Marines see benefits to women in combat, as well as risks

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Marine Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro prepares to hike to her platoon's defensive position during patrol week of Infantry Training Battalion near Camp Geiger, N.C., in October 2013. Fuentes Montenegro is one of the first three females to ever graduate from Infantry Training Battalion. The Marine general in charge of implementing a Pentagon plan to open ground combat jobs to women concluded there are benefits as well as significant risks to the proposal.  Tyler L. Main/Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps
Marine Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro prepares to hike to her platoon's defensive position during patrol week of Infantry Training Battalion near Camp Geiger, N.C., in October 2013. Fuentes Montenegro is one of the first three females to ever graduate from Infantry Training Battalion. The Marine general in charge of implementing a Pentagon plan to open ground combat jobs to women concluded there are benefits as well as significant risks to the proposal. Tyler L. Main/Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps

Marines see benefits to women in combat, as well as risks

by: Gretel C. Kovach | .
The San Diego Union-Tribune | .
published: September 25, 2015

The Marine Corps general in charge of implementing a Pentagon plan to open ground combat jobs to women concluded there are benefits as well as significant risks to the proposal, and he outlined ways to eliminate most of an anticipated weakening of combat effectiveness during the transition, according to a document leaked Wednesday to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The 14-page memorandum and 19 pages of enclosures by Brig. Gen. George Smith Jr., director of the Marine Corps Force Innovation Office, were submitted to the commandant to help the Marine leader decide how far gender integration should go.

The assessment states that integrating female troops into the ground combat arms will add some risk of reduced performance in combat, as well as cost.

"While this risk can be mitigated by various methods to address failure rates, injuries, and ability to perform the mission, the bottom line is that the physiological differences between males and females will likely always be evident to some extent," it says.

Although it does not make a specific recommendation on which units to keep closed to women, the risk is highest for infantry units, especially crew-served heavy weapons, and "significantly lower for the noninfantry combat arms," it says.

Among potential benefits that women could bring to ground combat units that are cited in the Marine Corps assessment are enhanced decision-making in the field and fewer disciplinary problems.

The document signed and dated Aug. 18 has not been released by the Marine Corps, which did not dispute its authenticity but declined to comment on its contents. A senior Pentagon official who followed the Marine Corps research from the beginning said it accurately reflects the thinking of the Marine brass and previously undisclosed research findings.

Marine officials also declined to share details of Gen. Joseph Dunford's recommendation last week to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus asking to keep some front-line combat units closed to women, a decision that was informed by the Force Innovation Office assessment.

Mabus had questioned the premise and methodology of the Corps' yearlong experiment on women in ground combat, saying the performance and physiological characteristics of female troops on average is not cause to bar all women from ground combat jobs.

According to a four-page selection of results released by the Marine Corps on Sept. 10, researchers found that all-male units were faster and more lethal than mixed-gender units on most combat tasks.

The Corps has not released actual data from the experiment, only summaries. Mabus and other critics say it was not designed or executed in a way that would predict the effect on unit performance if women are allowed to compete against men for combat jobs. Outside of the task force experiment, the Corps' highest-performing women theoretically would replace its lowest-performing men, potentially increasing overall combat effectiveness.

The Marine Corps is following guidelines from the Office of the Secretary of Defense regarding the release of its gender integration research, said Capt. Philip Kulczewski, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

Furthermore, the commandant "provided his recommendation to the secretary of the Navy in private and believes that his best military advice should remain private during the deliberation process until the secretary of defense has reviewed all inputs and made a decision," Kulczewski said.

The services are scheduled to brief Congress next Wednesday regarding prospects for eliminating all restrictions on women in combat by year's end. The Marine Corps is expected to make an additional presentation afterward in a closed-door session.

Marine conclusions

Smith's assessment is much more comprehensive than information previously disclosed by the Marine Corps.

Much of his report focuses on the risk of reduced combat effectiveness if physically demanding ground combat jobs are opened to women, especially in the infantry, reconnaissance and special operations units. However, it also mentions areas where women excel.

"Our female Marines very likely have more actual combat experience than any servicewomen in the world," the report says, pointing to the 422 combat action ribbons they earned for service in Iraq and Afghanistan since the award was established.

Those Marine women were responding to ambushes and roadside bomb attacks, and their mission was not to "locate, close with and destroy the enemy" as infantry must, it notes. (The report does not mention the female Marines who hunt and destroy enemy forces from near and far in air combat, who are subject to a different category of awards.)

