The world is changing, and so are the challenges and issues facing the U.S. military. The year 2015 saw major news in just about every corner of the globe involving the military, from the South China Seas to the ongoing threat of ISIS in the Middle East, as well as issues closer to home, including debates over women in combat and congressional arguments about downsizing the military. The following are the Military.com editorial team's picks for the most important military news stories of the year.
Pentagon Opens All Combat Jobs to Women
History was made in 2015 for women in the military on several fronts. The first three women graduated from Army Ranger School amid debate over the role of women in combat. Capt. Kristen Griest, a 26-year-old military police officer from Connecticut, and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, a 26-year-old AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot from Arizona, became the first two women to earn the coveted Ranger tab during an Aug. 21 ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia. A third female soldier, Maj. Lisa A. Jaster, a 37-year-old combat engineer with the U.S. Army Reserve and mother of two, accomplished the feat a couple of months later. The achievements proved to many that women can meet the physical requirements of direct-action combat jobs and Defense Secretary Ash Carter subsequently ordered that all military jobs be opened to women. The Marine Corps, which had been overruled on the women in combat issue, acquiesced and prepared to integrate its units.
Congress Approves Military Retirement Overhaul
Following a recommendation from an independent commission, Congress approved a historic overhaul of the military retirement system, including 401(k)-like plans for troops who serve less than 20 years. The change won't affect existing service members or retirees. But new recruits who enter service beginning in October 2017 will see 3 percent of their basic pay automatically saved into a Thrift Savings Plan. The Pentagon will provide matching contributions of 1 percent at first and then another 5 percent after two years of service, for a total of 6 percent. Those who stay for two decades will also still receive a fixed benefit, but at a smaller rate of 40 percent of basic pay rather than 50 percent. Lawmakers punted on another recommendation to replace the existing Tricare program for military families and reservists with a choice of commercial health insurance options. But they pledged to review the proposal -- as well as another to consolidate base commissary and exchange stores -- in 2016.
US Deploys More Ground Troops to Fight ISIS
As the battle against ISIS rages on in the Middle East, 2015 marked the year in which U.S. ground forces became more involved in the fight against the militants. In October, a Delta Force member was killed while leading an assault team on an ISIS prison in Iraq, becoming the first American service member to be killed in action in fighting against the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon identified the soldier as Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, who died Oct. 22, in Kirkuk Province, Iraq, from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Carter said the U.S. will deploy more Special Forces troops to Iraq as part of a special "targeting force." He said the elite soldiers will "assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces [and] conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders." He also said the force will also be well-positioned to conduct "unilateral operations" into Syria.
Russia Enters the War in Syria
Russia enters the conflict in Syria in late September when Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in the country for the first time. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the operations were designed to attack ISIS. "If they (militants) succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too," Putin said in a televised speech at a government session. But critics pointed out that many, if not most, of the targets the Russians attacked were those of U.S.-backed groups who oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The decision had consequences. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian attack aircraft along the Syrian border, claiming the aircraft had violated its airspace. NATO's North Atlantic Council had accused Russia a month before of "irresponsible behavior," and sternly warned Moscow it was courting "extreme danger" by sending its warplanes into the skies of an alliance member country.
U.S.-China Tensions Flare in the South China Sea
Tensions between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea flared this year as China sought to assert its sovereignty over the area, including the potentially resource-rich Spratly Islands, which offer a strategic location for Chinese military aircraft and naval ships. Until this fall, the U.S. Navy hadn't flown or sailed near China's manmade islands since 2012, but that changed in late October when a U.S. destroyer sailed close by the islands. The USS Lassen passed within 12 nautical miles -- the normal limit of territorial waters around natural land -- of at least one of the formations Beijing claims in the South China Sea. Chinese authorities "monitored, shadowed and warned" the U.S. ship. China's foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang blasted the exercise, saying the ship had "illegally entered" the waters near the islands "without receiving permission from the Chinese government." American officials weren't fazed. "We will fly, sail, and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows," one official said.
