Senate panel hears debate on women's role in combat


WASHINGTON -- The military's four service chiefs yesterday offered opposing views on expanding combat roles for women.

Gen. Carl E. Vuono of the Army and Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr. of the Marine Corps told a Senate panel that they opposed repealing a ban on female soldiers serving in combat with infantry, armor and other ground-combat units.

Adm. Frank B. Kelso Jr. of the Navy and Gen. Merrill A. McPeak of the Air Force said that they would support broadened roles for women if existing law were changed to permit it.

"Personally, I am not eager to increase exposure of our women to additional risk," said General McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff. "However, the Air Force does not believe in artificially barring anybody from doing any job."

The role of women in combat has become a hot political issue since the Persian Gulf war, during which about 35,000 female troops served as nurses, truck drivers, cargo plane pilots and other support workers.

Women now account for about 11 percent of the 2-million-member active-duty U.S. military, up from about 2 percent in 1973.

Opportunities for women in the armed forces increased in the 1970s, beginning with the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973 and the admittance of women to the service academies in 1976. Since then, the services have gradually opened more positions to women.

The hearing before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Manpower and Personnel was called to help senators decide whether to follow the House of Representatives in modifying current law on the issue.

Acknowledging the important roles women played in the Persian Gulf, the House last month voted to repeal bans against women flying Navy, Air Force and Marine warplanes in combat. The Army is not covered by the same statutes but has its own policies barring women from combat.

In the next several months, the Senate is expected to consider whether to endorse a similar measure for female aviators or whether to go even further by authorizing women to serve in other combat situations as well.

The assistant secretary of defense for force management and personnel, Christopher Jehn, told the Senate panel yesterday that the Pentagon supported giving women more opportunities but that the military wanted "maximum flexibility in regulating women in combat."

Echoing the views of many of the senators, Mr. Jehn said that the central question was whether granting women more opportunities would weaken overall military readiness and combat skill.

Each of the services has different missions and different requirements and would likely adopt different rules for women in combat if the law were changed.

Many Army and Marine commanders have warned that women do not have enough physical strength to perform the tasks required of ground-combat soldiers and that fraternization with male soldiers would undercut the performance of the entire unit.

Admiral Kelso said that if the combat exclusion law were lifted, the Navy would still have a unique set of problems to address.

When the Navy has integrated non-combatant ships in the past, it has taken time to reconfigure ship sleeping quarters to accommodate women and, more importantly, to give extra sensitivity training to previously all-male crews.

Senators also heard testimony that suggested female officers support broader combat roles more than enlisted personnel.

The strongest criticism of repealing the ban came from a former Marine Corps commandant, retired Gen. Robert H. Barrow. "It's uncivilized and women can't do it," he said. "If you want to make a combat unit ineffective, assign women to it."

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