The Buzz

Women in Combat: Getting the Facts Right First

Anyone who hasn’t been trapped under a rock over the past few years has heard innumerable comments on the secretary of defense’s decision to admit women into combat career fields, and the build-up leading to this decision—the Marine Corps’ large-scale integration experiment, the Army’s adventures with females in Ranger training, etc. Most of these commentaries miss the mark in one way or another—some are little more than feelings and prejudice cloaked as professional opinion—and few begin where they should, with first principles and the law. Only with these foundations can we evaluate what the services have done in meeting the requirements laid before them. The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the services, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) each funded research under the umbrella of this review. A SOCOM-funded survey showed that more than 80 percent of special operators think women are not strong enough to handle the demands of the job and 64 percent think women are not mentally tough enough. However, there are also supporters who say that for over a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan women have shown they are physically and mentally strong enough.

Given the strong opinions on both sides, are we focused on the right questions? What did the secretary of defense tell the services to do? And have the services adequately addressed the key points? We intend to address these questions with a focus primarily on the physical requirements.


Guiding Principles and the Law

In January 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rescinded the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule, the policy that restricted women from serving in units with the primary mission to engage directly in ground combat. To inform policy makers and mitigate possible risks to combat troops such a decision might incur, Secretary Panetta directed the military departments to review occupational standards and related policies for the affected combat specialties, an effort known as the Women in Service Review. The services were given principles to guide their review, specifically:

“Validate occupational performance standards, both physical and mental, for all military occupational specialties (MOS), specifically those that remain closed to women. Eligibility for training and development within designated occupational fields should consist of qualitative and quantifiable standards reflecting the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for each occupation. For occupational specialties open to women, the occupational performance standards must be gender-neutral as required by P.L. 103-160, Section 542 (sic) (1993).”

Gender-neutral is a critical phrase in this guidance, but what does it mean? Here’s a hint: the law explicitly states standards may not be eased to ensure women can pass. But there is more to gender-neutrality than that. In fact, in 1993, Congress established a definition for gender-neutral occupational standards. Such standards:

“- shall ensure that qualification of members of the Armed Forces for, and continuance of members of the Armed Forces in, that occupational career field is evaluated on the basis of an occupational standard, without differential standards of evaluation on the basis of gender;

“- may not use any gender quota, goal, or ceiling except as specifically authorized by law; and

“- may not change an occupational performance standard for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the number of women in that occupational career field.”

Simply put, the standards must be the same for both men and women. And in response to concerns that physical occupational standards and tests for some career fields did not reflect actual job requirements, Congress further required the Secretaries of the military departments to develop occupational standards and tests that:

“- accurately predict performance of actual, regular, and recurring duties of a military occupation; and

“- are applied equitably to measure individual capabilities.”

The tests covered by these laws are the qualifying tests that are specific to occupational specialties, and not the annual physical fitness tests taken by all service members to ensure a general level of health and fitness. For example, members of the Air Force pararescue must currently take a test that includes push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, a run and a fin swim, in addition to their annual Air Force fitness test (which includes a 1.5 mi run, push-ups, sit-ups, and abdominal circumference).


So What Will Meet the Legal Requirements, Analytically?