WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2012 — Defense Department policy changes announced today reflect both women’s increased roles in and out of combat and the fact that war is no longer linear, senior officials said.
The department notified Congress today it will abolish the restriction on assigning women to locations where ground combat troops operate, and selectively lift the policy barring women from assignments to ground combat units below the brigade level.
Those changes will result in more than 14,000 new jobs or assignment opportunities for military women.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta “is making these changes because he recognizes that over the last decade of war, women have contributed in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission,” George Little, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters during a briefing here today.
Women service members have put their lives on the line and demonstrated courage, patriotism and skill in defending the nation, Little said.
“But even as we make this announcement, I would like to stress that Secretary Panetta knows this is the beginning, not the end, of a process,” he added.
The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women, the press secretary added.
“Our goal is to ensure that the mission is met with the best qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender,” he said.
Little noted while preparing the report took longer than expected, Panetta and the service leaders “wanted this done right, not done quickly.”
The delay allowed the reviewers to gather additional views on the issues, and resulted in more positions open to women than would have been the case with an earlier report, he added.
The report follows a departmentwide review of policies affecting women’s job assignments in the military.
Two people who led the review — Virginia “Vee” Penrod, deputy assistant secretary for military personnel policy, and Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, principal director for military personnel policy — discussed the new policies at today’s briefing.
“Opening these positions implements lessons from over a decade at war, where women were proven exceptionally capable and indispensible to mission accomplishment,” Penrod said.
She said the review offered an opportunity to examine all gender-restrictive laws, policies and regulations “with all services’ senior leaders at the table.”
The review panel worked to identify “changes … needed to ensure female members have an equitable opportunity to compete and excel in the U.S. armed forces,” she said.
The report, Penrod said, “reflects the secretary of defense’s vision of removing barriers that prevent service members from rising to the highest level of potential and responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant.”
The policy limiting women’s military assignments dates to 1994 and lists four factors that ban women from assignments or jobs: prohibitive costs for berthing and privacy; the requirement to locate and remain with direct ground combat units; units engaged in long range reconnaissance and special operations forces missions; and job-related physical requirements that “exclude the vast majority of women service members.”
Department leaders agreed the provision against locating with combat units no longer applies, Penrod noted.
Before 2001, war typically involved front-lines combat and protected “rear” areas where support functions like maintenance and medical care took place, she said.
“The battlespace we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan is quite different,” Penrod added.
Highly mobile enemies now travel among the civilian population, while counterinsurgency and stability missions to combat such enemies require U.S. forces to disperse across the country in large and small bases, she said.
“There is no rear area that exists in this battlespace. Forces of all types and missions are required to be in close proximity and flow between locations,” she said.
Penrod said lifting the location-based prohibition opens 13,139 new Army jobs to women, because the Army is the only service that identified positions that had been closed solely because of where they took place.
The change will expand career opportunities for women and give combatant commanders more options in deploying forces, she said.
The report noted Army officer career fields with the greatest number of restricted positions include logistics, signal, intelligence and special operations. Enlisted occupations with the largest number of restrictions include radio operator, signal support systems specialist, radar repairer, electronic warfare specialist and construction equipment repairer.
The second change is not a new policy but may lead to one, Penrod said. DOD has granted the Army, Navy and Marines a policy exception to selectively assign women to battalion-level combat units.
The services will gain experience through those assignments that will help department leaders assess the current prohibition’s relevance and “inform potential future policy changes,” Penrod said.
The report also takes aim at the provision excluding women from jobs because of physical requirements, she noted.
The services are working to develop gender-neutral physical standards based on the tasks troops perform on the job, Penrod said.
“This is an area of emphasis for us as we move forward beyond the initial steps reported as part of this review,” she added.
According to the report, DOD will evaluate gender-restricted, physically demanding jobs once gender-neutral physical standards are developed.
Penrod said when she began her 35 years in the Air Force, women were 2 percent of the force, and were restricted from some assignments based on the temperature Minot, South Dakota, was “too cold.”
Over the past 10 years, she said, women have had the opportunity to prove themselves in new ways while training and equipment have improved. Service leaders are now actively seeking ways to expand opportunities for women, she added.
“This is very exciting to me … [that] commanders were coming to us and saying ‘we need to change these policies,’ ” she said.
Patton said based on his career as an infantry officer and through the lens of 45 months of combat over the past several years, the changes announced today are the right thing to do.
“The way I look at it, as a former infantry battalion commander, I wish I’d had the opportunity to bring women into my battalion,” he said. “It expands the talent pool.”
Patton said the opportunities announced today are a first step toward the question of combat arms and special operations jobs ultimately opening to women.
As Panetta told the service chiefs, he said, “This is the beginning, not the end.”
Policy changes will take effect later this spring after 30 days of continuous session of Congress, as the law requires, Penrod said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)