April 19, 2018

The (Mostly) Good News on Women in Combat

What is the state of female combat integration across the military services?

Three years ago this month, 19 women from across the Army made history by reporting to Fort Benning, Georgia, to become the first women to attend U.S. Army Ranger School. As the women entered the school and made their way through the initial phase of training, they were closely monitored by Army leaders and the Department of Defense. In many ways, these women represented a trial balloon for DoD leaders who were at the time considering a change to department policies which prevented women from serving in combat arms roles. As one of the most mentally and physically grueling courses in the U.S. military, training and testing soldiers’ ability to lead and perform under combat conditions, Ranger School seemed like the ideal place to cautiously test the integration of women into these roles. Facing identical standards for evaluation as the men in the school, the women passed the test. Though only three women from the initial group made it past the first phase – and only after several attempts – all three went on to graduate from the course: two in August and one in October 2015.

Just months after these first women were awarded the coveted Ranger tab, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the opening of all combat roles to women in December 2015, following a policy review by the military services. The following year, the services began removing all exclusions on women’s participation in combat arms occupations. In the ensuing months the military had mixed success implementing female integration, though numerous women met the standards in the face of enormous pressure to measure up. Now that the military has had ample time to implement the policy and adjust training and recruitment, it is vital to ask where gender integration stands and what have been the challenges to successful integration.


  • 1980 - Congress reinstates Selective Service registration for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, but only for men.
  • 1981 – The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Rostker v. Goldberg that the exclusion of women from the Selective Service does not violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
  • 1988 – The DoD convenes its Task Force on Women in the Military and adopts the “risk rule,” which excludes women from combat units or missions which risk exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture.
  • 1992 – The Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces recommends integration based on qualifications rather than the denial of access based on gender.
  • 1993 – Congress repeals the 1988 “risk rule.”
  • 1994 – Secretary of Defense Les Aspin approves the Direct Combat Definition and Assignment Rule (called the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule), which bans women from being assigned to combat units below the brigade level.
  • 2013 – Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announces that the DoD is rescinding the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule on women serving in previously restricted occupations. The military services were required to conduct a “women in the service review” (WISR) of policies and standards between 2013–2015.


  • April 2015 – 19 women enter U.S. Army Ranger School; by June, three remain.
  • August 2015 – Captains Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver become the first women to graduate from Ranger School.
  • October 2015 – Major Lisa Jaster becomes the third woman to graduate from Ranger School
  • December 2015 – Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announces that all military occupations will open to women, following the completion of assessments by the military services.
  • April 2016 – Captain Griest becomes the first female Army infantry officer.
  • September 2016 – The first female soldier to participate in the Army’s Special Forces selection and assessment fails to complete the course.
  • January 2017 – A female Army officer successfully completes the selection process to join the 75th Ranger Regiment.
  • August 2017 – The first woman to attempt Navy SEAL training drops out.
  • September 2017 – A female Marine officer completes the Infantry Officer Course for the first time.
  • January 2018 – The Army announces that it will add three more posts for women serving in combat arms roles (Fort Campbell, Fort Carson, Fort Bliss).
  • March 2018 – The first wave of female Marines arrives at the Camp Pendleton Marine Combat Training course for integrated training – and graduates in early April.

What is the state of female integration across the military services?

Only two years into formal implementation of the integration policy, female service members have gained a small but important share of the combat arms population in the military. At the same time, the military services face an uphill battle to recruit women who are interested and capable of serving in combat roles, while still maintaining physical standards. Each service has invested research into evaluating current standards, and several have begun a slow process of establishing and implementing new gender-neutral standards for combat arms roles. Furthermore, each service has approached the task of integrating women into combat occupations differently, with varied results.


Across the board, the Army has made slow but steady progress to integrate women into combat roles. Interest in combat arms occupations among female soldiers has far exceeded the Army’s expectations; as of this year, more than 600 women have been recruited for or transferred to combat occupations, and 12 women have graduated from Ranger School. The first two women to graduate from Ranger School, Captains Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver, transferred out of their previous military police and aviation branches to become infantry officers. After being assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Capt. Griest took command of an infantry company in April 2017, while Capt. Haver is due to take command this month. Following their lead, more than 70 female officers have completed the infantry or armor basic leader courses. 

Interest in combat arms occupations among female soldiers has far exceeded the Army’s expectations; as of this year, more than 600 women have been recruited for or transferred to combat occupations, and 12 women have graduated from Ranger School. 

