Women in combat no later than 2016, Pentagon says

The next steps to prepare for women in combat include setting physical standards for previously male-only jobs and reassuring Congress that combat won't expose more women to sexual assault.

Mark Humphrey/AP/File
Female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan 2012 file photo. Women are scheduled take up official combat roles as early as 2016, the Pentagon told a congressional panel this week.

Women could be officially moving into combat roles by 2016, according to top US military officials.

But some lawmakers continue to express concern about whether the Pentagon will be able to make this move without lowering physical standards.

Others express concern that the integration of women into fighting units could increase incidents of sexual assault.

Top Pentagon officials traveled to Capitol Hill this week in an effort to reassure Congress that performance standards would remain high, and that rather than exposing women to sexual assault, integrating female troops into combat units could actually make them less likely to be harassed or raped by their male peers.

On these points, some lawmakers remained skeptical.

"Have you anticipated what’s going to happen?" asked Rep. Jackie Walorski (R) of Indiana of a senior defense official during a hearing before the House Armed Service's military personnel subcommittee Wednesday, as she expressed concern that putting women into small combat units could inspire their male comrades in arms to sexually assault them.

"What’s happening now doesn't work," she added. "Is there research? Is there a plan?"

Juliet Beyler, the Pentagon’s director of Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management, said that rather than expose them to risk, treating women equally to their fellow male troops could help resolve the problem of sexual assault. 
"The more we treat service members equally, the more likely they are to treat each other with respect," she said.

More than physical standards, others have questioned the impact of female troops on the morale of all-male units, such as those in the Special Operations Forces. 
"Our concern about integration generally centers upon the impact of unit cohesion," said Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, director of Force Management and Development for US Special Operations Command. "These concerns include both social cohesion – referring to the extent to which team members feel emotionally bonded with each other – and task cohesion, referring to the mutual commitment among the individual team members in achieving the group objective."

And so General Sacolick says that he has commissioned a RAND Corporation study to design a survey "for every single SOF operator to assist in first identifying – and then eliminating – barriers to integration."

The secretary of Defense has ordered the services to begin having assessments of how they will integrate women into combat units completed by July 2014.

The head of US Special Operations Command, for example, then has another year – until July 2015 – to review the information and provide his recommendation about whether integrating women into SOF units is feasible and, if not, to explain why.

By January 2016, services are to begin officially integrating women into positions that have previously been closed to them, if they have not already done so.

The key now is designing tests that can be used to create physical standards. Even in many male-only jobs, such as loading tanks and artillery, there are currently no established physical standards for being eligible to have the job.

In other words, as long as troops are male, they have been able to have the job without any physical tests, some lawmakers point out. Others argued that along with physical standards, perhaps, the US military should be equally concerned with developing mental standards for certain jobs as well. 
"I think we're all realizing that the mental agility required of today's tasks are much more than we realized in the past," said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the US Army's deputy chief of staff.

"And so, within each military occupational specialty, that's an area we’re examining," he added. "It's a new area for us. We're certainly not as conversant in it as we should be at this point, but it's something we have to take on."

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