For Guidance on Women in Combat Positions, Look to the U.S. Coast Guard

For Guidance on Women in Combat Positions, Look to the U.S. Coast Guard

Moira Fagan

In the wake of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s 2015 decision to open all combat positions to women, the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy have grappled with the practical realities of following this order. Vocal concerns from military personnel and senior leaders have centered on how integrating women could compromise standards and impact force readiness.

These discussions have overlooked a branch of the Armed Forces where women have long had access to all positions: the United States Coast Guard. It is the smallest service, and the only branch of the military that operates as a function of the Department of Homeland Security, rather than the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard strives to protect U.S. maritime interests, with missions covering drug interdiction, environmental protection, immigration law enforcement, and search and rescue, among several others. 

The Coast Guard also offers an established example of what mixed-gender combat units are just beginning to look like. Within its search and rescue mission are the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers, who typically conduct operations from helicopters in an unforgiving environment, in unrelentingly physical conditions: the open ocean in heavy seas. Rescue swimmers engage in a physically intense job, with the lives of those aboard vessels in distress, as well as the helicopter crew, at stake. This work includes many of the same variables found on the front lines of combat: a high level of risk, the need for physical strength, and the ability to think quickly and adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances. 

The screening process to become a rescue swimmer is gender-blind and rigorous, with high dropout rates for men and women at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. In a recent class where 24 students entered the program, only three graduated.  These 10 weeks of training focus on a rescue swimmer’s strength and endurance while in heavy seas. Being able to swim through severe weather is only one portion of the requirements for this position: upon completion of program, rescue swimmers become certified Emergency Medical Technicians who can provide basic life support to individuals rescued in a maritime environment.

Once certified, a rescue swimmer serves as one member of the 4-person crew, which includes two pilots and a flight mechanic. Today, there are four female rescue swimmers (out of roughly 360) currently serving in the Coast Guard. This number is certainly an underrepresentation in an already-small service, yet the Coast Guard has gained four specialists in a critical program, who may not have been given an opportunity otherwise. The same is likely true of the other services’ occupational specialties.

Gender-blind training and selection standards addresses many of the concerns voiced by military personnel who are worried about potential security compromises, and gender neutral physical standards are already in place in the Army and Marine Corps. The result of these policies will be a near-guaranteed underrepresentation of women in the officer and enlisted ranks. Underrepresentation in the name of preserving current standards is acceptable, so long as women are given the opportunity to serve in all positions, as we are starting to see across the services. Just last month, the first female infantry Marines joined the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines at Camp Lejeune.

President Trump’s leadership choices for the Department of Defense do not appear to indicate that significant changes concerning women in combat are forthcoming. Retired Marine General James Mattis, now confirmed as the Secretary of Defense, did not voice opposition to Secretary Carter’s decision in his confirmation hearing. Former Congresswoman and Secretary of the Air Force nominee Heather Wilson has long advocated for women to serve in combat support positions. Her opinions on women in direct combat roles are less clear.

The military’s primary mission is to deter war and protect the security of the United States. To carry out this mission, the Armed Forces must select qualified volunteers to serve, allowing the military to operate effectively. This task is impossible if half the population is disqualified from being considered for combat positions. As the first women begin to join previously all-male units, the Coast Guard has set the example that women can succeed in physically intense and high-risk positions.  The other branches of the Armed Services are sure to follow suit.

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Indeed. For the initial evidence, witness the Army's OPAT: https://www.armytimes.com/articles/commentary-officer-takes-on-the-armys...

The Marine Corps is trying to actually raise standards (albeit with a loophole for women). Like you, I doubt that will survive.

Thx for the link. Brilliant.

One of the keys to reducing fitness standards is to use unusual tests. Most people know what a pull up is so if you tell them they must do 15 to be in unit X they'll be impressed and if it's 2 they start think about how they thought soldiers were supposed to be all tough etc. Ditto for pushups, sit-ups and runs in PT gear.

The unusual tests should also require non-standard equipment to prevent easy comparison. One Canadian Army test that was never really implemented, was the "trench dig". It required a standard fire trench shaped box (but of less volume)sunk in the ground to be emptied of a specific type of gravel in a given time. Unusual test with non-standard equipment and administratively difficult to conduct.

For my money I'd limit testing of infantrymen to two ten mile speed marches on back to back days twice per year carrying about 70 lbs of gear in about 2 1/2 hours.

