Top defense officials are grappling to find a unified position on whether to allow women in direct ground combat, as the Pentagon prepares a landmark report to Congress on the military’s coed future.
In the wake of two wars in which women have exchanged fire with the enemy, the Pentagon is being pressed to scrap the ban on women serving below the brigade level in units whose main mission is direct ground combat. That means women may not be infantry members or Green Berets.
“It is the subject of ongoing discussions but not yet fully resolved,” a senior Pentagon official said when asked whether Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a recommendation for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
The chiefs and Mr. Panetta are being pressed to present their views now because Congress passed a bill ordering the services to conduct a review and submit it this year.
Asked for Mr. Panetta’s position, a second defense official said: “I think the secretary is still weighing the ultimate recommendations that are being worked, and the report is not complete. So I’m not sure I can add to that at this point.”
Because the exclusion is a policy, not a law, Mr. Panetta could lift the restrictions on all or some jobs after notifying Congress.
The Obama administration needed congressional approval to remove the codified ban on open gays in the ranks, which happened Sept. 20.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, a Joint Chiefs member, has gone on record as saying he wants some restrictions lifted. He said he disagreed with the Army’s report, which was completed before he became chief and was submitted to Mr. Panetta. It apparently recommends the status quo.
On the WUSA-TV program “This Week in Defense News,” Gen. Odierno said female intelligence and signal officers, for example, should be able to serve below the brigade level in combat battalions.
“We need them there. We need their talent,” the Army chief said. “This is about managing talent. We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions. So I have to work toward us taking a better look at that.
“We have work to do within the [Defense Department] to get them to recognize and change. We did not get there at this time in this report, and I’m focused on this and I’m going to spend some time on it.”
Gen. Odierno did not endorse women as infantry, armor or special operations soldiers in the interview. His spokeswoman declined to comment this week.
The chiefs are said to be studying at least three options:
• Leave the combat policy in place.
• Open some roles in battalions but maintain the ban on special operations and spots where physical requirements would prevent the vast majority of women from qualifying.
• Open all ground combat slots to females, including special operations.
The Pentagon could amend the policy to allow women to join maneuver battalions but limit the jobs open to them.
Lifting restrictions on female combat service would affect the Marine Corps and the Army most because they have the most ground forces. Top Marine Corps generals are said to be cool to lifting the ban.
“I don’t think you will see a change because I don’t think our women want it to change,” Gen. James Conway, then the Marine Corps commandant, said last year. “There are certain demands of officers in a combat arms environment that our women see, recognize, appreciate and say, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ “
He added: “Now that’s not to say that we don’t have women doing a tremendous job in combat where you have a pretty amorphous environment, no real front lines in a counterinsurgency environment. And their contributions are appreciated and recognized and rewarded.”
The Pentagon was supposed to have submitted the women-in-combat report in April, but asked for an extension until Oct. 31.
The push to put women in ground combat units has come mostly from liberals in Congress and outside groups. They argue that women have proved their mettle in Iraq and Afghanistan by serving in police units and security details that exchanged fire with the enemy in wars that had no front lines.
In addition to requiring the pending report, Congress established a special outside commission. A divided panel in March recommended that the Pentagon end all combat restrictions for women.
Women make up about 15 percent of the active-duty force.
Military analysts who favor the ban argue that the issue is upper-body strength.
The military recruits men on the assumption that the vast majority of them can handle the rigorous demands of infantry and armor.
“Pretending women are identical to men puts them in danger, especially in the combat arms,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and analyst at the Family Research Council.
“It is incredibly naive and wrongheaded to suggest the average woman can run as fast and carry the same load as the average man. Denying the biological facts to advance a policy change for women in ground combat may please feminists with no clue about military culture, but it is dangerous for our security.”