The Marine Corps conducted its research to "understand the unique physical requirements and associated performance standards within these occupations and units, while recognizing the unchanging nature of ground combat and the physiological differences between men and women."

Some would dispute those characterizations, pointing to technological advancements on the battlefield such as the use of surveillance drones and long-range weapons that have resulted in less frequent close-quarters combat and fewer Medal of Honor awards.

The physical capabilities of women have also increased as activities such as weight-lifting have become more popular and socially acceptable.

All but 21 of the Corps' 336 primary occupational specialties are open to women, the report notes. Those jobs represent a quarter of the positions in the Marine Corps, which has the highest proportion of male-only slots in the conventional armed forces, according to a July report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The assessment states that its research methodology for the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force experiment was peer-reviewed by George Mason University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Not all recommendations by those organizations were incorporated, however. For instance, the suggestion that the task force needed to compare the performance of women and mixed-gender combat groups against a set occupational standard was dismissed, the Union-Tribune previously reported.

A shortcoming cited by outside observers that is noted in the Marine report is the bias in height and weight standards for female troops that would exclude larger women who are more likely to succeed in the infantry. The body mass index standard for women is 25, stricter than the male standard of 27.5, "which appears to be counterproductive," the report states.

In an apparent argument for an exemption to the new open-door policy even if the Army does not seek one, the assessment claims that Marine infantry is "very different" than Army infantry since the Army organizes its units around platforms such as Stryker light-armored vehicles.

"Marine infantry is of uniform organization ... (and) must be fully capable of regularly moving dismounted for extended distances with heavy loads," it says.

However, both Marine and Army infantry include riflemen mounted on light-armored vehicles, soldiers march long distances under load like Marines, and both services spent more than a decade fighting largely from fixed patrol bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Findings

"Female Marines demonstrated that they were capable of performing the physically demanding tasks, but not necessarily at the same level as their male counterparts," the report says, citing results of the experimental task force.

The internal assessment and its enclosures include a slightly different tally of performance than the one released by the Marine Corps. All-male groups performed "statistically better" than mixed-gender ones on 88 of 134 combat tasks, or less than 66 percent. Mixed-gender groups bested the men on five tasks, including a 30 percent better performance on two trials involving the M2 machine gun.

Among the 30 combat tasks with "operationally relevant" differences in performance, most fell in the infantry and provisional infantry platoons, with "all-male teams typically performing better." The report does not state that the sample size of female troops for the entire infantry company was 29, as Marine officials previously told the Union-Tribune.

The only mention of a performance standard against which women in the task force were measured is a hiking standard of 4 kilometers per hour. Mixed-gender squads of infantry riflemen and women met the standard, while coed heavy weapons units did not.

The Marine Corps found that integrating women produced "very little" data differentiating performance within artillery, combat engineers, tanks, and amphibious assault vehicles.

It focuses on findings from the infantry company and especially the weapons company indicating a "greater risk" if women are allowed into crew-served weapons fields such as machine gunning.

Physiological differences between men and women are directly linked to the risk of reduced combat effectiveness, the Marine report says, because "size matters when executing a dismounted movement under load."

Male advantages in average body mass, aerobic capacity and other factors are cited.

"These realities are clearly not insurmountable," but the strain on female troops would be cumulative during extended combat operations.

An enclosure from the University of Pittsburgh reports that men in the task force had better strength, power and agility on average, whereas women bested them on most flexibility, balance and biomechanical variables.

Females and mixed-gender groups excelled in terms of lactate threshold, flexibility and .50-caliber marksmanship, "however, none of these formed strong predictors of overall improved mission performance or reduced injuries," the Marine assessment states.

Looking at physical performance in the ground combat task force, "it is unknown how much a stricter (higher) physical screen would have improved the physical performance of female volunteers." The female task force participants were above average to well-above average among their peers in the Corps, whereas the men were simply average, the report says.

Among other findings:

* At the entry-level schools, "a stricter physical screening tool would have eliminated all the female Marines who sustained injury and were dropped during ITB (the Infantry Training Battalion course.)"

* "When fitness is considered, female injury rates are similar/the same as male injury rates."

* "Studies show that strength training, fitness, and calcium/vitamin D supplements decreases risk of injury to women."

On the plus side for the women, "further integration of females into the combat arms brings with it many of the general benefits of diversity that we experience ... both within the military as well as the private sector," the report says.

It cites a decision-making study the Marine Corps ran that compared all-male groups to mixed-gender groups that had to solve challenging field problems. Including women resulted in equal or better performance on cognitively challenging problems, the Corps found.

