Declaring “the days of Rambo are over,” a top general said Tuesday that cultural, social and behavioral concerns may be bigger hurdles than tough physical fitness requirements for women looking to join the military’s special operations units.
Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, director of force management for U.S. Special Operations Command, said having seen women working alongside commando teams in Afghanistan, he is less concerned about their physical strength than the social issues that could arise. His comments came as military leaders mapped out plans Tuesday to develop physical and mental standards for thousands of combat jobs and slowly bring women into front-line positions, including possibly Navy SEAL teams or Army Ranger units, where they historically have been banned from serving.
“I’m actually more concerned with the men and their reaction to women in their formations, quite frankly,” Sacolick said, reflecting concerns about whether men would accept women in units that have long operated as small, male-only teams working in close quarters and harsh environment for extended periods of time.
He said the military has moved beyond the Hollywood stereotype of a commando, instead looking for special operators who “can speak and learn a foreign language, who understand culture, who can work with indigenous populations and have culturally attuned manners,” Sacolick said. “When people fail in the special forces qualification course, predominantly they fail because they’re not doing their homework.”
Under details the military laid out Tuesday, women could start training as Army Rangers by mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs a year later. U.S. Special Operations Command is coordinating the studies of what commando jobs could be opened to women, what exceptions might be requested and when the transition would take place.
The proposals could mean that women are still excluded from some jobs if research and testing find that women could not be successful. But the services would have to defend such decisions to top Pentagon leaders. Still, Sacolick said he could foresee a commando team of 11 men and one woman, if only a single female sought the job and qualified.
The military services have mapped out a schedule that includes reviewing and possibly changing the physical and mental requirements for certain infantry, armor, commando and other front-line positions across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Under the plans there would be one common requirements for men and women for each post, and it would be based on specific tasks troops need to do in order to perform those jobs. Officials say standards will not be lowered in order to bring women into certain posts.
In his memo to the services, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “the department remains committed to removing all gender barriers, wherever possible, and meeting our missions with the best qualified and most capable personnel.” He also said that the military will ensure that all women entering the newly opened jobs will be able to “meet the standards required to maintain our war fighting capability.”
Critics have questioned whether the change would result in any erosion of the military’s readiness for battle.
Elaine Donnelly, head of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, has been a vocal critic of the proposed changes. She questioned efforts to review standards for military jobs, saying that, “Due to physical differences that have been affirmed by more than 30 years of studies and reports on the subject, all possible options for implementing ‘gender-neutral standards’ would have the effect of lowering requirements.”
Military leaders have suggested bringing senior women from the officer and enlisted ranks into special forces units first to ensure that younger, lower-ranking women have a support system to help them get through the transition. The Navy intends to open up its Riverine force and begin training women next month, with the goal of assigning women to the units by October. While not part of the special operations forces, the coastal Riverine squadrons do close combat and security operations in small boats. The Navy plans to have studies finished by July 2014 on allowing women to serve as SEALs, and has set October 2015 as the date when women could begin Navy boot camp with the expressed intention of becoming SEALs eventually.
The bulk of the nearly 240,000 jobs currently closed to women are in the Army, including those in infantry, armor, combat engineer and artillery units that are often close to the battlefront.
Army officials have laid out a rolling schedule of dates in 2015 to develop gender-neutral standards for specific jobs, beginning with July for combat engineers, followed by field artillery in March and the infantry and armor jobs no later than September.
Similar jobs in the Marine Corps are also currently closed, and would also be opened on a rolling basis.
As an example of the standards’ review, Marine Col. Jon Aytes, head of the Marine Corps military policy branch, said that 400 men and 400 women Marines will be assessed in five key physical tests to gauge whether candidates can meet the physical requirements of the Corps.
He said they include lifting a 55-pound tank round, scaling a wall and conducting some weight-lifting maneuvers. The tests evaluate whether troops can load ammunition into a tank as required or possibly carry heavy packs or injured comrades.
Last year the military opened up about 14,500 combat positions to women, most of them in the Army, by allowing them to serve in many jobs at the battalion level. The January order lifted the last barrier to women serving in combat, but allows the services to argue to keep some jobs closed.
The decision reflects a reality driven home by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battle lines were blurred and women were propelled into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers who were sometimes attached, but not formally assigned, to battalions. So even though a woman could not serve officially as a battalion infantryman going out on patrol, she could fly a helicopter supporting the unit or be part of a team supplying medical aid if troops were injured. Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of the wars.