A Man’s Job: Ground Combat is More Than Just a "Women’s Issue"

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2005

On May 11, the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the House Armed Services Committee approved legislation requiring the Army to prohibit women from serving in any company-size unit that provides support to combat battalions or their subordinate companies. This is in no way revolutionary. In fact, as I wrote in National Review in December 2004, the House panel is merely telling the Army to abide by existing regulations.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. military opened a number of specialties to women. Changes in regulations permitted women to serve on the Navy’s combatant ships and fly Navy and Air Force combat aircraft. Ground combat, however, was still closed to them.

One of the reasons for these changes was the widespread acceptance of the view that technological advances had created a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). Many of the more vociferous RMA promoters argued that emerging technologies had so completely changed the nature of war as to render the old verities that underpinned the traditional military ethos no longer true. RMA advocates contended that these emerging technologies and “information dominance” would eliminate “friction” and the “fog of war,” providing the commander and his subordinates nearly perfect “situational awareness,” thereby promising the capacity to use military force without the same risks as before. If this was the case, why did we need these old restrictions that merely hampered the progress of women? As former congresswoman Pat Schroeder famously remarked, a woman can push a button just as easily as a man.

Nonetheless, restrictions remained on women when it came to ground combat. On January 13, 1994, then-secretary of defense Les Aspin issued regulations prohibiting the assignment of women to units that engage in direct ground combat, e.g., infantry and armor. In his memo to the Services, Aspin said that “women should be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground,” defined as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew-served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel.” This prohibition extended to the support units that were collocated with direct ground combat forces as well.

These regulations are still in effect. But the U.S. Army has violated these regulations without the notification required by current law, which requires the secretary of defense to provide formal advance notice to Congress of policy changes regarding female soldiers, accompanied by an analysis of proposed revisions on women’s exemption from Selective Service obligations.

In an attempt to make its units more “expeditionary,” the Army has developed a new concept that permits the deployment and employment of self-contained formations organized for specific combat tasks. The 3rd Infantry Division, which recently redeployed to Iraq is the first Army unit to deploy to a combat zone under the new organizational concept.

The Army originally envisioned support troops as part of a self-contained “unit of action.” But if a forward-support company (FSC) is part of a combat unit, current DoD policy says that it cannot include women. Claiming that there are not enough male soldiers to fill its FSCs, the Army moved the FSCs from the maneuver battalions into the “gender”-integrated brigade support battalions (BSBs). Of course no matter where the FSCs appear on a table of organization, the fact is that in order to be effective, the soldiers of an FSC would have to live and work with the maneuver battalions all of the time.

As Elaine Donnelly has pointed out, the Army has apparently rewritten the regulations regarding women in such a way as to make Bill Clinton’s infamous statement that “it depends on what the meaning of is, is,” appear to be straightforward. In her May 8 National Review Online piece describing a presentation by Army chief of staff General Peter Schoomaker at the American Enterprise Institute, she writes:

Current directives exempt female soldiers from direct ground-combat units such as the infantry and armor, and from smaller support companies that “collocate” (operate 100 percent of the time) with land-combat troops. The new, unauthorized wording narrows the “collocation rule” to apply only when a combat unit is actually “conducting an assigned direct ground combat mission. (Emphasis added.)

General Schoomaker recited Defense Department regulations, but claimed (without justification) that the Army has separate rules that exempt female soldiers from collocation with land-combat battalions ’at the time that those units are undergoing those operations’ (emphasis added). By adding the words ’conducting’ or ’undergoing’ (a direct ground-combat mission) to the collocation rule, the Army has created a new regulation that has not been authorized by the secretary of defense, or reported to Congress in advance, as required by law.

In other words, the Army says it is not in violation of DoD regulations because women in FSCs are not really “collocated” until the combat unit is engaged or about to be engaged in a direct combat mission. The breathtaking assumption here is that women in these units can be pulled out before the battle starts.

General Schoomaker is a very experienced and able soldier. He certainly understands the role of “friction” and the “fog of uncertainty” in battle, having experienced these phenomena first hand. He must know that trying to pull women out of their units under such circumstances, even if it could be done at all in the chaos and confusion of combat, would be incredibly disruptive, undermining unit cohesion and effectiveness and diverting resources needed to prevail in the battle.

Over the years, I have argued against the idea of placing American women in combat or in combat support or service support associated with direct ground combat. I base my position on the fact there are substantial physical differences between men and women that place the latter at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to ground combat. In addition, men treat women differently than they treat other men. This can undermine the comradeship upon which the unit cohesion necessary to success on the battlefield depends. The presence of women also leads to double standards that have a serious impact on morale and performance. In other words, men and women are not interchangeable. As I wrote in January, even the Israelis, who draft women into the IDF, do not place them in ground combat units.

As persuasive as I believe my arguments are, the decision to place women in units that expose them to direct ground combat does not depend on my opinion. But it does not depend exclusively on the Army either. If the president and the secretary of defense believe the regulations should be changed to reflect the Army’s new approach, the latter needs to advise Congress, as current law requires. As Donnelly observes, this is a national-security matter, not a less important “women’s issue.” As such, Congress needs a say in this matter.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military