The U.S. Army's chief of staff told Congress on Tuesday that female soldiers could begin their training to serve in direct combat arms jobs such as infantry and armor by this spring, but it could take up to three years to form gender-integrated units.
Gen. Mark Milley joined Marine Corps and Navy leaders at a Feb. 2 hearing to testify before a skeptical Senate Armed Services Committee about future plans to merge women into ground combat units across the services.
"Readiness is the Army's number-one priority, and I believe that full integration of women in all career fields will either maintain, sustain or improve the overall readiness of the United States Army ... if and only if we maintain and enforced rigorous combat readiness standards, we retain a merit-based results-oriented organization, and we apply no quotas," Milley said.
Currently, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is reviewing plans from each service that detail how female troops will be integrated into units that were closed to women until his decision in December that all military occupational specialties would now be open to women.
The first step for the Army, Milley said, will be to begin gender-neutral training for all officers, noncommissioned officers and junior enlisted.
"This spring, female cadets and officer candidates who meet the gender-neutral standard will be given the opportunity to request either infantry or armor branches," Milley said.
Currently, infantry and armor training for enlisted soldiers is not gender integrated at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"We will probably enter women into infantry and armor basic training at the Maneuver Center down at Fort Benning sometime the early fall, probably September or October of this year," Milley said.
The Army intends to follow a "deliberate, methodical approach that begins with assessment, selection, training and assigning of female infantry and armor leaders -- both officers and NCOs to units," Milley said. "Then we will assign female junior enlisted to those units.
"I estimate that effective female integration into infantry, armor and Special Forces will require no less than one to three years of deliberate effort to develop the individual skills and grow our leaders."
Navy and Marine Corps leaders were less detailed about their plan to move forward with the integration of women.
"The Corps has already notified 231 women who have successfully completed ground combat arms MOS [training] ... that they can switch to these previously closed jobs immediately if they chose to," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said.
While the policy is already in place, lawmakers pressed Army and Marine Corps leaders to explain their decision to allow women to serve in direct combat roles such as infantry and special operations units.
"This hearing is not about whether women can serve in combat," said SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, listing many of the achievements of women serving in combat over the years. "Many women have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation."
McCain said he supported former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's 2013 decision to require all services to open direct combat jobs to women, but he also stressed that it is critical for the military to maintain high standards.
"We have the responsibility to do the right thing, but we also have an equal responsibility to do the right thing in the right way; that is what this hearing is about -- ensuring that as women move into more and more positions across our military, readiness, combat effectiveness and the safety and well-being of all service members -- both men and women -- remain our paramount priority."
Much of the hearing focused on the controversy surrounding the findings in a 1,000-page study that emerged last fall from the Marine Corps Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, or GCEITF.
The effort showed that gender-integrated units made up of males and females did not perform as well as all-male units. The study also showed that gender-integrated units suffered a higher injury rate than all-male units.
The study's findings put Mabus at odds with the Marine Corps leadership. Many criticized Mabus for denying a request by Marine leaders to keep several combat arms jobs closed to women.
McCain and other senators openly doubted that Mabus read the report before publicly criticizing it.
"Secretary Mabus, this would have been a lot easier if you hadn't called in the press immediately and debunked what many of us view as a legitimate study without even reading it, and I don't believe you read a 1,000-page document in one day," McCain said.
"Your handling of this issue has really complicated [the] whole situation for those us who fully support integration of women in the military."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, read several findings from the Marine study to highlight how it found that women did not perform as well as men.
Once testing was complete, the study showed that all-male units demonstrated higher performance levels than gender-integrated units on 69 percent of tasks evaluated.
Gender-integrated teams performed better than their all-male counterparts on two of the 134 tasks, the study said. All-male squads also had a "noticeable difference in their performance of the basic combat tasks of negotiating obstacles and evacuating casualties."
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, criticized the Marine study, calling it "fundamentally flawed."
"The design of this research was very flawed," she said. "First of all, female Marines were screened for the basic physical fitness test and were competing in a large part with male Marines who had years of experience and training and many had combat positions.
"All we really know from the study is that groups who had the right training and more training did better. We don't actually have data that can be used because these women did not have the same training and experiences as those who had been doing it for a long time."
The female Marines who participated in the effort were first sent to the MOS schools such as infantry and other combat arms jobs, said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
They were then formed into the ground combat task force for four months of preparatory training, where they trained with men and developed the skills that they needed do this evaluation, he said.
Neller conceded that the men in the all-male units did have more experience in combat arms jobs such as infantry.
"It is fair to say -- I will agree with you -- that their experience in these MOSs was probably not up to the level of their male counterparts," Neller said.
The Marine test did, however, codify the standards that each individual Marine in a unit had to meet, Mabus said.
"If an individual meets the gender-neutral standard, then "that person should get to do the job," Mabus said.
McCain asked Neller to lay out his concerns about this effort.
"There are a lot of concerns we have talked about ... there are a lot of things we don't know," Neller said. "One of my biggest concerns is the perception that the Marine Corps doesn't value the service of females that serve in the Marine Corps.
"I have concerns about retention, I have concerns about injury rates, I have concerns about propensity to re-enlist and career progression; I have concerns about what is going to happen if the numbers low, which they probably will be in the beginning."
But Neller did say that his plan should address these concerns.
"We have been given an order to integrate, we have a fully detailed plan to integrate and we are going to give every Marine opportunity to compete and we have the standards that allow them to be successful," he said.
Milley also said the Army faces many hurdles in the days ahead.
"Make no mistake about, this process is going to have challenges, but if we proceed with a methodical, deliberate execution ... it is my belief that the Army will be successful.
"I have absolute no doubt in my mind -- in my professional judgment -- that women, some women -- can perform every single job in the United States Army to include infantry, armor and Special Forces."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.