WASHINGTON - In a few years women could be in training to become Army Rangers and Navy SEALs under plans to be announced today by the military services for integrating women into combat units.
The move follows revelations of a startling number of sexual assaults in the armed forces. Earlier this year, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the sexual assaults might be linked to the longstanding ban on women serving in combat because the disparity between the roles of men and women creates separate classes of personnel -- male "warriors" versus the rest of the force.
While the sexual assault problem is more complicated than that, he said, the disparity has created a psychology that lends itself to disrespect for women.
Last January, Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the 1994 Combat Exclusion Rule that restricted women from serving in frontline infantry, armor and special operations units and set a January 2016 compliance deadline. The concept of a frontline became blurred in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as women serving in other units also became the targets of roadside bombs and attacks. To date, almost 150 military women have died in those wars.
The services have varying numbers of jobs that have remained closed to women as a result of the Combat Exclusion Rule. While the Navy has 88 percent of its jobs open for women, the Air Force has for years had 99 percent of its positions open to women. Among the jobs closed to women in the Air Force are positions in combat control, tactical air command and control, pararescue and special-operations weather positions.
The stated goal of the lifting of the ban was to open all combat jobs to women, but the services were given the option of requesting an exception that would have to be approved by the Defense secretary. Though tentative in nature and many details still have to be reviewed, the timelines reflect the goal of including women in all combat units.
The plans to be presented Tuesday will include timelines for integrating women into most combat roles. Defense officials say they will also include timelines that would allow women to enter the Army's elite Ranger School by the spring of 2015 and Navy SEALS training in early 2016.
When the ban was lifted the military services said they would develop new job-specific standards for men and women serving in combat units that would be "gender neutral." Many of those standards remain to be developed, though Defense officials say that elite Special Operation Forces will retain the current physical and psychological standards used on potential candidates wishing to join their ranks.
Some gender-neutral standards have already been developed for certain frontline jobs and will open up to women fairly quickly. For example, as early as next month, female sailors will be allowed to train to join the Navy's Riverine force that provides security operations in river and coastal areas.
But other combat jobs will still require longer study and review for not only developing the new standards but more mundane things like new lodging and privacy needs that would be necessitated by allowing women into the units.
While the Army has tentatively set plans to allow women to enter Army Ranger School to earn the "Ranger Tab" it does not mean that female graduates will automatically get to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Like their male peers they will have to successfully meet the unit's own selective standards.