Women in Combat: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Aided by Technology

Many of the arguments against "bands of sisters" are moot. In part because of improved tools.

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Members of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade try on female body armor in Afghanistan. (David Kamm, U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center)

"Women," Time magazine wrote last year, "are not small men."

This is ... true. And yet for a long time, the military -- an organization that operates under the core auspices of pragmatic conformity -- sort of ignored its truth. Martial technologies -- uniforms, weapons, vehicles -- have tended to be one-size-fits-all, or at least one-size-fits-dudes. Guns are huge and heavy. Packs the same. Body armor is long and narrow, designed for a guy's long-and-narrow frame. And with good reason, of course: It is both unsurprising and quite practical that an institution headed mostly by men, populated mostly by men, would take a male-centered approach to its equipment. Tall, heavy, narrow, straight: the tools, for the most part, matched the humans who were using them.

That has been changing, however -- and changing long before this week. The Pentagon's decision to end its ban on women-in-combat -- a change announced, formally, this afternoon -- is simply a decision whose time, in many, many ways, has come. But it is also, importantly, a decision that technological advances have made easier: more sensible, more practical, more impermeable to objection. While some will still make social and cultural arguments against women serving on the front lines -- most of which will boil down to the idea that it's hard for "bands of brothers" to coalesce when sisters are part of the equation -- many other objections are now, or will soon be, preempted.

Take "upper-body strength." One of the longest-standing of the long-standing arguments against women serving on the front lines has come back to the idea -- the general fact -- that women tend to have less upper-body strength than men. (The discrepancy is less pronounced when it comes to lower-body strength.) This makes it more difficult for women, the argument goes, to lug heavy packs and scale walls and occasionally carry fallen comrades out of harm's way: to generally undertake some of the activities required of soldiers engaged in terrestrial battle.

However. We're at a pivotal moment when it comes to the role that brute strength plays in individual soldiers' battle-readiness. And we are finding that moment in some part because of mechanical advances. The Army, for example, has been testing exoskeletons that augment human capabilities -- in particular, by increasing dismounted soldiers' native endurance and strength. Tasks that currently require the vaunted upper-body strength -- loading ammunition into weapons and vehicles, moving battlefield obstacles and payloads -- would, when undertaken with an exoskeleton, ostensibly be accomplished almost effortlessly. DARPA-developed robotic vehicles, similarly -- the AlphaDog, for example, the autonomous mechanical mule -- take equipment-lugging out of human hands. The military has also been developing autonomous vehicles (this totally-not-a-joke teddy bear-faced robot, for example) that are specially designed to rescue injured soldiers on the field, thus negating the need for humans to do that work. "Force multiplication" has many meanings, and many of those make an implicit case for more gender parity in combat roles.

Women, at this point, comprise only 14 percent of the country's 1.4 million active military personnel -- which marks, low as it seems, a notable rise from past percentages. And the military has been tailoring itself to that change -- literally -- in part by updating the wearable equipment it provides to its units. Body armor, for example. It used to be -- and in most instances still is -- the case that armor designs are too loose and too long for women's bodies, resulting in gaps that are pretty much the last thing you want when you're talking about body armor.

The Improved Outer Tactical Vest, or IOTV, is in many ways the most important piece of equipment a soldier has. And for 85 percent of female troops, one report has it, even a men's extra-small -- the smallest size available -- is too large, and leaves women vulnerable to bullets and shrapnel. Less urgently, but perhaps more annoyingly, the vests are uncomfortable. "They ride up on the female's hips, and it's very hard for us to move," said Arielle Mailloux, a specialist with with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). "During PT [Physical Training] we'll have to wear it and then go running, and it gives bruises on our hips." The male-friendly IOTVs can also make it harder for women to shoot rifles while wearing them, and even simply to sit down.

Women-in-men's-equipment, however, could soon be a thing of the past. The 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade, deployed in Afghanistan, has been testing armor that is designed specifically for women: smaller and curvier and generally tailored to the female form. "It's important to have body armor that fits, no matter who you are -- male or female," Major Joel Dillon, assistant product manager for soft body armor at PM Soldier Protective Equipment, explained. And, after the initial field tests, fitting armor -- "fitting," in every sense -- could become available later this year. As many as 3,000 female IOTVs, the Army reports, could be manufactured for use by a brigade-sized unit and be available by summer 2013. Which will be a small improvement with big consequences -- and an improvement, it turns out, that is aptly timed.