Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the case Tuesday for retaining the current policy in the military that opens up all jobs to women, including in combat roles.
"I can't talk to the next administration" and "I can't comment on anything that might happen in future," Carter said, but he made clear his belief that President-elect Donald Trump and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump's choice for Defense Secretary, would be making a mistake if they sought to change the policy.
As he has previously, Carter said that keeping all jobs open to women who meet standards and qualify was essential to recruiting and retention in modern society.
"What matters for future of the all-volunteer force is that we emphasize, attract and retain the most qualified people who can meet our standards" regardless of sex, Carter said. "It is important, it is essential to the excellence of our military that we put foremost the ability of an individual to do the job," he said.
Carter was joined by Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford at what was his last Pentagon news conference as Defense Secretary. In his previous post as Marine Corps commandant, Dunford, who will remain chairman in the next administration, recommended that some combat positions be kept closed to women and he pointedly did not attend Carter's announcement of his decision to scrap the combat exclusion rule.
Rescinding or revising the Pentagon's personnel policies on women and transgender troops would not require new legislation. The next defense secretary will have authority to change the policies and only needs to notify Congress 30 days in advance.
The Republican Party's 2016 platform was in favor of exempting women from "direct ground combat units and infantry battalions," but Trump's position on the issue was unclear.
He has argued against "political correctness" and social engineering in the military while adding that he would first consult with generals before endorsing any changes.
Mattis' position on the issue also was not completely clear, but he has expressed strong doubts about the current policy. In 2015, he said, "When you have to reduce standards -- as you would have to do, you would have to do it -- and when you would mix, you know, when you mix eros, when you mix affection for one another that could be manifested sexually, I don't care if you go anywhere in history, you will not find where this has worked. Never has this worked."
Mattis' position on women in the military was expected to be explored at his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A 1994 Pentagon policy preventing women from serving in combat was rescinded in 2013 by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Carter in 2015 made the historic decision to lift the restrictions on military occupational specialties.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.