The Army is negotiating with civilian leaders about eliminating a women-in-combat ban so it can place mixed-sex support companies within warfighting units, starting with a division going to Iraq in January.
Despite the legal prohibition, Army plans already have included such collocation of women-men units in blueprints for a lighter force of 10 active divisions, according to Defense Department sources.
An Army spokesman yesterday, in response to questions from The Washington Times, said the Army is now in discussions with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s staff to see whether the 10-year-old ban in this one area should be lifted. The ban prohibits the Army from putting women in units that “collocate” with ground combatants.
“When that policy was made up, there was a different threat,” said Lt. Col. Chris Rodney, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “We imagined a more linear combat environment. Now, with the nature of asymmetrical threats, we have to relook at that policy.”
Col. Rodney cited the fighting in Iraq as typifying the new threat whereby all soldiers, support or combat, face attack by rockets, mortars, roadside bombs and ambushes.
“Everybody faces a similar threat,” he said. “There is no front-line threat right now.”
Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Army has suffered 793 combat deaths, including 24 female soldiers.
The Army is not seeking to lift the ban on women in direct combat units, such as infantry or armor.
What is being examined is the part of the exclusion rule that says mixed-sex support companies may not be positioned with ground combat teams.
In the disputed instance, the transformation plan of Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, calls for creating Forward Support Companies, which are made up of men and women. These companies would collocate with reconnaissance squadrons, which are combat units and are part of larger brigade “units of action.”
The problem is a 1994 ban signed by then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin that excludes women from land combat units. Mr. Aspin added an additional restriction. Women could not serve “where units and positions are doctrinally required to physically collocate and remain with direct ground combat units that are closed to women.”
Some Pentagon officials, who asked not to be named, said the proposed Forward Support Companies are at the least “skirting” the existing ban if not violating it. They suspect the new units are a way to inch women closer to land combat despite Congress’ prohibition against it.
Elaine Donnelly, who leads the pro-military Center for Military Readiness, says Congress needs to be informed of the Army’s plans.
“There is a law requiring notice to Congress that has not happened, and there are regulations that forbid the Army from taking infantry units and collocating gender-integrated units with them,” said Mrs. Donnelly, who opposes women in combat. “If they are doing this, putting women in land combat units would be a violation of law and policy.”
The Pentagon long has banned women from combat roles. In the early 1990s, the new Clinton administration changed the rules by allowing women for the first time to serve on combat ships and pilot combat aircraft, such as jet fighters and helicopters.
But the Pentagon retained the ban on women participating in direct combat and issued the new Aspin rules.
Mr. Aspin said in a January 1994 memo to the services that “women should be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” The policy then defined direct combat as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew-served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel. Direct combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect.”
Mr. Aspin then went further in denying collocation of mixed-sex and combat units. The Army accepted the limitation, documents show.
The 3rd Infantry Division, which played a major role in the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, is scheduled to return to Iraq early next year. It would be the first division to be reconfigured into “units of action” that would contain the new mixed-sex Forward Support Companies.
In all, Gen. Schoomaker is increasing the number of combat brigades from 33 to 48, and naming them “units of action.” The brigades are being married up permanently with support units so they can move out more quickly to war zones, instead of waiting for the additional personnel to arrive.
Early in the Bush administration, Mrs. Donnelly successfully persuaded the Pentagon to restrict female soldiers from certain reconnaissance units after Army planners had penciled them into those new units.