Other benefits cited include the likelihood of lower disciplinary problems after women join the unit, as seen previously in aviation and logistics fields.

Another argument in the public debate over adding women to all-male units is a potential loss of camaraderie, or unit cohesion. However, the experimental task force Marines reported medium to good unit cohesion after training together at Camp Lejeune, N.C., including nearly a third of men and women who said it was "very good."

After the lengthy combat trials at Twentynine Palms and other California bases, cohesion dropped to medium and perceptions of combat effectiveness became less positive, which "could be attributed to general fatigue over the course of the (task force) assessment."

Finally, the number of women entering the ground combat arms will likely be very small, less than the 7 percent of the Corps that is female. "Thus the overall impact on unit readiness will be buffered by the dominant numbers of male Marines, and should not show a significant difference."

Canada is cited as evidence of the "token" number of women likely to be interested and qualify for ground combat jobs. More than 25 years after the Canadian armed forces were fully integrated, only about four in a thousand enlisted infantry are female.

Standards

The long-held assumption in the Marine Corps that being a man is sufficient qualification for serving in the infantry has led to a certain amount of "wastage," or men who are not fit enough to fight in the units they serve in, the report says.

It concludes that the effort to identify what an individual Marine must do to be a fully contributing member of a combat unit is perhaps the most important result of its three years of research since the Pentagon scrapped the ground combat exclusion policy on women in 2013.

"More clearly defined individual performance standards ... will ensure that Marines are assigned to (occupations) for which they are best and more fully suited," regardless of the outcome of the gender integration push.

"Bolstered physical performance standards at different points in the accessions and entry-level training continuum will likely mitigate much of that risk (of wastage) in the future within newly opened MOSs (occupations.) This includes potential risks associated with the physiological differences between male and female Marines related to the physical demands of a particular ground combat occupational specialty."

For instance, the graduation rate for women in the Infantry Training Battalion, including research volunteers who dropped on request, was about 36 percent compared to the male rate of 98 percent. Better screening for entry into infantry training could potentially improve the female graduation rate to about 64 percent, the Corps estimates.

"Screening has also been shown to reduce the number of injuries in these schools," and it would help cull the lower-performing men in the combat arms.

However some level of risk for reduced combat effectiveness will remain in the infantry and special operations, the assessment concludes, because the physical demands of patrolling with a heavy combat load of gear cannot be fully accounted for, in the Marine Corps view, by stricter screening.

Implementation

The assessment includes a detailed plan for successful integration of women into Marine ground combat units, seemingly anticipating that the Corps may be forced to accept women in their ranks. The Corps was also forced to comply with the end of "don't ask, don't tell" restrictions on the open service of gays. It was the only military service to protest the change, but experienced relatively few problems afterward.

An "unwavering adherence" to high standards will be "the primary driver in overcoming gender bias through clearly demonstrated performance standards, which is fundamental to a cohesive unit with high morale."

"Leadership will be the most critical component to successful gender integration into ground combat arms occupational specialties and units. Fully invested and unwavering demonstrations of support by commanders and leaders must set the example for Marines of all levels."

If leaders don't fully embrace the change, "the integration effort will very likely be fraught with friction and unduly protracted — potentially a greater drain on combat effectiveness and unit readiness."

Based on the experiences of other countries as well as Marine integration of air and logistics fields, "Some of the initial negative impacts are likely to diminish over time."

The very small number of women who join will eventually increase, the higher female rate of attrition from service will go down, and "any initial detrimental effects on cohesion can eventually be mitigated with good training and solid leadership."

Tailoring physical training regimens is easier if recruits are segregated by gender, as they are today in the Marine Corps and the United Kingdom, but "the Marine Corps should look for integrated training opportunities in order to prepare these young men and women to serve together in the near future."

With skillful implementation, "the integration of female Marines into ground combat arms occupations to the fullest extent possible will expand the Marine Corps' talent base ... and enhance our ability to place the best and most fully qualified Marines in the right occupations and increase the overall combat effectiveness and readiness of our MAGTFs (Marine Air-Ground Task Forces)," the Marine Force Innovation Office concluded.

Moreover, "many of the mitigation efforts identified in this report would serve the Marine Corps well and would help strengthen performance and reduce risks for both male and female Marines, regardless of the recommendation pertaining to integration."

gretel.kovach@utsandiego.com;

Twitter @gckovach; Facebook: U-T Military
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