Commission calls on Pentagon to scrap women in combat policy

The Defense Department should scrap its policy preventing women from being assigned to direct combat positions, a panel of military and civilian leaders has recommended.

A commission looking at increasing diversity within the armed forces called certain combat exclusion policies regarding women an institutional barrier that "can affect their ability to reach the senior leadership ranks, particularly in the officer corps," said a report released on March 7. The 2009 National Defense Authorization Act mandated the report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission.

In 1994, the Pentagon established a departmentwide rule that excluded women from direct ground combat assignments to units below the brigade level. But the policy does not preclude women from being involved in ground combat. As a practical matter, women still have experienced combat as a part of attached units, in various jobs such as drivers. The rise of counterinsurgencies in warfare has increased combat exposure as well. "While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn't mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger," Defense spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said in an e-mail.

The rule is most restrictive for women in the Army and the Marines. In 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates lifted the ban on women serving on submarines, and all jobs in the Coast Guard -- now part of the Homeland Security Department -- have been open to women since 1978. According to the commission's report, 2003 data showed that women could serve in 91 percent of Army jobs and 92 percent of Marine Corps occupations, compared with 99 percent of Air Force positions and 94 percent of Navy jobs. According to Defense data, 14.5 percent of active-duty service members are female.

The panel, which included corporate leaders, active-duty and retired officers, and senior enlisted personnel throughout the armed forces, recommended that Defense roll back the rule in phases, and should report to Congress on its progress and the timeline for removing the combat exclusion barrier.

Defense will thoroughly review the report and all its recommendations as part of an ongoing congressional review, according to Lainez. "Women will continue to be assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions within the scope of their restricted positioning -- situations for which they are fully trained and equipped to respond," she said.

The report praised the military for increasing diversity, both demographic and otherwise, among the rank-and-file, but said minorities and women still are underrepresented in senior leadership positions. "Despite undeniable successes, however, the Armed Forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve," the report said.

Other recommendations included:

  • A uniform definition of diversity across the military, which states: "Diversity is all the different characteristics and attributes of individuals that are consistent with Department of Defense core values, integral to overall readiness and mission accomplishment and reflective of the nation we serve."
  • Diversity leadership training and education "distinct from traditional forms of general diversity training" for all service members.
  • Strategic metrics and benchmarks for the Office of the Defense Secretary to track the department's progress in creating a pipeline to leadership positions for minorities and women.
  • Expansion of the recruiting pool by improving education and physical fitness of American youth.
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