What are the long-term implications of allowing women to serve in combat?

Ed Ross Contributor
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The U.S. Armed Forces are on the verge of allowing women to serve in ground combat units beneath the brigade level. Women already are serving and dying (over 110 in Iraq and Afghanistan) in many hazardous military jobs. They serve as fighter, bomber and helicopters pilots; and they serve in ground combat-support units that put them in harm’s way. Why shouldn’t they serve in front-line combat units?

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established by Congress two years ago, is expected to send to Congress in March a report recommending doing away with current prohibitions on women in combat. The U.S. Army is working on its own report; and it appears that increasingly senior military leaders are ready to accept a change of policy.

People who oppose women in combat provide various reasons why they believe it’s not a good idea. The two most often heard are that women aren’t physically strong enough; the average load an infantry warrior carries in Iraq and Afghanistan is 120 pounds. And, we shouldn’t subject women to the brutalities of combat where they are more likely to be killed or captured. The thought of their captors raping and otherwise abusing American female POWs is abhorrent.

Proponents of women serving in combat units — recent polls show that a slim majority of Americans support it — respond that nothing should stand in the way of full equality for women in the military. Women can’t compete for promotion to the highest ranks if they can’t demonstrate combat leadership and experience. Today’s U.S. military is an all-volunteer force, they emphasize, and it should allow women who volunteer for combat units and meet the requirements to serve in them. They will also argue that there is no bastion of male dominance that hasn’t benefited when women have full equality, and that includes the military.

The debate over women in combat is as old as civilization. Women have fought and died beside men for thousands of years. History is replete with warrior women; but few civilizations have, as a matter of policy, recruited or impressed large numbers of woman into military service unless it was a matter of survival. That isn’t only because the rigors of hand-to-hand combat before the introduction of modern weapons required great strength and endurance. It’s also because civilizations weren’t willing to sacrifice women of child-bearing age who ensured the continuation of their society and culture. There were many reasons ancient conquering armies slaughtered men, women, and children or carted them away as slaves. One of them was to ensure the permanent defeat of a tribe or people by cutting its birth rate to zero.

Such considerations no longer apply in the modern world, but the idea of physical combat as a male-only profession has persisted. Currently, the only mixed ground-combat unit in the world is the volunteer Karkal Battalion in the Israeli Army. And although the tide of public opinion in the U.S. appears to have now tipped in favor of women in combat, it’s also in the context of volunteer service. I cannot find a poll that asked the question, do you favor compulsory service for women in combat units?

It’s been more than 37 years since President Richard Nixon established the all-volunteer military. Since then we have fought the First Gulf War, which required nearly half a million soldiers, sailors, airman and marines; but ground combat lasted only 100 hours. Fortunately for the US, that war occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, so the U.S. still had over two million men and women on active duty. We’ve fought two wars since that have lasted longer than eight years, but Iraq and Afghanistan each have required less than 160,000 troops, and not all at the same time. The U.S. military is now approximately one-third smaller than it was during the First Gulf War, and it’s getting smaller.

There are at least three hypothetical scenarios that could require the United States to rapidly expand the size of our armed forces. A war with Iran in the Middle East could spread throughout the region. Both a war on the Korean peninsula with North Korea’s million-man army to defend South Korea and a war in the Taiwan Strait with China to defend Taiwan could require large numbers of troops and take a long time. If any one of these occurred while we still have forces in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, it would make the situation even worse.

As unlikely as these scenarios may be, the prospect of U.S. involvement in a future protracted large-scale war requiring the reinstatement of the draft should be a consideration in deciding current U.S. policy on women in combat. Drafting women in a national emergency and in what ratio to men and whether they would be assigned involuntarily to combat units are separate but related issues.

Once women are permitted to voluntarily join front-line combat units, will advocates of women in combat also insist that the military involuntarily assign women to them along with men when that time comes? Doesn’t the concept of “full equality” demand that? If so, what would be the attitudes of Americans about women in combat under these circumstances? It’s one thing to support women in combat when it’s women who volunteer to serve. It’s a different matter when it comes to compelling women who don’t, especially if it’s you or your daughter.

I support women voluntarily serving in combat units because I’ve seen how capable, dedicated, and professional women in the military are. And I believe the Israelis have it right. They draft both men and women, but only women who volunteer serve in combat units. Congress should not act to approve a change in policy without hearings that explore all the implications for that change and the potential unintended consequences.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.