The Army additionally initiated a “leaders first” approach to first integrate female officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) into combat units before female junior enlisted, hoping to pave the way for mentorship and female role models within units. Following this model, Capt. Griest’s company includes another Ranger-qualified female infantry officer serving as a platoon leader, and eight female infantry enlisted soldiers. Overall, there are four integrated infantry companies in total at Fort Bragg.

The Army is also taking steps to adjust its policies to further enable the integration. Earlier this year, the Army opened three more posts to women in infantry occupational specialties at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Fort Bliss, Texas, for a total of five bases open to women in combat roles. These expansions align infrastructure with Army data showing that entry-level female recruits are more often choosing infantry, while female officers are more often choosing armor units. The Army’s integration plan, Soldier 2020, also includes a plan for initiating gender-neutral testing and training, starting with the trial rollout of the new, gender-neutral, Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) in 2017.

Marine Corps

The Marine Corps has a more fraught recent history with accepting women into combat roles; the Corps requested a waiver from the DoD from integrating females after Secretary Carter’s announcement. In 2015, the Corps’ initial pushback led to the commissioning of a study examining whether gender integration would affect combat readiness. Overall combat readiness was broken down as compromised by: speed and tempo, lethality, unit and individual readiness, survivability, and cohesion. The results of the study were fairly damning, illustrating that in 93 out of 134 tasks tested, all-male groups outperformed gender-integrated groups. The report also found women had an increased risk for serious injuries, often stress fractures sustained through heavy load-bearing exercise. While previous research concluded that the integration of women had little effect on readiness or unit cohesion, Marine Corps leaders have cited their study to argue that it is up to women to prove themselves against existing standards.

The Marine Corps is the only service which has kept basic training segregated by gender.

The Corps is currently made up of 8 percent women and aiming to grow to 10 percent, but is struggling with recruitment generally, including for combat arms. There are currently 92 women serving in Marine combat arms billets, though only 11 are in infantry roles. The Marine Corps has adopted a similar approach to the Army’s “leaders first” strategy, aiming to put senior female officers and NCOs in combat roles to support junior women while simultaneously recruiting women for enlisted roles. Women have consistently failed the Marine Infantry Officer Course (IOC) at Quantico, in part due to the first event of the course, the combat endurance test (CET), traditionally a pass/fail event. Women have argued for the CET to be recognized as an initiation rite rather than an occupational standard, arguing it does not serve as a Corps-wide test for combat readiness but rather a one-time test with a low attrition rate for men. In March 2018 the Marine Corps recognized the CET as an arbitrary hurdle for women and designated it as an unscored exercise rather than pass/fail. Even with the CET in place, however, the first female Marine graduated from the Infantry Officer Course in September 2017.

The Marine Corps is also the only service which has kept basic training segregated by gender. LtCol Kate Germano (Ret.), who had been in charge of a female basic training battalion at Parris Island until she was controversially removed from command, recently argued the Marine Corps’ attitude and treatment of women sets women at a disadvantage in basic training and hinders the ability of female recruits to succeed. In addition, the ACLU filed a legal complaint in 2017 claiming that gender-segregated basic training, along with the “leaders first” approach, violates the DoD’s gender integration policy. While pervasive attitudes as exhibited in the 2017 “Marines United”  scandal illustrate the challenges to successful integration of the Corps, the Corps has made some important changes. In March 2018, for example, the first wave of female Marines arrived at Camp Pendleton’s Marine Combat Training Course after basic training to train with a fully integrated unit. The first gender integrated class graduated the second week of April.

Navy and Air Force

The Navy and Air Force are further removed from infantry and direct combat, and both services have been more flexible regarding the assignment of women. Historically the services have higher numbers of women, but also have fewer combat and infantry jobs. The Air Force, for example, had allowed women to serve in nearly all roles (except special operations). In its recent review of testing standards as part of implementing the 2015 policy, the Air Force’s physical aptitude test was determined valid for all airmen and women. Earlier this year in a House Armed Service Committee hearing, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson emphasized the role of women as natural protectors and the need to change the national conversation about military service.

Most of the Navy’s closed specialties have been in the Special Warfare community. The Navy has been uniquely able to place women on combat ships since 1993 when Congress removed the law precluding women from serving in any combat unit or occupational specialty. Subsequently, the DoD established the Direct Ground Combat and Assignment Rule which limited women from being assigned to units below the brigade level where the primary mission was to engage in direct ground combat. 

