The Implications of the Military Opening More Positions to Women

The Pentagon says that the role of women will be expanding in the months and years ahead.

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U.S. Army Specialist Nicole Derk works on a helicopter at the beginning of her shift in Logar province, Afghanistan / Reuters

The Pentagon's new move to allow women to fill thousands of frontline jobs marks the second major shift in the makeup of the nation's armed forces in less than a year, underscoring the wide-ranging changes impacting the traditionally conservative institution.

Female troops have been informally serving alongside combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, and roughly 150 have been killed to date in the two war zones. The changes announced on Thursday will still bar them from serving in infantry units or elite forces like the Navy SEALs. But they will open up more than 14,000 other positions to women, making it easier for large numbers of women to serve as frontline medics, helicopter pilots, and intelligence analysts.

Bringing women closer to frontline combat roles isn't the only significant--and potentially controversial--recent change to the composition of the armed forces. Last year, the Pentagon eliminated the long-held "don't ask don't tell" provisions barring openly gay troops from serving in the military. Critics, including many Republican lawmakers, had warned that repealing the ban would harm military morale and cause internal dissension. But military officials now say that lifting the restrictions haven't caused any discipline problems or other issues.

The debate over where--and how--women should serve in the military has been raging for even longer than the fight over "don't ask don't tell." A 1994 restriction imposed by the Clinton administration bars women from being assigned to units below the brigade level (each brigade has 3,500-5,000 troops) or taking part in direct ground combat. Pentagon officials have defended the ban by arguing that it would be difficult to have women and men living in close quarters and that women wouldn't be able to handle the physical strains of front-line combat.

In practice, however, those restrictions fell away years ago on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The guerilla conflicts don't have fixed front-lines, which mean that women serving in support roles like logistics have frequently found themselves in firefights with insurgents.  Female helicopters pilots fly troops into active battles and help evacuate the wounded. Female troops serve alongside small combat units to help defuse bombs, analyze intelligence gathered during raids, and treat wounded troops. Female troops are often at the wheel of Humvees in supply convoys on bomb-ridden roads.

More recently, specially trained female troops who pass rigorous physical tests have begun participating in Special Operations raids in Afghanistan as part of new "Cultural Support Teams." The teams are meant to help Army Ranger and Special Forces personnel tap local women for usable intelligence; male troops couldn't approach local women on their own because of cultural norms in Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials made clear on Thursday that the role of women in the military would expand even further in the months and years ahead.  Defense Department spokesman George Little said that each of the military's branches had been directed to conduct a six-month review of what other positions could be opened to women. Little said the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard would also be developing gender-neutral physical standards for many positions.

"Secretary Panetta believes this is the beginning--not the end--of the process," Little said.

The report was sent to Congress earlier on Thursday, and lawmakers there will have 30 business days to review the proposed changes. Barring legislative maneuvers to block or modify the new policy, the changes will take effect automatically.

The immediate impact of the changes is that women will be formally allowed to live and work alongside small ground-combat units, though they will still not be assigned to units whose primary mission is ground combat or to take part in such fighting themselves. The moves should make it easier for many female troops to gain the experience necessary for promotions to higher ranks, which is often dependent on time spent in combat or in the warzone.

The new rules reflect both the reality of women's expanded roles in Iraq and Afghanistan and the simple demographic fact that female troops account for more and more of the military. That means expanding the role of women in the military could have a bigger impact on the future of the armed forces than repealing "don't ask don't tell." Women now account for at least 15 percent of the active-duty force, and military demographers believe that women will account for at least 25 percent of the overall military within the next decade. Gay troops, by contrast, are thought to account for just 10 percent of the military.

Women also enjoy increasing prominence throughout the armed forces: The Army named its first female four-star general last year, and a female general commands the Marine Corps training base at South Carolina's famed Parris Island. Female generals and admirals hold an array of senior posts in the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard. Last year, women also began serving on many Navy submarines for the first time.

The expanded role has brought it with expanded danger, and women have been dying in the two wars in unprecedented numbers. Roughly 150 female soldiers and Marines have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last October, a bomb tore through a team of American Special Operations troops on a raid against an enemy target in Kandahar province. The blast killed three, including a young female officer, Lt. Ashley White, who was attached to the elite troops during the strike and died at their side.