The fast, light, and agile combat units destined to make up much of the future US military probably won't include women, even if some women can prove their capacity to effectively fight side by side with their male counterparts.
That was the underlying message when the Department of Defense recently announced it was rolling back a Clinton-era decision that would have allowed women into a key combat unit of the Army known as Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA) squadrons.
Only a handful of GI Janes are affected by the change. The Pentagon said it was simply complying with its "ground combat exclusionary rule," which keeps women from the frontlines of land battles.
The decision should not be used to begin rolling back the great progress women have made in the armed forces. Today, there are over 200,000 women on active duty in the military nearly 15 percent of the total force. Some 92 percent of military specialities are open to women.
But as the RSTA decision indicates, lines are still being drawn to keep women out of some types of duty. The Pentagon needs to be more forthcoming about the reasons for this.
To be sure, women have needed special consideration to help them climb the services' career ladder. Since the 1970s, tests for strength and endurance have been "normed" to their biological characteristics.
But not all physical and psychological differences can be "normed" away, which is essentially why a line is drawn at excluding women from direct ground combat.
The current policy is based on a 1994 memo from then Defense Secretary Les Aspin and an exhaustive report by a presidential commission. Women are barred from ground combat, or from positions "well forward on the battlefield, where there is a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy."
Wide latitude is given to exclude women when the costs of building separate bunks and bathrooms would be "prohibitive," when women would be "collocated" (placed together) with men near battlefield units, and "where job-related physical requirements would necessarily exclude the vast majority of women service members."
If there's a case to be made beyond those guidelines that in ground combat more lives might be lost if women were in the units, or that men in those units wouldn't be as effective the Pentagon should make it.
Women have made tremendous strides in the military. But much more debate and study about their role in combat is needed, and military leaders should be more explicit in stating their reasons for drawing lines on where women can serve.