A new report to Congress predicts that relatively few women will be able to perform land combat tasks on the same level as men, and it says the Pentagon’s pledge to maintain “gender-neutral” physical standards has a loophole.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps, viewed as the service most resistant to opening the infantry to women, will test male and female troops together in strength and endurance to determine how women can perform ground warfare, according to an internal memo obtained by The Washington Times.
The congressional report and the Marine Corps memo come as pro-defense conservatives are exploring ways to ensure that the Obama administration does not ease rigorous standards as a way to make sure women qualify for direct combat jobs.
When Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta last month removed the policy prohibiting women from serving in direct combat units — infantry, armor and special operations — he vowed not create two standards, citing the 1993 Gender-Neutral Occupational Performance Standards as the guide.
However, that law might not prevent the creation of a two-tiered qualification system, the Congressional Research Service said in a Feb. 7 report to Congress. The Times has obtained a copy of the document.
Citing the Air Force as an example, the report said that the armed services today employ significantly different physical standards for men and women. It notes that women are not required to do as many situps and pullups or to run as fast as men.
“The use of the term ‘gender-neutral physical standards’ raises questions depending on how it is defined,” David Burrelli, a military-manpower specialist, said in the report. “A plain reading of the term suggests that men and women would be required to meet the same physical standards in order to be similarly assigned. However, in the past, the services have used this and similar terms to suggest that men and women must exert the same amount of energy in a particular task, regardless of the work that is actually accomplished by either.”
Said Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Livonia, Mich.-based Center for Military Readiness: “Despite a law mandating ‘gender-neutral’ standards, every military training program open to both men and women is gender-normed in some way. These standards can only be justified if women are not eligible for fighting battalions.”
Fueling fears of lower combat standards for women is a statement from Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that if the military branches conclude that standards are too tough for women to succeed, they better have a good reason why the bar is that high.
Mr. Burrelli says the 1993 law is vague because it does not contain a clear definition of gender-neutral.
“As written, this language can be the subject of differing interpretations,” he said in the report. “Since no standards exist for women in the then-closed occupations, would women be required to meet the current existing standards, would separate standards be created, or would the existing standards be re-evaluated? What is lacking is a clear definition of ‘gender-neutral’ vis-a-vis the goals to be attained. Recent quotes from senior military leaders seem to suggest different things.”
Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey have made it clear to commanders that they want a significant number of women to gain access to combat units.
Skeptics question whether an ample number of military women want the challenge and whether more than a few can pass tests that require long marches while toting 60 pounds of gear, carrying large objects such as artillery shells or a wounded comrade, and possessing the upper-body strength for rope climbs.
Wrote Mr. Burrelli: “Although it has been shown that there are women who can meet and exceed many male physical standards, it does not appear that large numbers of women will succeed if held to these same higher standards. In addition, forcing women to continuously meet higher standards has been found to increase their injury and attrition rates.”
The Marine Corps is trying to address that key issue as it prepares to report with the other services in May to the defense secretary on what combat occupation specialties women can master.
It sent a memo to Capitol Hill titled “The Women in Service Restriction Review,” in which it talks of developing a “predictive mechanism.”
The memo says the Corps is first “validating” the standards for each combat job. It then will test a sample of male and female Marines against the same standards and use the scores as a predictive indicator when recruiting women.
Yet, at the same time the Marine Corps is saying it is rechecking its standards, it also is vowing not to change them.
“The Marine Corps‘ high standards cannot be lowered, nor can we artificially lower them to ensure a certain percentage of females will qualify,” the memo states. “Conversely, we will not artificially raise standards.”
“Lifting a 95-pound artillery round must be done by a Marine, either male or female,” it adds.
The Corps already has tried one experiment.
In October, two female lieutenants entered the grueling, all-male Officer Infantry School, but both dropped out within the first three weeks of the three-month course. Two other female Marine officers have applied for the school this spring.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine officer, has drafted legislation he thinks will close the law’s gender-neutral loophole. It would require the services to lower qualifications for men if standards are adjusted so that women can enter combat units.
“There’s an expectation that the [Defense] Department will look to either create a multitier system or try to lower standards across the board,” Mr. Hunter told The Times. “At a minimum, there needs to be a backstop to ensure standards remain the same.
“If they want to lower standards, they are going to have to lower them for everyone, and I don’t think they are prepared to do that, nor is it in our best interest,” he said. “We need to maintain the high level of readiness that we have.”
While pro-military conservatives concede there are not enough votes in Congress to put the women-in-combat ban into law, Mrs. Donnelly said they should try.
“Legislation mandating equal standards for direct ground combat training will not solve the problem,” Mrs. Donnelly told The Times. “Instead of dual standards, there will be lowered standards — equal but far less demanding than the male-oriented standards right now.
“The only way to preserve superior training that prepares men for direct ground combat against the enemy, and to preserve civilian women’s exemption from Selective Service obligations, is to codify updated, reality-based regulations that affirm women’s direct ground combat exemptions,” she said.