Some of the military's top brass expressed caution at the prospect of incorporating women into combat on Tuesday, hours after each service branch unveiled its plans for allowing female troops to serve in jobs unavailable to them for years.
The Army and Marine Corps have the highest number of jobs that are off limits to women, including infantry and artillery, as well as others that would expose them to direct combat. So every service branch is planning a series of tests and evaluations leading up to September 2015 to determine "gender neutral" standards for each position where men and women could be graded fairly.
"Whatever that job or that position is, we have to make sure we have the requirements of that task established, regardless of if they're male or female," said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, deputy Army chief of staff for personnel. "The worst thing we could do is change that standard for that position."
"You have to be absolutely certain that the performance can be understood and then applied in a combat situation," he said.
Some tasks are easy to appraise: a prospective tanker, whether man or woman, must be able to pick up a heavy tank round and load it within a confined space. The services did not say how they would specifically grade more nuanced tasks, such as how to recreate the rigors of operating in a combat environment. They did say they would not lower physical standards for courses such as in infantry unless it applied to both sexes.
An officer representing Special Operations Command says it has yet to decide which positions it may ask to keep off limits to women, but he remained open to the idea of allowing female commandos to serve in elite units such as Delta Force and SEAL Team 6.
"We have some genuine concerns that must be addressed prior to making an informed recommendation to the secretary of defense," said Army Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, who also previously served as the commander of the Special Forces training school at Fort Bragg, N.C.
SOCOM's evaluation will include a survey of special operators to get their input on working in the field with women. Sacolick points to the unique operating environments for his commandos, in which very small units often operate in harshly austere places for extended periods of time.
"I fear the rank and file, their concerns are once again that you have a 12-man [Special Forces team] in an isolated case, what are the implications there?" Sacolick said. "Our formations are filled by the quiet professionals and we need to give them a venue, we need to find out how they feel about integration at the team level."
This survey will also accompany a separate study to be conducted by RAND on the social and cultural effects and "social science impacts" of incorporating women into these units.
He expressed confidence in the women who are currently serving alongside these elite operators and already receive training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. These women-only Cultural Support Teams deploy with special operations units, including by helicopter, to assist on missions where cultural norms might interfere with the commandos' jobs. This could include speaking with or protecting local women and children.
It represents one of the most elite positions for a war where front lines are blurred and women are often thrust into de facto combat environments.
Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the exclusion on women serving in combat in January, following a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union the previous November. Current secretary Chuck Hagel gave each of the service branches until January 2016 to complete the integration process. He will have to personally approve any positions that remain off limits.
Sacolick adds that the new standard for special operations forces is not simply brute strength and an ability to defeat the enemy by force.
"We're looking for smart, qualified operators. There's a new dynamic. The days of 'Rambo' are over," he said. "We're looking for young men that can speak a foreign language, understand culture, that work with indigenous populations."
"When people fail the Special Forces Qualification Course, predominantly they fail because they're not doing their homework."
SOCOM is interested in hearing commandos' concerns through this survey, but ultimately they will do what they are told, he said.