02 September 2015

Keep Women Out of Ground Combat Units

Stephen Kershnar
Women Rangers: Against Gender Integration of Ground Combat Forces
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 30, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, the first two women ever graduated from Ranger School. Ranger school is part of the Army’s special operations unit and an extraordinarily demanding program. Some consider it the most physically and mentally demanding course in the U.S. Army. Predictably, the Obama administration plans to allow women into the Rangers as well as other ground combat units, such as infantry, armor, artillery, and special operations. This is a mistake.  

Having women in ground combat units will likely make them less effective and we don’t know about the wider costs and benefits of such gender integration on the military as a whole or society. In general, if a change carries has significant cost and if we don’t know the net balance of other costs and benefits, then the change is best avoided. This is true here. 

Ground combat units (for example, infantry, armor, and special operations) are designed to close with and kill enemy combatants. Close combat units use guns, grenades, bayonets, or hand-to-hand fighting. To be effective the members of such units need strength, endurance, and to work well with teammates. What lessens these features threatens to degrade the team’s performance and increase the chance that members will get hurt or killed.

The notion that admitting women would make ground combat units less effective rests on the fact one way in which the sexes differ. On average, men have more strength and aerobic capacity than women. They are also less susceptible to injury. A British study of whether women should be in combat units found that, women performed 20 to 40% worse on various strength- and aerobic-based tests. The lesser performance is in part because, as the British Ministry of Defence found, in general, women have 30% less muscle as well as smaller hearts and skeletal structures.   

Even for women with the same aerobic fitness and strength as men, the British study found, women have a greater risk of musculoskeletal injury. According to the Center for Military Readiness, U.S. Army data indicates that in some areas (for example, artillery), women had double the injury rates as men. The British found that women are five times more likely than men to be injured when carrying heavy loads (consider, for example, stress fractures) and that these loads are less than what are carried in some ground combat units.

This rate of injury is distinct from women’s expected absences due to pregnancy and the extended recovery time that follows it (up to 24 months). Unsurprisingly, strenuous training with heavy loads undertaken before full recovery from pregnancy increases the risk of injury. The British also found that women in the military are also more likely to have mental health issues than men and that is before they being serving in ground combat units.

The problems here are threefold. First, introducing women into ground combat means more combat teams will operate shorthanded and have more turnover. When a team member gets injured, a unit operates with fewer people or has to get a replacement. Small combat units such as tank crews, infantry rifle squads, and artillery gun crews, the Center for Military Readiness points out, consist of 4-12 people. Injuries are a problem because, during combat, evacuating injured soldiers is impractical and operating shorthanded can endanger the crew. The same is true for pregnancy.

Second, on average, introducing women into ground combat crews will result in team members performing worse. There is no question that when pressure to achieve gender balance is applied to the military, standards will be lowered. This might be done by having different standards for men and women, lowering the minimum standard, or replacing higher scoring men with lower scoring women. Anyone who has watched the way in which affirmative action at universities has led to the admission of worse students knows how this will play out.   

Third, it is unclear whether introducing women will reduce cohesion among combat teams. The British study found that unit cohesion plays a significant role in determining how well units perform. The literature does not show whether introducing women will affect unit cohesion. For example, will the different perspectives outweigh tensions caused by courtship and jealousy, two sets of standards, and chivalrous concern? Studies of race and gender on unit cohesion were inconclusive, but in any case, the British claim, they are likely weak and fleeting. Given the greater turnover, it is hard for me to imagine that cohesion won’t take a hit, but this is armchair speculation. 

Other effects of gender integration are harder to assess. Among the expected benefits of gender integration are that more people are eligible to work in ground combat units, the cost of labor for such units will lessen, and there will be more equality of opportunity and more role models. There are also expected costs. These include the significant retraining costs for women who try but fail to qualify for ground combat units. When the injury rate climbs, so will medical costs, both short-term and long-term. There is also the smorgasbord of costs that will accompany separate gender facilities, diversity training, increased adjudication and punishment costs for sexual misbehavior, extra personnel to compensate for maternity leave, and so on.

The balance of these wider factors is unclear. One thing is for sure, American political leaders can’t be trusted to give an honest accounting. Consider the recent Presidential liars and bullshit artists. Obama, for example, lied about whether Obamacare will allow you to keep your doctor. George W. Bush lied, or was unformed, about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When it comes to sex and race, our leaders will be even more likely to lie or mislead than normal. 

In short, integrating ground combat units will likely cost money and lives, cause large numbers of preventable injuries, and degrade combat performance. It is best avoided.   

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