President Bush’s policy on women in ground combat takes just four words to articulate: “No women in combat.”
Despite extended tours of duties in Iraq for soldiers and an Army examination of women’s roles, the president told editors and reporters of The Washington Times yesterday in an interview in the Oval Office that he has no intention of sending women into ground combat, a mission for which they are banned under Pentagon policy.
Some retired generals and commentators have called on the president to increase significantly the 150,000 troops in Iraq. Mr. Bush said he is relying on his generals not the pundits to dictate the makeup of the force.
“The troop size in Iraq is not driven here in the White House,” he said. “It is driven by the decisions and the recommendations the recommendations of John Abizaid and Gen. George Casey . And it’s really important that that’s how a war be fought, that and I would hope it brings great comfort to you as a concerned citizen the commander in chief makes the military decisions based upon the recommendations from the field.”
The active force is about 1.4 million troops. The Army has added 30,000 soldiers, using emergency powers, to exceed 500,000.
“As far as the overall force structure and the relationship between the active-duty unit and the Guard and reserve, for example, that’s part of the transformation of our military,” Mr. Bush said. “In other words, transforming our military to meet a whole new set of threats. And the debate I hear is not overall size, necessarily, but the relationship between the Army to the Air Force and the Navy.”
Asked about reports of putting women closer to land combat, the president said:
“There’s no change of policy as far as I’m concerned. No women in combat. Having said that, let me explain, we’ve got to make sure we define combat properly: We’ve got women flying choppers and women flying fighters, which I’m perfectly content with.”
The question came up in light of the Army’s transforming its 10 active-combat divisions and re-examining women’s roles. Instead of the normal three brigades per division, each division will have four or more “units of action.” They are being designed to train and deploy as one modular unit, with combat and support units as one.
Therein lies the potential problem. Pentagon policy not only bans women from direct combat brigades, such as infantry or armor, it also says they cannot join support units that collocate with those units.
But The Washington Times has reported on internal Army memos that show some officials are pushing the Pentagon to lift the ban so that mixed-sex forward support companies (FSC) can collocate with armor and infantry battalions within a “unit of action.”
A Nov. 29 briefing for senior Army officers at the Pentagon stated, “The way ahead: rewrite/eliminate the Army collocation policy.”
An Army spokeswoman said, “It is my understanding that the November 29 briefing was predecisional. There are a number of Army policies under review.”
An earlier Army briefing in May, labeled “draft close hold,” stated that one option putting FSCs outside a combat brigade in an organizational chart “could be perceived as subterfuge to avoid reporting requirements.”
Congress requires that any change in women-in-combat rules first be presented to lawmakers.
The May briefing portrayed the Army as in a bind. If it collocates FSCs with combat teams and keeps them men-only, then it “creates potential long-term challenge to Army; pool of male recruits too small to sustain force,” the Army documents stated.
In 1994, after reports of women excelling during Operation Desert Storm, the Clinton administration lifted bans on women in combat aircraft and ships. But it retained the prohibition against women in ground combat units and collocation.
Any change is opposed by Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness. In a letter to House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, Mrs. Donnelly said, “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.”