For guidance on women in the combat arms look to Canada. Their army now has no fitness test worthy of the name. When a "job oriented" test was approved by the Human Rights people it was discovered that the female failure rate for "ammo box lift onto truck" was high so, quite expectedly, it was removed from the test. The "Battle fitness march" (8 miles in 2 hours and 28 minutes on a road)required troops to carry about 40% less weight than they might in the field but I understand it has been canned as well. The only test left for the general force is a series of shuttle runs and sandbag drags conducted in PT gear in a gym. The bar is set low enough that middle aged female air force clerks are expected to pass.

Canada has had females in the combat arms for about 20 years. The the vast majority reside in vehicle borne jobs and trade training is organized, where possible, to shield them from physical tasks. Artillery training is done with 105mm guns although the regular artillery uses only 155mm guns. Tanks are considered a specialty in the armoured corps and basic trade training is done with "jeeps".

The US can expect the same. The program will start with stories about how it will be gender neutral but when numbers don't meet the pols expectations the pressure will start to produce better figures. The end effect will still be a handful of female combat soldiers but will come with a general reduction of physical standards that will allow male soldiers to be less fit and stay in.

When I read the title I assumed this was a fine work of satire. But no, the author is serious that women belong in combat arms because the Coast Guard found a few that are really good swimmers.

I have no doubt they are. In fact, if my boat ever springs a leak and I find myself bobbing in the Pacific it would warm my heart to see the likes of Missy Franklin stroking toward my shivering lips. That girl (is it sexist to say girl?), and many other women, could swim circles around me, but what type of weapons and other combat kit do rescue swimmers sport? Do they ever engage in a life and death struggle with a pissed off, possibly doped up, jihadi?

So while the Coast Guard is technically part of the armed services, the fact that they have one combat casualty since 2001 confirms that the author uses a poor example to make her case.

Let’s dispel some other myths the author regurgitates in her essay.

“gender neutral physical standards are already in place in the Army and Marine Corps”

Physical fitness standards have not been gender neutralized. Women are not required to do as many pushups or run as fast, and not required to do pullups like male Marines are.

I saw the double standard for over 30 years in the U.S. Army, and if the services were ever to neutralize the standards, it would almost certainly be at a lower standard. The political reality of a disproportionately high attrition rate for women would not be politically acceptable. The standard would be lowered, with general officers stepping forward to say the previous standards were not grounded in the reality of 21st century combat, and the armed forces would become less effective. Less effective equates to more casualties and potentially lost battles.

You may wonder why I believe this will happen; it’s based on personal experience. When I attended airborne school in the 80s the men were required to do six pullups, the women none. Pullups, we were told, were a necessary measure of strength because when you reach up in your risers to pull a slip it requires “pull up” type of upper body strength. I always wondered how female paratroopers survived without the ability to pull a slip. Women also ran in their own formation during PT, much slower of course.

At Officer Candidate School in the 90s the handful of women in my platoon fell out of every single run. Let me restate that, not one single woman could run at the same pace and distance as the men. This was not a school for combat arms only; we had finance officers and even a future band leader in the platoon. A couple of men also couldn’t make the runs, they were kicked out of the course. The women stayed on to graduate.

Five years ago I was in Kunar province. The Female Engagement Teams that the Army employed, and many like to point to as proof women can serve in combat, frequently fell behind during patrols. The men would end up carrying their rucks packed full of notebooks and pencils for the kids, in addition to their own kit which easily topped one hundred pounds. We didn’t ask them to fight, just walk.

“This task (defending the nation) is impossible if half the population is disqualified from being considered for combat positions.”

Seems to have worked for the past 241 years. In WWII the nation had a population of roughly 138 million, less than half of today, yet 16 million Americans served in uniform, mostly men, and in combat 100% male. I believe we won that one.

Bottom line, the Infantry’s mission is to close with and destroy the enemy. This push for equality will not increase our capability to do so.

I thought the exact same thing Greywolf, although you have refuted the article more comprehensively than I could have.

I do believe that SecDef Carter was the best SecDef since Cheney, and probably before him. He reminded me of Harold Brown who put the Second Offset/AirLand Battle into motion, fulfilling JFK's call for "flexible response" some 20 years after it was put forth doctrinally.

However, he was not immune to Obama's NSC's political correctness, and I would imagine that Rice had many times more influence on defense policy than Carter...