otherwise, and critics of the plan, both inside and outside the Army, argue that it is part of an overall plan to override a 1994 policy prohibiting women from serving in direct land combat.

The Pentagon has said it maintains the ban because upper-body strength is needed for land combat and because polls show most female soldiers do not want the policy changed.

Elaine Donnelly, who heads the independent Center for Military Readiness, has sent a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and House Armed Services Committee chairman, accusing the Army of violating Pentagon rules.

“Female soldiers, including young mothers, should not have to pay the price for Pentagon bureaucratic blunders and gender-based recruiting quotas that have caused apparent shortages in male soldiers for the new land-combat brigades,” Mrs. Donnelly said.

“It does not make sense to sacrifice the advantage of modular organizations, just to make ideological points about gender equality. Land combat is not fair or equal, nor is it even civilized,” she said.

An Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon said, “It is my understanding that the Nov. 29 briefing was predecisional. There are a number of Army policies under review.”

The debate’s roots go back to 1994. Impressed with the performance of military women in Operation Desert Storm, the Clinton administration lifted long-standing bans on women in combat aircraft and ships.

But the new policy clearly stated that a prohibition would continue for ground units that participate in direct combat. The 1994 policy also said women would not serve “where units and positions are doctrinally required to physically collocate and remain with direct ground combat units that are closed to women.”

Now, the Army’s transformation plans include proposals for much tighter mingling of combat and noncombat units.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, has redesigned the basic combat brigade into self-contained “units of action” that train and deploy with their support teams, including a unit called the Forward Support Company (FSC). Currently, women serve in units that perform the functions of FSCs.

Mrs. Donnelly and Army officials, who asked not to be named, contend that the new design would require the Army to violate the collocation rule. They say federal law requires the military to notify Congress.

But in the Nov. 3 presentation to congressional aides, the Army said it was complying with the collocation rule by attaching the FSC to a brigade support battalion — not to the combat brigade itself. The first redesigned division, the 3rd Infantry at Fort Stewart, Ga., is scheduled to return to Iraq in January.

But Mrs. Donnelly said the change is on paper only. She said that the 3rd Infantry’s FSC, which is mixed-sex, would have to stay, or collocate, with the combat brigade “100 percent of the time” to do its job in the way the Army envisions.

Even the Army’s own documents, previously reported by The Washington Times and labeled “draft close hold,” state that this arrangement “could be perceived as subterfuge to avoid reporting requirements” to Congress on changing the policy.

About three weeks after the Nov. 3 briefing, the Army created another internal presentation — this one on why the ban on collocation should be lifted.

The Nov. 29 briefing was prepared by Col. Robert H. Woods Jr., the director of the Human Resources Policy Directorate at the Pentagon. The directorate reports to the deputy chief of staff for personnel. Col. Woods has been nominated for promotion to brigadier general.

The Woods briefing’s cover page contains the headline, “Patriotic women of excellence contributing to our force.”

After writing that the “way ahead” is to eliminate the collocation rule, the briefing states, “incorporate lessons learned from 3rd [Infantry] into future decisions on policy affecting the assignment and utilization of women soldiers.”

Said Mrs. Donnelly: “It appears that certain shortsighted Army officials have decided to ignore the congressional notification law in order to gather ‘lessons learned,’ which in turn will be used to declare this live-fire, extremely dangerous social experiment a big ‘success.’ ”

The briefing also gives an example of how the Army might get rid of the rule. Army regulations state female soldiers are banned from units “which are assigned a routine mission to engage in direct combat or which collocate routinely with units assigned a direct combat mission.”

The proposed change deletes the collocation rule altogether, meaning only direct-combat units are off-limits.

The Army document also states that the 1994 policy concerning the need to notify the Office of the Secretary of Defense is “silent on dropping restrictions.”

Mrs. Donnelly said this appears to be an argument for not notifying Pentagon civilians.

“It is preposterous to suggest that the Army could put women into the infantry, armor or units collocated with them without formal approval by the secretary of defense,” Mrs. Donnelly said.

The Times reported last week on an internal May 10 briefing that portrayed the Army as in a bind. The briefing states the Army does not have enough male soldiers to fill the FSCs if they were to collocate with combat brigades and thus required to be men-only.

All-male FSCs, the paper states, “creates potential long-term challenge to Army; pool of male recruits too small to sustain force.”

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