In addition to allowing women into combat roles, the Pentagon must make a number of changes in its personnel system to let women reach higher ranks, an issue that has been plaguing the department, a top Defense official said Thursday.
Brad Carson, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the military needs to reform its recruitment and retention system to make it more flexible for both service members and their spouses to pursue family and career opportunities throughout their time in uniform. And while the outdated personnel system hurts all members of the military, it especially puts women at a disadvantage, he said.
“It’s a system that is inflexible, inefficient and inequitable and women are a population who, if not singularly disadvantaged, find themselves disproportionately so,” Mr. Carson said during an event at the Truman National Security Project.
Mr. Carson said the military needs more women to serve as general officers, the “people who set policy and vision for their services.” The Marine Corps, for example, has a single female general officer, he said.
One way to do that is to open up combat billets to women, an initiative currently underway across all military branches. Services are currently wrapping up their evaluations of the job requirements for combat positions like special operations and infantry. The Office of the Secretary of Defense will begin its review of the services’ recommendations — including any exceptions — at the end of September and announce the final decision on which combat jobs will remain closed, if any, in January 2016.
“We will get to a world, very soon I hope, where every job is open to the person who can do it,” Mr. Carson said.
Mr. Carson also said he is confident the services will be able to easily open any positions they deem appropriate, as officials are sending out surveys, trying to find best practices and looking for roadblocks to ensure a smooth transition.
But even once a decision is made on combat positions later this year, Mr. Carson urged military advocates to realize there is more to be done to create a military that is welcoming and supportive to all troops, including women.
“I hope you don’t lose focus on what the real conflict is, because the system today is not as it should be,” he said. “The system must be made better for all people, but women especially.”
The military as a whole has about 200,000 women among its 1.3 million active-duty service members.
Opening combat positions to women alone will not open the door for women to rise to leadership positions. Mr. Carson pointed to the Coast Guard, which has opened all of its positions to women since 1978 — including those that go on hostage-rescue missions similar to special operations units in other branches such as the Navy SEALS.
Despite being open to women for more than three decades, the Coast Guard still has few female leaders today and no women in its special operations unit.
To fix this, Mr. Carson said the department needs to update its personnel system, including giving people the opportunity to come into career fields like cyber midcareer without starting at an entry-level rank, providing better services like childcare for troops and giving members of the military — and their spouses — more flexibility in their career path.
One option he talked about was a LinkedIn-type tool that would allow troops to match with an assignment that worked well for their life. Mr. Carson said he spoke with one service member who recently separated who was asked to move to South Korea, but wanted to stay in the D.C. area while his wife finished up medical school.
Giving troops more input into their career would give those who want to move overseas more options to do so and those who want to stay put a chance to do that, enabling the military to be more likely to retain both, Mr. Carson said.
While the military has broad problems with recruitment and retention, Mr. Carson said the problems especially effect women and, because of the lack of data, the services can’t say why. Just 17 percent of Army officers are women and their rate of attrition is twice that of their male counterparts, he said.
“The system is one that is seemingly not bringing women in and for whatever reasons keeping them in and allowing them to promote,” he said. “The truth is we have nothing more than cocktail speculation because we don’t keep track.”
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