Women in Combat and Under the Waves: Redefining the Role of Women in the Military
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey joined Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta at a Pentagon news conference on January 24th, 2013 to announce the decision and to sign a joint memorandum that sets the process in motion.
“Today we are acting to expand the opportunities for women to serve in the United States armed forces and to better align our policies with the experiences we have had over the past decade of war,” Dempsey said. “Ultimately, we're acting to strengthen the joint force.”
As part of the new policy, the services are reviewing about 53,000 positions now closed by unit but that will be open to women who meet standards developed for the positions.
According to senior defense officials, the services are also reviewing about 184,000 positions now closed by specialty but that will be open to women who meet the standards.
Read the rest of the Department of Defense release:
Over the years, more than 283,000 female servicemembers have been deployed worldwide. In approximately 10 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, 2012, over 20,000 female members had served or were serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. (US forces were out of Iraq as of Dec. 2011.) On numerous occasions women have been recognized for their heroism, two earning Silver Star medals.
This has resulted in a renewed interest in Congress, the Administration, and beyond in reviewing and possibly refining or redefining the role of women in the military.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the US Navy’s first contingent of women submariners to be assigned to the Navy’s operational submarine force. White House, May 28, 2012.
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 (Past laws that precluded women from serving on board military aircraft and ships assigned combat missions were repealed in the early 1990s.)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 has been in the process of assigning women to submarines; on December 5, 2012, it was reported that three female sailors were assigned to the USS Maine (SSBN 741) and USS Wyoming (SSBN 742), becoming the first female officers to qualify for submarine duty.
Recent changes in Army doctrine have 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 all female 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. In February 2012, DOD announced modifications to this policy. 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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