Military women washing out in two major tests this spring raises the question of whether a large enough female population exists to produce significant numbers of officers for front-line ground combat, an Army professor says.
Meanwhile, a feminist legal group has issued a report broadly critical of how the Pentagon is running the two-year transition assessment leading to a decision by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to open infantry and special operations to women by Jan. 1.
The National Women’s Law Center said the program is mired in secrecy, is misusing women as research subjects and is allowing each service to go in its own direction in conducting research.
“Information has been scarce, progress to date has been spotty, and the services’ implementation processes raise several concerns,” the center said in a May 14 report. “The required quarterly progress reports of the services have not been made public. The extent to which the Department of Defense is overseeing the implementation of the plans is also unclear, but appears limited.”
In recent weeks, there were two important developments. Twenty-nine women attempted to pass the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course at the combat development base in Quantico, Virginia. All failed. The Corps hoped for a much larger group of volunteers — 100 or so. It says the relatively small turnout is a data point in deciding whether to recommend opening the infantry officer occupation to women.
The Army searched the ranks to find women who wanted to attempt its own grueling combat test: the Ranger course at Fort Benning, Georgia.
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At the start, 113 women volunteered and entered the Ranger Training Assessment Course, a demanding, two-week exercise that also eliminates many men. Of the 113 women, 20 passed. One dropped out at the start of Ranger Course. Subsequently, the remaining 19 (16 officers and three enlisted) failed to complete the course. Of those, eight were recycled Thursday to attempt the course again, as is also permitted for men.
William J. Gregor, a professor of social sciences at the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has conducted studies on what he believes are the drawbacks of putting women in direct land combat. He says the Infantry Officer Course and the Ranger Course results show that the Pentagon will have to scramble to find even a small number of women who can be infantry officers and commandos — both highly demanding physical endeavors.
“The question then becomes, if you are recruiting for occupational specialties, where’s the next cohort? Where are the next 100 women?” Mr. Gregor said. “You just culled the Army for over 100 women, so where’s the next cohort? The same is true for every one of these programs.
“You’re expending valuable training time on populations that are unlikely to succeed. So what cost do you want to bear in continually trying with these experiments? This has nothing to do with raising an army.”
High cost of training
Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced in January 2013 that he had revoked the military’s regulation against women in direct land combat. The stated goal was to create a training atmosphere in which significant numbers of women, not just an isolated few, become land combatants.
Mr. Gregor has his doubts that can happen unless combat physical standard are lowered, and he suspects a lowering eventually will occur. Senior Pentagon officials pledge that they are committed to keeping standards the same, or gender-neutral, but have not ruled out lowering standards.
A big question is, once infantry is officially opened to women, how many teenage females will apply for that occupation?
“Are you going to recruit women into the infantry and then have them fail initial training?” Mr. Gregor said. “How long are you going to do that before you realize the cost of doing that is too high? Not only do you lose the training slots, but once they fail, you’ve go to reclassify them into a new occupational specialty. So from a manpower procurement standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense.”
One development that counters that argument is that a number of enlisted Marine women — 120 out of 350 — were able to pass the Infantry Training Battalion Course earlier this year in a pilot program.
With officers, as the Marine Corps sees it, if infantry is opened to women and female officers first get through the Basic School, they then would be eligible to try the Infantry Officer Course.
Said Capt. Maureen T. Krebs, a Corps spokeswoman: “I wouldn’t characterize it as finding a ‘pool of women’ but rather female Marine lieutenants who truly want to be infantry or ground intelligence officers would have the same opportunity as the male Marines to be selected for those occupational specialties and go through the course, meet the standards of the course, graduate and lead Marines in those units.”
Two female ground intelligence officers have tried the IOC and failed since the Corps opened that occupation to women in 2013. If an officer cannot pass IOC, he or she cannot become a ground intelligence officer.
‘If you pass, you pass’
The National Women’s Law Center is not happy with how the Pentagon is managing the transition phase.
The center, for example, criticized the Marine Corps approach of studying whether gender-integrated combat units perform as well as all-male units. That pilot program is the ongoing Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, scheduled to end in July.
A woman should succeed or fail on what she does individually, not as a group, the women advocate group said.
“This would improperly be evaluating all women’s qualifications based on the performance of a few women. Instead, both women and men should be evaluated on an individual basis — measured against valid occupational standards,” the group’s report said.
The report also criticizes the Army for making the Ranger Course closed to women in the first place.
“If this Army assessment is intended to inform a decision on whether to recommend that Ranger units remain closed to women, it has many of the flaws of the Marine Corps’ studies,” the law center said. “Women are being asked to volunteer but will not be able to join a Ranger unit, even if they qualify by completing the school.”
On the question of whether the military’s women population will produce sufficient numbers who want to be in frontline land combat, the women’s center asserted: “There is no reason for delay in assigning women in open occupations to closed units, particularly because there are many currently serving women who are highly interested in serving in a greater range of positions and units.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, defended how the military is moving toward combat integration.
“The successful integration of women into currently closed positions requires the department to be thoughtful and deliberate,” Lt. Cmdr. Christensen said. “The department is proceeding in a measured and responsible way to open positions to women. The department is committed to opening positions and occupations when and how it makes sense while preserving unit readiness, cohesion and the quality of the all-volunteer force.”
Since Mr. Panetta’s announcement, about 91,000 previously closed positions have been opened, he said.
It is a foregone conclusion that infantry will become mixed-gender. Mr. Carter has said that most, if not all, currently closed occupations will open sometime after the studies are submitted to his staff in September.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who will make recommendations to Mr. Carter on Navy and Marine Corps units such as SEALs and infantry, told midshipmen last week at the Naval Academy that everyone should be given a chance.
“The working assumption is all billets are going to be opened this year,” Mr. Mabus said. “My notion is you set up gender-neutral standards. If you pass, you pass. I don’t care what shape you are. I don’t care what gender you are.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at email@example.com.
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