Another Pentagon gender barrier falls as Air Force general makes history

Gen. Lori Robinson will take the helm of US Northern Command. She would will be the first woman to hold the prestigious post of combatant chief.

US Air Force/Senior Airman Katrina M. Brisbin/Reuters
US Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, Pacific Air Forces commander, addresses Airmen at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, last July. General Robinson has been selected as the next head of the US military's Northern Command, which would make her the first woman to head a combatant command, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday.

For the first time ever, a woman has been tapped to head a US military combatant command, one of the most senior jobs in the armed services.

Gen. Lori Robinson, who has long been a rising star in the Air Force, will take the helm of US Northern Command, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Friday, praising her “very deep operational” and management experience. 

General Robinson is currently the head of US air forces in the Pacific. 

Combatant command jobs are among the most prestigious in the US military, overseeing one of six regions. US Central Command, for example, based out of Tampa, Fla., is responsible for running US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. 

Obama’s plan to nominate Robinson – a nomination that is subject to Senate confirmation—shows “that we have, coming along now, a lot of female officers who are exceptionally strong,” Carter said Friday at a Politico event. “And Lori certainly fits into that category.”

Robinson's nomination comes at a critical moment. In January, the Pentagon officially opened all combat jobs to women, and all branches of the military are working to more fully integrate women into their ranks. Female service members who advocated for the change praised both Robinson’s nomination and the Air Force.

“As soon as I heard that a woman had been selected, I immediately guessed that she must be an Air Force officer,” says retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, a West Point graduate who is now a senior fellow at Women in International Security. 

Since Air Force combat jobs involve planes, rather than ground fighting, there were fewer concerns about women’s physical strength. It first ​openedits premier​ combat job ​– fighter pilot – to women in 1993, ​more than 20 years ago. As a result, the Air Force is substantially ahead when it comes to having women officers with enough experience to qualify for such senior positions, Haring says.

The announcement today has been more two decades in the making, she notes. “It took 23 years for one of those pilots to get the operational experience needed to be selected for a position of this stature. I hope it doesn’t take 22 more years to see the first woman from the Army or Marine Corps to be similarly selected for a command of this magnitude.”

The Air Force is the only branch ever to have a woman confirmed as its service secretary: Sheila Widnall, from 1993 to 1997, and Deborah James, who became Secretary of the Air Force in 2013. 

"I am truly humbled to be considered to lead the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of USNORTHCOM. There is no greater honor for a military officer than to be nominated for command," Robinson said Friday in a statement. "If confirmed, I look forward to tackling the challenges and opportunities of defending North America with a truly incredible Joint team."

US Northern Command is the go-to military command for American homeland defense. Its area of operations (or AOR, in military parlance) includes air, land, and sea and encompasses the continental US, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and surrounding waters.

As the next commander of NORTHCOM, Robinson also would head up North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which, along with its Canadian counterpart, is responsible for sounding the early warning when, say, Russian long-range bombers fly near North American airspace and intercepting them, should that need arise.

In a statement Secretary James called the news “exciting for our nation” and praised Carter’s announcement today, calling Robinson “a proven leader” adding that her  “judgement and diverse experiences in the most challenging assignments make her a natural choice to lead this critically important mission.” 

The Air Force’s top officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, praised Robinson as “the perfect blend of strategic command and operational expertise” to lead US North Command.

“She’s a spectacular leader and is eminently qualified to lead this command,” he added. “The men and women of NORTHCOM are lucky to have her.”

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