David F. Burrelli Specialist in Military Manpower Policy
In 10 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of female members have been deployed, and hundreds wounded and/or killed. According to the Department of Defense (DOD), as of August 31, 2011, over 26,000 female members were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. On numerous occasions women have been recognized for their heroism, two earning Silver Star medals. This outcome has resulted in a renewed interest in Congress and beyond in reviewing and possibly refining the role of women in the military.
The expansion of roles for women in the armed forces has evolved over decades. Women are not precluded from serving in any military unit by law today. (Past laws that precluded women from serving on board military aircraft and ships assigned combat missions were repealed in the early 1990s.) DOD policy restricting women from serving in ground combat units was most recently modified in 1994. Under this policy, women may not be assigned to units, below the brigade level, whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground. Primarily, this means that women are barred from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers, and special operations units of battalion size or smaller. Since there are no laws precluding such service, changes made in assigning women are only controlled under current policies which may be modified by the Administration and DOD.
In 2006, Congress enacted language prohibiting any change in existing policies without the Secretary of Defense first notifying Congress of such changes followed by a waiting period. In 2010, the Navy notified Congress that it was modifying its policy to allow women to serve as permanent crew members aboard submarines. The Navy announced women will begin being assigned to submarines in November or December of 2011.
Recent changes in Army doctrine have in many ways called into question the ground exclusion policy, or at least, the services’ adherence to it. This is the result particularly from the policy of collocating support units (to which women are assigned) with combat units, along with adapting to the unusual (nonlinear) warfare tactics encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the utilization of women in what some view as new nontraditional roles in Iraq and Afghanistan (for example, the “Lioness” program, which employed women to search Muslim women, and the emerging allfemale Cultural Support Teams)
The FY2009 Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act contained language establishing the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. Among its duties, the Commission was to conduct a study and report on the “establishment and maintenance of fair promotion and command opportunities for ethnic- and gender-specific members of the Armed Forces at the O-5 (Lieutenant Colonel for Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, and Commander for Navy and Coast Guard) grade level and above.” Among its recommendations, the Commission stated that DOD should take deliberate steps to open additional career fields and units involved in direct ground combat. Such a move would essentially limit or repeal, in its entirety, the 1994 DOD policy regarding women serving in combat units.
Women’s right supporters contend that the exclusionary policy prevents women from gaining leadership positions and view expanding the roles of women as a matter of civil rights.
Critics view such changes as potentially damaging to military readiness.
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