Our military forces have been in combat non-stop since 9/11. They’ve shown that they’ve been equal to the task and have performed as we’ve come to expect from our armed forces. However, the on-going conflicts have seen increased leanings on our Special Operations Forces, who, despite being just a fraction of the overall force, are conducting combat operations at a rate far greater than their numbers.

The operational tempo is insanely high and we’re seeing the results of that creep into the force. PTSD, suicides, substance abuse and family issues from having to deploy so many times are taking a toll. The stress of constant combat deployments is a very real issue that the services are trying to work thru. And in addition, they’ll have other issues to deal with. Not in the future but now the very foundation of the Special Operations Forces is subject to change.

When Defense Secretary Ashton Carter opened combat occupation roles for women in the military, it also allowed women to volunteer for the various Special Operations units. Women have served in combat areas and performed well in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been 160 that have paid the ultimate price. But there is a vast difference between women allowed to serve in combat and going on special missions and women who will be assigned to Special Forces A-teams, SEAL Teams, as well as MARSOC and AFSOC units.

Women have already performed special operations and have gone on missions.  The Special Operations Command first allowed women on operations with the Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) and those have been successful at times. Women were able to gather intelligence from Afghan women, something that was rarely done before. But many of the male operators on the missions consider them a hindrance. But remember the CSTs were not operators from the units, just attached to them. The training that is open to them will change that.

These special ops units in the military are not only difficult to get into but even more so to complete the courses. Carter admitted as such when he said that the differences in the sexes will have some occupational specialties difficult for women to fill.

Now women must complete the SFAS (Assessment and Selection) course and the SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Courses), BUDS, Ranger et al which is very difficult. Can the majority of women physically handle the task of completing the courses? No, but neither can most men. Special Operations units are very demanding so their qualification courses are very tough. The standards must remain the same regardless of the failure rate to maintain the proper level of competence to complete missions. Any kind of lowering of standards will erode the effectiveness of the force.

Physically, these courses place a tremendous reliance on upper body strength and the ability to carry a heavy rucksack for long distances and then go into combat. There are serious doubts that women will attain the standards of the men. Then there is also the very real question of whether a woman could carry a wounded team member out of harms’ way if he/she were to go down. Granted there will be some women that can meet the challenge, two recently passed the US Army Ranger School and while they aren’t members of the Ranger Regiment, there is a chance of either being assigned at some point. How will the reaction be when women go from attached to being members of special operations units? According to the data, not well.

US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) polled their members and asked about allowing women into their MOS specialties and their units. And 85 percent of the operators were against women being allowed into their specialty and 71 percent against allowing women into their units.

The biggest reasons given in the survey by SOCOM for excluding women were:

  • Most operators were concerned that standards would be lowered.
  • Most operators were concerned that integrating women into SOF units would erode unit cohesion.
  • Most operators were concerned that integrating women into SOF units would reduce the availability of leaders to resolve a conflict between unit members.

One of the most frequent answered questions of the survey was “What is your greatest concern about opening SOF specialties to women?”

The physical standards will be lowered or there will be a double/separate standard set up for female operators. . . . [T]he men would not have confidence in her abilities and most importantly there would be a lack of trust in her ability to uphold an equal share in watching each other’s back in combat.

A common theme in operators across the Special Operations spectrum is that the teams are like a family and there has to be a tremendous amount of trust placed on each other to accomplish their mission. And many feel that once female candidates begin washing out in large percentages from the courses that pressure will be brought to bear from DOD/Congress on USSOCOM to lower the standards so that women will have a greater percentage of the force.

That lowering of the standards will have an adverse effect on mission accomplishment, lower unit cohesion and erode esprit de corps. Will the DOD and/or Congress lay off the Special Operations community and allow them to conduct their own selection courses without interference? That is doubtful.

Special Operations units when deployed operate in austere environments. Many times when working with military units of some of the poorer nations, the facilities that are given for our units to live and operate in are small and very cramped. Those tight living quarters are another issue with the operators, separate bathroom and living quarters may not be available and living in close proximity to women will have an adverse effect on the unit.

Besides the physical aspects of the job, women will have to battle cultural prejudices that exist in many hotspots around the globe where women warriors are not a common sight. In many of the countries where our Special Operations Forces now operate, women are kept separate from men and women would never be accepted. In a profession where building rapport is paramount, that is a very real concern.

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This isn’t to say that women can’t continue to serve in combat roles and conduct special operations missions. About 40 percent of the operators surveyed stated that women can accomplish tasks and support missions that the avenues weren’t as open to men. The CSTs have shown that in intelligence gathering from women in Afghanistan. The CIA has had women in clandestine operations all the way back to the OSS in WWII. No one questions whether women would have the courage to do the job.

But the question on women in Special Operations comes down to basically three questions. First, with all of the combat operations going on worldwide, is this really the time for USSOCOM to begin tinkering with the force, especially in such a sensitive area for the operators involved?

Second, to quote Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, “you were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if they should.” Is this really necessary for the force? Putting women in a traditionally male-dominated society such as Special Operations is going to be tough on them, both with the selection criteria and from their counterparts, who clearly don’t want them involved. It really isn’t fair to them.

And finally, will the force be stronger as a result? Will including women in Special Operations make the force stronger or weaker. If any of the above answers are no, then the question of women in Special Operations units should be a no.