The Pentagon’s revolutionary move to open all direct land combat jobs to women sends a stressed and shrinking armed forces on a politically hazardous mission, as Obama administration appointees expect a significant number of females to qualify next year.
The decision by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also put him at immediate odds with his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. As Marine commandant just a few months ago, he had recommended that the Corps’ infantry units be granted an exemption and remain all-male.
Mr. Carter’s announcement on Thursday targets not just infantry, armor and artillery jobs but also the strenuously macho world of special operations, from which women’s advocates will be waiting for the first female Navy SEAL and first female Army Delta Force soldier. Those posts carry some of the most grueling qualifications that weed out most men who apply.
“The important factor in making my decision was to have access to every American who could add strength to the joint force,” the defense secretary said.
He vowed to keep the same physical standards for women, promising, “There must be no quotas or perception thereof.”
His announcement swept away concerns from the Marine Corps, the military’s most traditional branch. It conducted a study that concluded coed infantry units would reduce combat effectiveness.
“This is a straight political decision that ignores the only data points that were presented through the Marine Corps study,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The fact that the other services failed to provide the same inputs tells me just how much this process has been politicized. This is about small-unit effectiveness, and I’m not convinced this decision will make us more lethal in close combat.”
Mr. Carter attempted to explain away his rift with Gen. Dunford, who did not attend the press conference.
“General Dunford and I have discussed this many, many times,” he said. “I just met with him and the other chiefs and service secretaries today. And he will be a full part of implementation. And, as I said, I came to a different judgment about a part of the conclusions of the studies that were conducted by the Marine Corps when he was commandant.”
Mr. Carter said he decided that “there was great value in having a joint or combined approach to implementation,” which means the Marines must fall in line.
President Obama hailed the Pentagon’s move to open combat units to women.
“As commander in chief, I know that this change, like others before it, will again make our military even stronger,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Our armed forces will draw on an even wider pool of talent. Women who can meet the high standards required will have new opportunities to serve.”
The president’s political appointees made it clear two years ago when the ban was lifted that they wanted all jobs opened, even as they ordered each service to study the effects. About 10 percent of military jobs had remained closed to women.
Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-Joint Chiefs chairman, said he wanted significant numbers of women to qualify so that they would be surrounded by peers. He also said that if women could not meet a combat physical standard, the services had better have a good reason for not lowering it.
Likewise, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said publicly that he wanted women to have a chance to qualify for any unit, and he openly derided the Marine Corps study.
The revolution in the sexes comes as private studies show the armed forces are stretched thin to cover global commitments in the Pacific and the Middle East. Declining budgets have forced the services to cut personnel.
The Pentagon also has directed a war on sexual abuse and beefed up a staff of sex harassment counselors to empower women to come forward with complaints.
“Obama’s decision to remove all combat exemptions for women has deadly consequences for our armed forces and women’s health,” said Robert L. Maginnis, a former Army officer who wrote the book “Deadly Consequences,” an indictment of what Mr. Carter just announced. “This decision ignores decades of solid science and thousands of years of combat history. If Congress had a backbone, it would impeach Obama.”
The Pentagon’s two-year assessment brought mixed results. No woman could pass the Marine Corps’ grueling officer training course at Quantico, Virginia.
But female enlisted Marines were able to graduate from basic infantry training. And three Army women were able to complete the Ranger course, a rite of passage for soldiers but not an entry into the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Navy SEALs and Army Special Operations Command did not experiment with female candidates, so if and how many women have the right stuff is not known. Naval Special Warfare Command studied its qualifications to become a SEAL and decided there were no barriers to letting women try out without lowering standards.
At his press conference Mr. Carter characterized the move as being inclusive for the better 50 percent of the American population who are women. He said women have proven themselves over the decades, as barriers to flying jet fighters, diving in submarines and sailing in surface ships were removed. Now is the time, he said, to open up the remaining 220,000 combat jobs.
“This means that, as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before,” Mr. Carter said. “And even more importantly, our military will be better able to harness the skills and perspectives that talented women have to offer.”
He acknowledged that physical demands for some jobs are so high that only a small number of women might qualify. He said surveys showed women do not want standards lowered.
“Leaders have to be clear that mission effectiveness comes first,” he said.
Women today make up about 14 percent of the 1.3 million active force.
The effect of automatic budget cuts known as sequester is shrinking the armed forces. The Army, for example, has gone from a 570,000 active force to about 450,000 and could go lower. The top brass has warned it is approaching a size that could not carry out its assigned missions here and overseas.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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