The Obama administration’s historic decision to open military combat jobs to women, a process well underway for nearly a year, could be reviewed or even reversed as President-elect Donald Trump and his Republican Party take control of Washington in January.
Trump has been a vocal skeptic of the new policy, calling the change "politically correct" and linking it to a rise in reported sexual assaults throughout the ranks. The Republican Party's official platform, drawn up this summer, expressly calls for reversal. And top lawmakers who will control Congress for at least the next two years have voiced clear opposition as well.
The policy affects nearly 300,000 military jobs involved in direct ground combat.
"Those policies have to be rolled back," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, an advocacy group opposed to the slate of Obama-era military personnel reforms. "Right now the policy is that women can and will be assigned to ground combat units. That pronouncement can indeed be changed by a future secretary of defense."
Trump’s election comes as the gender-integration effort — once said to be a two-year process — nears key milestones in the Army and Marine Corps, the services most significantly affected. Since January, when implementation began in earnest, hundreds of women have expressed interest in joining the infantry, artillery and armor career fields, and dozens are in the pipeline for assignment to operational units next year.
The process could be stalled in several ways. Trump's administration could simply reverse the policy outright; Congress has passed no laws on this issue. Alternatively, a new defense secretary could grant exceptions to the policy.
Those who support the change are worried. "We have real concerns that this administration will not ensure that the integration continues," said Kate Germano, a recently retired Marine Corps officer who now works for the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group for military women.
Trump has not indicated whom he will appoint to be the defense secretary. His top uniformed adviser, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposed women serving in combat units. As the Marines' top general in 2015, Dunford voiced concerns about potential impacts on combat readiness, and he filed a formal request to exempt his service from having to comply. His civilian superiors rejected that request.
A more subtle option for the next defense secretary would be to allow the policy to remain in place while exerting no substantial pressure on the military leaders charged with implementing it, thus allowing the transition to slow or stall.
"Let’s be honest,"Germano said. "Not all of the services have embraced the change. We’re already seeing it slow-rolled to a certain degree, and the next administration would just enable that type of behavior."
WHERE THE SERVICES STAND
The Army and the Marine Corps have responded very differently. While the former started early and has moved quickly to implement the new policy, the latter initially opposed the change and has made less progress toward placing women in combat units.
Army leaders began sending women to the prestigious Ranger School last year, before the Pentagon's decision was final. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at the time: "Women are in combat. I don’t know what the debate is, actually, frankly, on women in combat. Because women have been fighting in combat for quite some time."
There is one female Army officer, a captain, who has been assigned to an operational unit in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Another 10 women have successfully completed the Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course, which takes freshly commissioned lieutenants and, over 17 weeks, prepares them for assignment to an infantry unit.
On the enlisted side, the Army says about 245 female soldiers and recruits are in the training pipeline for combat arms jobs in 2017.
As the only service to seek an exemption to gender integration, the Marines pointed to their own internal study that found
male Marines far outperformed women in a variety of ground-combat tasks. Women were slower, fired their weapons with less accuracy and were more susceptible to injury, the Marine Corps' data showed. And a survey conducted in 2012 found that two out of three male Marines was opposed to gender-integrated combat units.
The service's current commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, has promised to carry out orders and integrate combat units. Three enlisted women have been approved to join East Coast infantry units in the coming months, including one rifleman, one machine gunner and one mortar Marine, officials say. And two junior officers have become the Marine Corps’ first female artillery officers.
But so far, no female Marines have passed the famously rigorous Infantry Officer Course, even though dozens have tried. And while one female corporal met the minimum requirements to pass the first phase of special operations training, she did not score high enough to continue.