Due to the size and missions of the fleet, women have been able to serve in a variety of roles in the Navy, allowing them to pursue careers that qualify them to fill senior billets and potentially take command on carriers.

The rule offered more flexibility for the Navy; due to the size and missions of the fleet, women have been able to serve in a variety of roles in the Navy, allowing them to pursue careers that qualify them to fill senior billets and potentially take command on carriers. Formally, the DoD’s 2015 policy allowed women to serve in combat units at all levels.

Gender, however, presents a unique hurdle for the Navy because the service historically has not had separate bunks and accommodations for junior enlisted women on ships. The solution has been to assign women to units in pairs, which means they subsequently leave in pairs, creating assignment and stability constraints for the units. Submarines have been the primary sticking point for the Navy due to concerns over space, privacy in close quarters, and prolonged rotations at sea; however, women have served on submarines since 2010. One-fifth of submarine crews are integrated, and female officers are now reaching the same retention rate as male officers

Special Operations

Special Operations Forces (SOF) constitute an area where women have largely been unsuccessful in meeting the bar for entry. While female service members have supported special operations units on the battlefield for years through initiatives like the Army’s Cultural Support Teams, they have not yet qualified for combat roles due to the extremely high physical standards required by these units. For example, no woman has made it through SEAL selection, although the Navy recruited two women for the training in 2017. Typically, 73 to 75 percent of all SEAL candidates fail to make the cut. In the Air Force, five female officers have been accepted into the pipeline for Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) specialists, who coordinate air support for special operators, though none have yet completed the training.

The Army has experienced similar results. Several women have tried to become Army Green Berets, though none have passed the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). Last January, however, a female officer passed the rigorous selection to join the 75th Ranger Regiment, making her the first women to join a special operations unit.

What can the military do better?

Congress, the media, and some of the military services, featuring some legitimate concerns but also significant misconceptions and biases about the ability of women to serve in combat roles. Within the services specifically, a recent study by the National Defense University showed that there are still significant gender biases among male service members regarding the abilities of women to serve. In addition, opposition to female integration often persists where junior enlisted personnel and officers perceive preferential treatment. In addition, any modifications to performance standards can create the perception that women are not meeting the same expectations as their male counterparts. 

Rather than putting the burden solely on female recruits to perform well in combat units, there is much the services can do to support the integration of women.

As a result, military leaders often seek to strike a tone of support for women while upholding existing standards. Recent studies, such as a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service, show that strong unit cohesion is more likely when physical and performance standards are “applied equally to men and women.” The research also shows that biases and misconceptions are often alleviated by increased exposure between male and female service members. For example, women have unofficially served in combat throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many male colleagues have voiced their support for women after observing their competence and dedication to the job. Many commanding officers also recognize the commitment of female service members to the mission, citing the successes of Cultural Support Teams in Afghanistan and other achievements of women in combat.

Rather than putting the burden solely on female recruits to perform well in combat units, there is much the services can do to support the integration of women. This support can include an increased focus on career development – including mentorship – and an effort to achieve a critical mass of female personnel within combat units. Exposure is often the best way to change mindsets about women’s capabilities, and further integration of all combat arms roles will go far to put women on an increasingly equal playing field. By achieving a critical mass, the military can build a network of female service members within units to contribute to consistent command climates and positive unit cohesion, and to provide support and address concerns in the case of sexual harassment or assault. To this point, the Army has had success with its “leaders first” approach in providing female officers in combat arms units to lead and mentor female soldiers. However, the services will face the long-term hurdle of retaining women in all career fields, but especially in combat arms roles. Even with this approach, women will remain a minority in combat units and need effective professional mentorship and support from male colleagues and superiors as well.

Regardless of these challenges, the integration of women continues to be the official policy of the DoD. Across the services, the military leaders have made modest but noteworthy (and sometimes imbalanced) successes in integrating women, and more importantly in laying the groundwork for a future of integrated military service. Female service will be vital to U.S. national security as the military looks to expand to confront potential threats, and military leaders will be wise to learn from each other and from their groundbreaking female service members as they continue down this path.


  • Andrew Swick

    Former Research Associate, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Andrew Swick is a former Research Associate with the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he focused on civil-milita...

  • Emma Moore

    Former Research Associate

    Emma Moore is a former Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Moore is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creati...

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