In announcing the final results of the Pentagon’s women in service review, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter allowed for no exceptions: The military services must open all of their positions to women, including combat roles and special operations roles within 30 days.
The decision caps a nearly three-year study process in which the Pentagon’s going-in inclination was that all positions should be opened to female troops, but the military services were given an opportunity to make their case that combat effectiveness in certain jobs or circumstances demanded men-only units.
But after 33 separate studies and analyses, by this past fall, the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command concluded that all of their positions should be opened. Only the Marine Corps requested exceptions for some positions and some types of units.
Carter said he had decided to reject that request.
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“While the Marine Corps asked for a partial exception in some areas such as infantry, machine gunner, fire support, reconnaissance and others, we are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision that applies to the entire force,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “There was also great value in having a combined approach to implementation and to have them all working together on this.”
All told, the decision affects 214,000 military billets across 52 military occupational specialties that are now closed to women — all but 11 of them in the Army and Marine Corps. Most of the Navy and Air Force’s remaining closed positions have been in the special operations community, but those will also be opened.
“This means that as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before,” Carter said. “They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army rangers and green berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men. And even more importantly, our military will be better able to harness the skills and perspectives that talented women have to offer.”
The military service chiefs have 30 days to formally end their remaining bans on women serving and come up with implementation plans. They must actually implement those plans by Apr. 1.
The Marines’ request to bar women from some positions was made by Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was then the Marine Corps’ commandant and is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His position was based in part on a Marine Corps research study that found that gender-integrated units created as part of the study process tended to be more prone to injuries, took longer to perform combat tasks and generally performed less well than their all-male counterparts.
Carter did not dispute the Marines’ concerns, but said he was confident they could be solved if the new policy of gender integration was carried out carefully, taking into account the lessons the military services have learned over the last three years as they have studied the issue and re-examined their training processes.
“Chairman Dunford and I agree that the key here is going to be implementation,” he said. “I viewed the issues that were raised by all the services as something we needed to take seriously and address them in implementation. And I believe that the issues raised, including by the Marine Corps, could be addressed successfully in implementation.”
And he gave the military services seven specific guidelines as they pursue the new policy, including that assignments and promotions must be based on ability, not gender, that the military not establish specific quotas for women, and a continuing recognition that in general, there are physical differences between men and women.
“While this cannot be applied to every man or woman, it is real and must be taken into account,” Carter said. “Thus far, we’ve only seen small numbers of women qualified to meet our high physical standards in some of our most physically demanding combat occupational specialties, and going forward, we shouldn’t be surprised if these small numbers are also reflected in areas like recruitment, voluntary assignment, retention and advancement in some of these specific specialties.”
But the secretary also made clear that not all assignments to the newly opened combat specialties would be voluntary. Now that each MOS will be gender-agnostic, women will be just as likely as men to be placed into combat roles involuntarily, assuming the military service they’re working in deems their abilities up to the task.
But Carter said even after the end of the restrictions, there will still be some extremely narrow cases in which specific jobs can only be performed by one gender.
“There are specialties that are designed specifically for women, for example our female engagement teams in places where it is sensitive for an American male service member to interact with local females. So there are situations like that,” he said. “I suppose it’s also fair to say, statistically, that there are some other specialties in which women have historically excelled. You have to be careful about that, because it’s sometimes a matter of where they felt they could advance rather than anything else. But women are represented differently across specialties that have long been open, and that’s why I think that we really need to focus on standards as we go into implementation. And we’re going to learn a lot, and we already have learned from service studies and surveys, about how to think about standards in the course of considering this matter of gender.”
Under current law, Congress has 30 days to examine Carter’s decision before it becomes final. Immediately after Carter’s announcement, the chairmen of the House and Senate armed services committees said they intended to hold hearings over the next month to conduct an in-depth review of the concerns the Marines presented and whether Congress needs to update the Selective Service Act to deal with the issue of whether women should be subject to the draft.
“Secretary Carter’s decision to open combat positions to women will have a consequential impact on our service members and our military’s warfighting capabilities,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in a joint statement. “We intend to carefully and thoroughly review all relevant documentation related to today’s decision, including the 1,000-page Marine Integrated Task Force report. We expect the department to send over its implementation plans as quickly as possible to ensure our committees have all the information necessary to conduct proper and rigorous oversight.”