Air Force Staff Sgt. Cecy Hunter conducts 24-hour patrols in Southeast Asia. While combat positions are open to women, U.S. Special Operations Command has 'genuine concerns that must be addressed.' (Staff Sgt. Sara Csurilla / Air Force)
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The first women would not complete training in the seven male-only career fields until 2018, according to the Air Force’s plan. The schedule:
May 31, 2015: Physical standards validated for tactical air control party (enlisted).
June 30, 2015: Physical standards validated for special operations weather (enlisted and officer).
July 31, 2015: Physical standards validated for combat control, special tactics (officer), pararescue (enlisted) and combat rescue officer.
Sept. 30, 2015: Begin one-year recruit/assess select phase for tactical air control party (enlisted).
Oct. 31, 2015: Begin one-year recruit/assess/select phase for special operations weather (enlisted and officer).
Nov. 30, 2015: Begin one-year recruit/assess/select phase for combat control, special tactics (officer), pararescue (enlisted) and combat rescue officer.
Oct.-Dec. 2016: Enter pipeline for combat rescue (54 weeks), tactical air control party (77 weeks), combat control (82 weeks), special tactics (82 weeks), pararescue (77 weeks), special operations weather officer (80 weeks) and special operations weather enlisted (98 weeks).
Spring 2018: Training completed
Fall 2018: Combat mission ready
It remains to be seen whether female airmen will be allowed to join the elite ranks of the special operations community even though the Air Force has lifted the ban on the handful of remaining combat jobs closed to women.
More than 99 percent of all Air Force jobs are open to women. The seven career fields still closed to female airmen are among the most dangerous: combat control officer, combat rescue/special tactics officer, special operations officer, enlisted combat controller, enlisted tactical air command and control, enlisted pararescue, and enlisted special operations weather.
Those positions fall under U.S. Special Operations Command, which has “genuine concerns that must be addressed” before making a final decision on whether to open them to women, said Army Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick at a June 18 news briefing.
“Our mission is different, so our standards are different,” said Sacolick, the director of force management and development for SOCOM. “We don’t deploy in large formations. I mean, we send a 12-man or 18-man or even smaller [unit] into very austere or remote environments by themselves. In many respects they may be the only Americans serving in a particular country. And so I think that complicates, you know, integration.”
Sacolick is not so concerned about women meeting gender-neutral fitness standards because “young girls” have already proven themselves by meeting the physical standards for cultural support teams that work with special operations forces to interact with local female populations.
“But the concern, once again, is there are privacy issues,” he said. “There’s health and welfare of female operators in an austere environment, so there’s all those things that we’re concerned about.”
Sacolick is particularly concerned about the “social, cultural, behavioral” issues of integrating women into special operations units.
“I’m actually more concerned with the men and their reaction to women in their formations, quite frankly,” he said.
By January 2016, keeping any military jobs off limits to women will require specific exemptions to be personally approved by the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
“Because our forces are inherently joint, a decision made by a single service can have rippled effects across the SOCOM enterprise,” Sacolick said. “Therefore, we have and will continue to work closely with the services as we move forward.”
He also said he expected the vast majority of special operators to accept the policy adopted by the military leadership.
“Ultimately they volunteered, they serve and I would image they would do what they’re told, but I need to give them an opportunity to voice their opinion,” Sacolick said.
Because the Air Force jobs currently closed to women fall under SOCOM’s purview, “SOCOM will make the call on these positions,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso.
The Air Force hopes to open combat rescue, pararescue and tactical air command and control party in consultation with SOCOM and the Army, said Grosso, director of force management policy and deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. About 800 of these positions serve with the Army.
“Our plan has three major tasks,” she said at the briefing.
The first will look at policies that currently prohibit women from the closed positions and update them, she said. The Air Force next will validate all tasks required for men and women to go into the positions and look at the occupational standards for the seven career fields closed to women.
“We’ll have those updated between May and July 2015. We’ll make a recommendation to the secretary of the Air Force at that point in consultation with U.S. SOCOM and the Army.”
It will take about a year to recruit for the positions,and the Air Force hopes to start bringing women into the pipelines starting in October 2016, she said. The training typically lasts between 12 and 18 months, so women would join operational units around 2018.
The timeline announcements come at a time when the military is under scrutiny for how it handles sexual assault among the ranks. The Air Force has dealt with a number of sex scandals over the last year, from the investigation of 33 basic military training instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland to the May arrest of the lieutenant colonel who was in charge of sexual assault prevention and response efforts on a sexual battery charge.
In a Jan. 24 news briefing, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said sexual assaults could be linked to the ban on women in combat jobs.
“I believe it’s because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel, at some level,” Dempsey said. “It’s far more complicated than that, but when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that’s designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”
Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.