The Pentagon’s historic move Thursday to admit women into combat roles opens thousands of opportunities for female service members who’ve spent a decade proving themselves in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t mean women will join Seal Team Six anytime soon.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed an order rescinding the 1994 rule that barred women from being formally assigned to combat units, a change they said would recognize the reality of women’s service today and help the careers of female troops.
“Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable service members, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs,” Panetta said. “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.”
Nonetheless, Panetta and Dempsey made clear that the goal was for equality of opportunity, not necessarily of outcomes. And although the military services were tasked with “reviewing” the requirements for their toughest jobs with a new bias toward admitting — as opposed to barring — women, Panetta and Dempsey said it’s entirely possible that some high-profile units from which women are excluded today will continue to exclude them after the 2016 deadline for the policy change to take effect.
Panetta described how he wanted his six grandchildren to have every possible opportunity to excel at whatever they try, but he acknowledged that was not a guarantee that they would.
“Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier,” Panetta said, “but everyone is entitled to a chance.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla) the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, repeated in a statement Thursday something he’d said the day before: That this change in policy may not ultimately mean that much.
“While the Pentagon has rescinded the 1994 Direct Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, not all of the 237,000 positions previously closed to women will now be automatically open,” he said. “Instead, the military services, under Secretary Panetta’s direction, will conduct a review of all unit and specialty positions to be completed no later than 2016.”
Although Inhofe praised the role women already play in the armed forces, he said Congress would reserve its right “to introduce legislation to stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities,” and that “I suspect there will be cases where legislation becomes necessary.”
Not only might female service members not gain entry to every combat job, it was not clear Thursday whether they would be required to register for the draft, as is the case today for men ages 18 through 25. Although Congress did away with conscription after Vietnam and would have to act again before it could call men up in a time of crisis, a theoretical draft board today would not include the names of women, and Panetta said Thursday he didn’t know how or what would come next.
“I don’t know who the hell controls selective service, to tell you the truth,” he said. “Whoever it is, will have to decide how to handle that.”
The next administrative step will come on May 15, when the military services will be required to submit to the secretary of Defense their plans for how they’ll lift the combat exclusion. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps leaders will be charged with showing why they believe women should be kept from certain units, rather than the previous standard for making a case why women should be permitted to join them.
Panetta will be retired by the time the recommendations are due, but senior defense officials told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon that former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who’s been nominated to take over the Defense secretary position, supports lifting the ban.
They also said that Panetta has been working on making this historic change for quite some time now, even though he’s leaving Washington in a matter of weeks.
“This was not a snap decision by the secretary of Defense,” one official said.
After a yearlong review, about 14,500 combat-related jobs were opened to women last February. Panetta then asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff what more they could do to remove barriers for women to succeed in the military. They told him that the “Direct Ground Combat Restriction” should be done away with. Final discussions took place in December and a formal memo was sent to Panetta on Jan. 9 recommending that the ban be lifted.
“All of the services, we’ve all been working on this for over a year,” the official said. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed to lift the ban. Panetta said he has been briefing President Barack Obama all along, and the president hailed the Pentagon’s announcement Thursday as a milestone for equality.
“I congratulate our military, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the rigor that they have brought to this process,” Obama said. “As commander in chief, I am absolutely confident that — as with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world. Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.”
The service chiefs also looked for guidance from senior military leaders from Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Israel.
Today about 230,000 military occupational specialties are closed to women in the military. Officials said they’re reviewing 53,000 of the jobs now closed because they’re part of small units and 184,000 that are closed by specialty, such as infantry, artillery and tanker positions.
Service leaders’ task now is to figure out which jobs should be opened to women and how to create a gender-neutral way to test troops’ abilities to complete the tasks. Officials said there are a few things that would make a job requirement gender-based — like whether allowing women would affect unit readiness, morale and cohesion.
A senior Marine Corps official used the job of a tanker as an example, saying there are 18 specific physically demanding tasks to be a tanker, such as the requirement that a Marine must be able to physically lift and load a tank round in confined quarters. The official also said the standards of the infantry officer course at Quantico wouldn’t change.
“You may not raise or lower a standard to increase or decrease the number of women who qualify,” an official said. “We’re doing this because it’s fair. If they can do it; they can do it. If they can’t, they can’t.”
Also, the secretary of Defense must approve any decisions to keep an MOS closed to women, but the Pentagon does not believe it needs to get those cleared with Congress. “At this point we have all the authorities we need,” an official told reporters.
The Marine Corps says it will test 400 female Marines and 400 male Marines this summer for physical fitness to determine if the recruiting PT tests need to be changed to make them gender-neutral. Officials said the Army will do the same thing, but didn’t provide specifics.
The Air Force said it would have very little to review in this process — 99 percent of its jobs are already open to women. The ones that remain closed today are special operations, tactical forces and pararescue teams.
Officials were also unclear about the costs of lifting the ban, but agreed that there would be some.
They said they didn’t anticipate that it would take until the Jan. 1, 2016, deadline to implement the changes.
“We view it as incremental,” an official said. And it’s possible that some front-line combat jobs could open up in Afghanistan before the 2014 drawdown. “I don’t think we can exclude that.”
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, 280,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We could not have accomplished the mission without them,” said a senior defense official.
Tim Mak contributed to this report.