Military Pressed to Downsize Despite Budget Deal
After more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military continues to shed thousands of troops, mostly soldiers from the Army's active component. The downsizing comes despite a recent two-year budget deal between Congress and the White House designed to provide relief from mandatory spending caps on the Pentagon and other agencies. Some lawmakers like Sen. John McCain want to make it easier for leaders to stop buying equipment the military doesn't need -- especially at a time of less-than-expected pay raises for troops. President Obama set basic pay raises for 1.3 percent in 2016, which was slightly higher than pay raises in previous years, but trailed the 2.3 percent estimated increase in private sector-wage growth, which military pay is supposed to track by law. Despite the downsizing, Army leaders such as Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have continued to argue for the relevance and importance of the Army in a new era of "hybrid warfare."
Chris Kyle Movie and Trial
Famous Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle received a lot of attention this year, from the Clint Eastwood film released in late 2014 about his life to the trial of the man who shot and killed him, Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine who was found guilty. The trial included revealing information, including a text Kyle sent the other victim, Chad Littlefield, as they rode with Routh in Kyle's pickup truck to a shooting range in Texas: "This dude is straight-up nuts." Kyle's 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in Iraq make him the deadliest U.S. sniper to date. While filmmaker Michael Moore questioned Kyle's military record and the moral implications of being a sniper, others defended his service. Chris Sajnog, a former instructor at the Navy SEAL sniper school, said if anything can be learned from the tragedy, it's how Kyle chose to live his life. "He's a true American hero and did great things, not just for the SEAL teams and his teammates, but for our country," he said during an interview with Military.com. "He protected everybody out there and he took that back with him, even when he got out and continued to serve and help people."
Pentagon Leadership Changes
The past year brought a changing of the guard in the Pentagon, as new Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter took office in February. He succeeded Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, who surprised reporters and defense observers when he announced his resignation months earlier. Hagel resurfaced in November to blast the Obama administration's Mideast policy, the war against ISIS and "micromanagement" of the military. He told Foreign Policy magazine that the White House tried to "destroy me." In September, Eric Fanning was tapped for Army secretary, becoming the first openly gay service secretary nominee. Also that month, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey turned over his post to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford in an emotional change of command ceremony. Dempsey had joked about how his West Point Class of 1974 classmates had bets on how many times he would cry during the ceremony. As Dunford moved on to his new position, he was succeeded by career infantry officer Gen. Robert B. Neller as the Marine Corps' new commandant.
Hospital Ship Damages Pearl Harbor Memorial
History and current events collided in an unfortunate way in May this year when the naval hospital ship USNS Mercy struck the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, leading to a temporary shutdown of the memorial site and an investigation of the collision. The master of the USNS Mercy -- the equivalent of the commanding officer -- was Capt. Thomas Giudice, a decorated former sailor and current civilian mariner who was responsible for navigating the vessel while underway at sea. A subsequent investigation found the harbor pilot on board the USNS Mercy had poor control over tugboats guiding the ship. This resulted in the ship unexpectedly heading toward the Arizona. It also led the pilot and the ship's captain to lose track of where the ship was going for three minutes, leading the ship to hit the dock. The report recommended that leaders take "administrative or correction action" toward Giudice, chief mate and navigator "as it deems appropriate." Unspecified administrative actions were taken toward the captain, according to the Military Sealift Command.
Amid Scandals, VA Seeks New Prosthetics and More Coverage
As the Department of Veterans Affairs continued to work towards improving its services in the wake of health care scandals from last year, it made its share of notable news. In July, it gathered experts from around the country in hopes of developing new prosthetic limbs and other breakthrough technologies. This month, it announced plans to expand medical coverage for veterans exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. But headlines about the department were again dominated by negative news. Two senior VA officials -- Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves -- were found to have coerced regional directors to leave their jobs so they could fill them themselves, all while pocketing six-figure moving expenses from the department, according to investigators. In another embarrassing headline, the department's former acting inspector general quit after masturbating in public view. Meanwhile, lawmakers came close but ultimately scrapped a plan to let VA doctors talk to veterans about using marijuana for medicinal purposes.