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Women In Combat

Posted July 26, 2001

— Over the past decade, I have been asked frequently whether United States military women "should" serve in combat. Others will ask "can" they serve in combat. The answer to either question is not simple.

My overall experience with women in uniform has been very positive. Yet, my lifelong traditional, conservative, family-oriented experiences cause me concern when examining the role of "women in combat."

Unfortunately, the national debate over women in combat has had more to do with political correctness than with combat capability. I do not believe that equal opportunity or social engineering policies should prevail over our national defense priorities. Neither do I believe they need to.

There are those who insist the only way for men or women to get promoted to our most senior ranks of general or admiral is to be placed in the front line combat-oriented command positions. I disagree.

In today's Air Force, for example, about 70 percent of the general officers possess an aeronautical rating of pilot or navigator permitting them to command the front line flying units so relevant to combat operations. The other 30 percent might be in other career-enhancing areas such as intelligence, communications, acquisition, human resources, etc. Clearly then, there are other opportunities to achieve the highest ranks without command of combat units. We have had several Air Force general officers promoted to four stars without the advantage of an aeronautical rating and the perceived necessity to have such a rating.

As recently as 1968, there was a law in this nation that limited the total female population in each service to no more than two percent of the total service. Only one in each service could be a colonel (or Navy Captain) at any one time. Promotions were severely limited and, consequently, few women chose to serve a full career. There was a glass ceiling. But, no more.

Selective service ended in 1973 and there were sweeping changes as America initiated the all-volunteer force. Salaries were increased. Quality of life issues became more relevant over the next few decades. Educational opportunities were enhanced. Women felt welcome to join the services and could see the opportunities for advancement were available to them as well as to men.

Although there was no sudden influx of women into the armed forces in 1973, over time the advantages of serving became clear. This was good for the nation, because it opened a new pool of talent for the armed services. In fact, today over 20 percent of all recruits are women. I doubt that our armed forces could make their recruiting goals without having opened so many doors to women recruits and officers.

But the thrust of the questions I am asked has less to do with women in the military, and more to do with whether they should serve in combat. And that is a tougher issue to address.

There are those who oppose women serving in direct combat units, such as special forces and infantry. They voice concerns about deployability, unit cohesion, physical attributes, and POW status.

Of course, not all career fields require a person to deploy in time of war. For example, an ICBM officer sitting in a missile silo in North Dakota will do his or her wartime function without deploying. Others, such as members of the 82nd Airborne Division or the F-15E crews and support personnel at Seymour Johnson AFB must be available for deployment at any time. Yet, the pregnant airman or soldier need not deploy. That places a strain on the others who are eligible and may need to pull more than their share of deployments. That doesn't sit well with many uniformed males.

I am somewhat less concerned about the unit cohesion argument. I believe the fabric of our society has changed considerably in my lifetime, and the increasing number of females in uniform over the past twenty years would suggest that both sexes would adapt positively, just as they have to co-ed unit dormitories. A better argument can be made for the physical attributes each sex possesses.

A recent Washington Times article reported on a study by the British military titled "Combat Effectiveness Gender Study." When asked to carry 90 pounds over a prescribed distance, 20 percent of the males failed and 70 percent of the females failed. When asked to march 12.5 miles carrying 60 pounds on their backs and then participate in live fire target practice, 17 percent of the men failed and 48 percent of the females failed.

Here in the United States, the Center for International Strategic Studies, asked a sampling of our young enlisted men and women whether they believed women could pull their own weight in combat. Fully two thirds of the males said no, they could not. Interestingly, nearly one half (48 percent) of the females agreed.

These limited studies may show that women are not as physically capable of performing stressful combat related duties; they also reveal that a significant number of males couldn't hack it either. That should not be too much of a surprise.

Each of us, regardless of our sex, has physical limitations. I would not have survived as a defensive lineman in the NFL. I would not have been drafted into the NBA. However, I could compete on the tennis court, in track and field, and on the golf course. These latter sports required competence, but not great physical strength.

But combat is not a game with clearly established rules and guidelines. Combat is life or death... or maybe POW status.

Certainly, some women might perform admirably in combat positions just as most have performed admirably in non-combat positions. Should our nation decide that placing women in combat roles is the correct thing to do, I would offer a caution. Placing women in combat should be based on their ability to adhere to the same rigorous standards which apply to men. No reductions of the standards... no waivers... for either sex.

If women are to be permitted in all combat organizations on an equal footing, it should be for the right reasons. That is because they want to serve... they are qualified... and they will enhance combat readiness. It should not be determined by what is politically correct.

Is it necessary to place women in these combat roles? No. Would I want my daughters to serve in combat specific career fields? No.

I realize my generation has a more conservative view on this issue than the younger generation. That may be because more of us have served in the military. More of us have seen combat up close and personal. Combat is not pretty, and it is not for everybody.

This is the latest in a series of monthly columns written by

retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert D. Springer

is a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.

In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.


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