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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Women in Combat: Issues for Congress

David F. Burrelli
Specialist in Military Manpower Policy

Over the last few years, women have become more involved in combat operations. Since September, 2001 (to February 28, 2013), 299,548 female service members have been deployed for contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In approximately 12 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 800 women have been wounded and over 130 have died. According to the Department of Defense (DOD), as of February 29, 2013, 16,407 female members were currently deployed in contingency operation. Women have been recognized for their heroism, two earning Silver Star medals.

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. DOD policy restricting women from serving in ground combat units was most recently modified in 1994 and 2013. Under the 1994 policy, women could not be assigned to units, below the brigade level, whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground. Primarily, this meant that women were barred from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers, and special operations units of battalion size or smaller. On January 24, 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rescinded the rule that restricted women from serving in combat units.

Various commissions and others have reviewed the issue of women in the military, in general, and women in combat units, at times at the direction of Congress. For example, 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 to women.

The Ike Skelton National Defense Act for Fiscal Year 2011 directed DOD to conduct a review to “ensure that female members have equitable opportunities to compete and excel in the Armed Forces.” [Emphasis added.]

With the repeal of the ban on women serving in combat units, some have questioned whether or if current standards should be kept in place, reviewed, modified, etc. Many women’s right supporters contend that the former exclusionary policy, or standards that, de facto, act in an exclusionary manner, 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.

Date of Report: May 9, 2013
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R42075
Price: $29.95

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