Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said the service will not lower physical standards as it works to comply with a Pentagon order to open all military jobs to women. (Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade / Army)
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WASHINGTON — The Army’s top officer pledged Monday that the service will not lower physical standards as it works to comply with a Pentagon order to open all military jobs to women, including the infantry and other physically demanding “ground combat” fields.
“Whatever we do, we are not going to lower the standards,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, told USA Today in an interview Monday. “The standards will be the same.”
Critics have raised concerns that the pressure to open military jobs that are currently closed to women, such as tanks, infantry and special operations, would lead to pressure to change those standards.
Odierno’s remarks come as the Army and other services are busy vetting existing physical requirements and studying how to integrate women into ground combat jobs in order to comply with the Pentagon order issued earlier this year.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee who has criticized the Pentagon order, said military leaders generally want to maintain the standards but may ultimately face pressure from the administration, particularly if enough women are not entering so-called ground combat jobs.
“The fight starts when one of the services lower the standards to accommodate people,” said Hunter, who served in Iraq as a Marine officer. “If you lower those standards for any reason at all, you’re then lowering your combat effectiveness.”
The services have until January 2016 to comply with the order. Exceptions would require approval of the Defense secretary.
Odierno said it was too early to determine if the Army would seek any exemptions.
“We’re nowhere near close to saying, ‘Hey, I don’t think we can do this,’” Odierno said. “Right now our plan is to go forward in opening all MOSs,” he said, referring to military occupational specialties.
Women in the military have seen plenty of combat over recent years in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the services have increased the jobs available to women over the years.
But ground combat jobs, which require physical strength and often mean living in primitive conditions, remain off-limits to women.
Experiments so far have shown that women have struggled with the strength requirements of some ground combat training.
The Marine Corps has begun allowing women to volunteer for its rigorous Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, Va. None of the 10 women who volunteered so far have completed the course.
At the Marine Corps’ enlisted course, which is not as physically demanding, four women out of 15 who started the course in September remain in the class, which is scheduled to graduate Thursday. Sister publication Marine Corps Times is reporting today that four women will graduate from the Corps’ enlisted training course.
The Army has not opened its intensive Ranger school to women yet, but standards there will not be changed, Odierno said, as the training there reflect lessons learned from numerous wars.
“Ranger school is in fact set up to prepare you to be successful as an Army Ranger,” Odierno said.
In the interview, Odierno also said the service chiefs have determined that the Pentagon will need to slow the increase in pay and other benefits for servicemembers in future years in order to meet increasing pressure on the military budget.
Salaries and benefits currently make up almost half the Army’s budget, and if the growth is left unchecked, it could devour as much as 80 percent of the budget by 2023, Odierno said.
That expansion in pay and benefits has placed pressure on parts of the budget that support modernizing and training the force. Military leaders want to avoid creating a “hollow force,” which maintains its size at the expense of effectiveness.
The Army is already coming down in size, but leaders also want to ensure that smaller force is combat-ready.
“I’m worried we’re tipping too much toward the benefits and not enough toward the readiness and modernization,” Odierno said.
“The pay that soldiers have gotten over the past 10 years has really been above inflation,” Odierno said. “What we’re trying to do is not reduce their pay but limit the rate of growth of pay.”
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Wall Street Journal the changes would be unveiled when the military’s budget proposal is released in February.
Lawmakers are already raising red flags. “It’s outrageous for the Department of Defense to cut pay and benefits for our troops,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, in a statement.