The Pentagon announced a new policy Thursday that would allow women to serve in some combat support jobs but skeptics immediately questioned how fully the Army and Marine Corps--both of which are reluctant to make sweeping changes--would carry it out.
Under the new plan, which will take effect Oct. 1, women still would be barred from direct ground combat assignments. But they no longer would be excluded from assignments because they are dangerous.
Although preliminary figures were sketchy, the Army estimated that the change eventually could open an additional 7,000 jobs to women on active duty and 11,000 more slots in the reserve and National Guard. The Marine Corps had no comparable estimates.
However, officials said that the two services probably would not decide until early May specifically which jobs would be opened to women. Thursday’s order merely directed them to open up more noncombat slots to women and to work out the details by May 1.
The new regulation was part of a continuing effort by outgoing Defense Secretary Les Aspin to broaden opportunities for women in the service. Last April, Aspin opened the way for women to serve as combat pilots and to serve in more sea-going billets in the Navy.
The paper reflects last-minute adjustments ordered by Aspin, who had feared that an earlier draft might have allowed the Army and Marine Corps to reduce the number of jobs available to women. The two services had heavily influenced the writing of the document.
In a news conference called to announce the new policy, Aspin said that he had discussed the order with the man named to be his successor, Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, and that Inman effectively had endorsed the plan. “So there is no disconnect,” Aspin said.
But Army Maj. Lillian Pfluke, a 1980 West Point graduate who has served for 13 1/2 years as an ordnance officer, expressed skepticism about whether the services would fully carry out the spirit of Aspin’s new policy.
“Mr. Aspin has done great things for women in the service but I am very apprehensive” about how far the services will go in filling in the details on the policy, Pfluke said. “The key to this is in the interpretation and it is very, very disappointing.”
Martin Binkin, a Brookings Institution military manpower expert, agreed. Binkin said that the latest policy is “not a radical departure from what previously had been in place. I’m not sure it’s going to open up that many opportunities,” he said.
Almost as soon as Aspin completed his announcement, the Army issued a statement saying that it had decided to allow women to serve in a variety of combat support jobs, ranging from chemical warfare reconnaissance units to division-level military police.
But the service said that it would continue to bar women from serving in field artillery and multiple-launch rocket system crews and in some aviation slots because such jobs would bring them too close to the front lines.
The push to open more jobs to women in all four services has been under way since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when women served successfully throughout the combat zone in jobs as truck drivers, mechanics and as helicopter pilots--often entailing as much risk as infantry troops.
Besides the steps that Aspin has taken on his own, Congress voted last summer to eliminate a longstanding rule that had prohibited women from serving on combat vessels.
Navy Secretary John H. Dalton has announced plans to begin assigning women to aircraft carriers this year.