Wanted: Women in top military roles
February 22nd, 2012
11:14 AM ET

Wanted: Women in top military roles

From Paula Broadwell, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Paula Broadwell is the author of “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus”

The Department of Defense announced last week that 14,000 combat-related positions in front-line support units and combat battalions would soon be open to women. In part, that simply recognizes what women have been doing for the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan .

The announcement is a small step in the right direction, but female military leaders need more opportunities – now. The Pentagon needs to expand experimental programs for women to gain leadership experience because most current openings are filled by candidates who have experience leading combat brigades and battalions, e.g., male officers. Women are qualified to serve as officers in combat units that will prepare them for senior levels of leadership, and they want to. Without that experience, however, the pathway to the top is a very narrow one.

On six book-writing reporting trips to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, I interviewed female medics who had saved men on the battlefield, female officers on "cultural support teams" who supported Special Operations night raids, female military police who manned machine guns atop Humvees, and female helicopter pilots who flew into "hot" landing zones taking enemy fire. I saw women in Afghanistan effectively plan and oversee ground assaults, air operations and artillery strikes in Kandahar this past year. Recognizing their courage and the valuable skills they bring to improving combat effectiveness is important. Yet with 34 percent of the jobs in the Army and 32 percent in the Marine Corps still closed to women, work remains to be done. Opening more of these combat support positions for women is important for increasing the opportunities they have to lead at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels - and thus help them advance to senior levels of leadership.

Change has come slowly in the military. In the early 1970s, women made up less than 2% of the Army. Now it’s roughly 14%. After a decade of war, 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan ; 141 have died, and 865 have been wounded. In spite of representation at lower ranks, women only make up 7% of our general officer corps. Army General Ann Dunwoody, the highest-ranking woman in our military, was promoted to four-star general, the first woman so elevated, in 2008. The Air Force, which has opened 99 percent of its jobs to women, including those of fighter pilots, nominated Janet C. Wolfenbarger this month to become its first four-star general. A thoughtful and measured process will ultimately lead to broader support for these advancements. Over time, undoubtedly, there will be more opportunities as the organization recognizes how much women can contribute.

As a West Point graduate and an Army intelligence officer (now in the Army Reserve) involved in counterterrorism missions after Sept. 11, 2001, my first assignment was in an infantry division and I've also worked in the elite, largely male Special Operations Command. My experiences in these male-dominated units were positive, perhaps in part because I was capable of holding my own physically. Many of my sisters-in-arms have served in similar units and proved themselves capable, too. According to a Pentagon study, “research evidence has not shown that women lack the physical ability to perform in combat roles or that gender integration has a negative effect on unit cohesion or other readiness factors.” Most of us do not understand why, if we have proved ourselves physically, mentally, and tactically capable of leading on the frontlines, that we’d not be qualified for certain opportunities.

The 2011-2012 Pentagon review of the 1994 ground combat exclusion policy looked at five issues related to women’s roles, concluding that some changes were necessary, and others required more study. The review dictated that women should still not be allowed to serve in many combat positions for three reasons: berthing and privacy issues were cost prohibitive; long-range reconnaissance and special operations activities were too dangerous and involve combat; and the inherent tasks would be too physically demanding for women. The review did rescind two of the five constraints that restricted women's roles in combat – allowing women to now serve in direct combat units below brigade level and to be located with combat units. Pilot programs such as those allowing women to officially be assigned to direct combat units, less the infantry, for example, will test the former. Restrictions on co-location were already obsolete; in Iraq and Afghanistan women have out of necessity routinely been filling intelligence, military police, engineer, staff roles and other positions in close proximity to – and often directly on – the front lines. In reality, neither change is a bold stroke. Without opening up more positions on the frontlines, women will not gain the necessary exposure to leading in combat that the Pentagon has deemed necessary for strategic leadership assignments.

This debate is not about equal opportunity, however; the true metric here is whether a woman’s contributions improve combat effectiveness. These wars have shown they do, as gunners, medics, or engineers, according to many of my male colleagues who have served alongside women in war. To ensure that they are contributing to combat effectiveness, the standards of performance should be “gender neutral.”

Although I am a fierce advocate for women's opportunities, I understand why the Pentagon has not fully repealed the military's prohibition on women serving in artillery, infantry and tanks units engaged in "direct" ground combat, at least not until pilot programs allow them to prove their mettle. The “big Army” is taking longer to review these changes in part because there are not a lot of women who are both interested and capable, but that’s not a reason to exclude those who are.

This debate is not unique to the U.S. military. Many of our allies have shown more forward thinking than the Pentagon, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Australia. In these countries, women serve in various “close combat roles” defined as "engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile forces personnel." Though women’s representation is small, they contribute. The Australian contingent in Afghanistan has demonstrated that women add value and have not disrupted the emotional dynamic of units on the frontlines.

What should DoD do? First, as we draw down in Afghanistan and begin adapting the force for the next fight, it makes sense to accelerate the pilot programs while we are still at war and there are real world opportunities to test women, including in infantry units. Additionally, one area where pilot programs for is in elite, small, highly disciplined special operations units, organizations which pride themselves in adaptivity and agility. Women have, in fact, demonstrated their abilities in this community through their work on all female cultural support teams and as operators attached to Special Forces and Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan . These women are not trained as “fighters,” per se, but they do receive enhanced training in self-defense, tactical exploitation, and the physical requirements associated with getting into and out of target sites.

Opening the 14,000 jobs, and others, will give women the opportunity for further service on the frontlines and create more opportunities for advancement. They will help burnish women's combat credentials and give them the experience of fighting or commanding in combat situations. And as the Pentagon study pointed out, opening these jobs to women will alleviate some of the deployment pressures facing men in these fields.

The Pentagon should move swiftly and in broader strokes to accelerate these pilot programs and expand them to include leadership opportunities in more combat arms positions.

Here’s the bottom line: mentally and tactically, we are capable. Establish the physical requirement for being an infantryman and allow women who meet it to prove themselves. We as a nation want the best and brightest to attain these jobs, but so far the U.S. military has not allowed our best and brightest women the necessary experience.

Now is the time to correct that course by expanding the experimental programs in front-line support units and combat battalions.

Paula Broadwell graduated from West Point and had assignments with the U.S. intelligence community, U.S. Special Operations Command and an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. She is the author of the recently published All In: The Education of General David Petraeus and spent months embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Filed under: Afghanistan • Justice Department • Military
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