[Rosemary Mariner, guest-blogging, December 18, 2007 at 11:14pm] Trackbacks
The Americanization of the Armed Forces-Historical Perspective Women in Combat:

The common approach to the women in combat debate is to follow the "can" women fight versus "should" they fight format. On the first point, the reality is that women have proved they can fight throughout time. The claim that women have never fought a major ground war is counterfactual.

Of all the possible historical examples, none offers better empirical evidence that women can fight, alongside men, than that of Russia (later the Soviet Union) in the twentieth century. In both world wars and the Russian civil war, numerous women fought on the frontlines.

When it comes to "real" combat, it doesn't get much tougher than what the Red Army faced against the Germans on the Eastern Front in WW II.

Over 800,000 women served in the Red Army and Red Air Force during WW II. By 1943, more than half of them were fighting on the front as snipers, machine-gunners, tank drivers, and in the infantry. Several women commanded male platoons. Additionally, women fought as partisans and worked in combat support positions.

The Soviets introduced three female fighter and attack aviation squadrons into combat operations in April 1942. All three fought for the duration of the war, flying thousands of combat missions. By 1945, only one squadron was still composed of women only.

Female combat pilots flew in male squadrons and one woman commanded a male aviation regiment. During the Battle of Stalingrad, female fighter pilots augmented male squadrons, racking up numerous kills. Several women pilots were shot down yet escaped to fly again.

Significantly, while the Soviets initially fielded gender segregated units, few were able to maintain that identity because of heavy attrition across the Red Army. Under intense combat conditions, male units replaced their losses with women and vice versa.

In the American context, Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom constitute the first time women (in all the armed services) have officially served in aviation and naval combat. Not only do women serve in the junior enlisted ranks, they have commanded warships and combat aviation squadrons during these conflicts. In both the Active Duty and Reserve Components military men and women have demonstrated --once again-- that they can and do excel as a cohesive team.

The reason that there are no recent studies concerning these combat positions is because, after thirteen years of gender-neutral assignment policies, women's presence is considered part of normal operations. Mission capability, including personnel readiness, is reported through normal channels.

Of the approximately 200,000 military women deployed to Iraq since 2003, the majority serve in the Army, Army Reserves, and National Guard. Most of these are in traditional military occupational specialties, although many are associated with combat aviation. Women have been involved in ambushes, firefights, and other self-defense combat situations resulting in a number of awards for valor.

Along with female Marines, women are restricted by both Defense Department (DoD) and their respective service policies from assignment in direct ground combat positions. However, especially for the Army, there appears to be confusion over what the policy actually is and its purpose. This is complicated by the Army's recent organizational transformation into Brigade Combat Teams and the non-linear battlefield.

In 2006, Congress directed the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on the current and future implementation of DoD policy for assigning military women. The result was a 2007 report released by the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

The report points out that the 1992 Army regulation for assigning women predates the 1994 DoD guidance and was not updated. It also defines "direct ground combat" differently from DoD, resulting in a more restrictive policy.

RAND researchers concluded that if individual or small-group self-defense is included in the direct ground combat definition, then assigning women to units that routinely conduct self-defense is not in keeping with Army policy, even though allowed under DoD policy. Given the situation in Iraq, compliance with the more restrictive interpretation could close many, if not all, support units to women.

With this brief background, my next post will deal with the issues of physical strength, fitness, cohesion, aptitude testing, and other factors related to military readiness.