The modern-day style of warfare, wherein the lines of combat engagement have been blurred beyond the traditional “front lines” versus support roles, has gradually become a dream come true for those who would like to see the expansion of combat specialties to include women. The military has had to assess the viability of using women to accomplish strategic goals from a needs standpoint, meaning they have had to approach the situation from the perspective of “how can we make this happen?” instead of “why wouldn’t this work?”—effectively speeding up the process of evolving policy.
The Army and Marine Lioness Program started the ball rolling six years ago in Iraq, having female teams attach to combat units to conduct searches and interrogations of Iraqi women. This effectively countered the insurgent tactic of smuggling weapons and money through security checkpoints using women, a technique that exploited the cultural barriers that had prevented male troops from searching the females.
Next, after exploring and studying the new wartime realities, a diversity panel issued a Congressional recommendation that all combat restrictions on women be removed. Unfortunately, the focus on promotion barriers rather than overall job capability cast a shadow over the process the panel was intended to help. Even the most open-minded military advocate could not support risking combat effectiveness of our military in the middle of two wars when political correctness might be the primary driver. However, the cue was taken, and the issue was approached from a different angle—special forces.
The Army has now begun attaching females to combat units for direct operations, and the route they initiated has been through Special Operations Command. Women are now being sent in as “cultural support teams,” otherwise known as “Female Engagement Teams,” attached to Special Forces units to areas that have been secured by commandos. These women have yet to be required to complete Ranger school before assignment, but they are trained in many of the same tactics.
On the heels of the Female Engagement Team announcement comes a new prospect from the commander of U.S. Special Operations, Admiral Eric Olson: We’re ready for female Navy SEALs. His argument is that there’s much more to being a SEAL than brute strength:
“I don’t think the idea is to select G.I. Jane and put her through SEAL training, but there are a number of things that a man and a woman can do together that two guys can’t,” said Olson. “I don’t think it’s as important that they can do a lot of push-ups. I think it’s much more important what they’re made of and whether or not they have the courage and the intellectual agility to do that.”
Despite this progress, there is still a great deal of heat in the debate surrounding women in combat roles. The physical difference between men and women is the most pivotal issue: would a deterioration of physical requirements spread, domino-like, across the services in an attempt to ensure that enough female recruits would qualify for combat and guarantee integration? The idea is alarming, and real. The politicization of diversity issues and the history of policies intended to remedy them fully justifies this concern.
Additionally, the question of unit cohesion deserves serious consideration. Currently, all females involved in the current special missions are not integrated into the combat units that they work with, but rather attached to them; they operate separately.
In prior years, the question of women serving in combat roles garnered numerous objections that were based primarily on hypotheticals. In the current environment, many of those concerns have now been dismissed; women’s performance has exceeded expectations. Women were once barred from flying air missions with a combat element; now, they are being suggested as additions to special forces operations to provide “boots on the ground.”
We may very well see the first female Navy SEALs in the near future, but will it lead to removal of all combat restrictions on women in the U.S. military? The next question may be whether the unique needs of our special forces has provided an opportunity that may not carry over into general combat specialties. “Brute strength” may not be necessary for a guerrilla-trained commando, due to the intellectual nature of counterterrorism efforts and similar small-war environments, but with conventional forces that need still exists.
If opportunities were available to women in special forces, would the political winds be calmed at all by the fact that women would then have the ability to enter combat—and thus compete for higher rank with the same qualifications as their male peers? Our new special forces-driven security strategy may open more doors for such involvement than ever before.
And then there’s the question of the draft . . . we shall see how that would affect these calculations.
So we stand at a turning point, with a conflict. Or, perhaps—an opportunity.