WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A government commission will urge the U.S. military this spring to allow women to serve as combat soldiers, but the Pentagon is not likely to adopt those recommendations any time soon as it struggles with two long wars and a new policy toward gay troops.
The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, put together by the White House and Congress in 2009 to study how to make the military more fair for minorities, will issue a final report in March with some 20 recommendations, including a gradual end to combat exclusion rules for female soldiers.
Women represent a small minority of U.S. soldiers, with just over 200,000 women last year out of a total active duty force of 1.4 million soldiers.
As the U.S. military grapples with effects of a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces a major cultural change in embracing openly gay troops, the Pentagon is unlikely to bring women into combat unless Congress or the White House require it.
Proponents of the change say women are already doing dangerous jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan, often attached to combat teams in the thick of the fighting, but may not be eligible for benefits or recognition fellow soldiers get.
“I think that there’s a recognition that the time has come,” said Nancy Campbell Duff, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. She said no legislation would be required for the Pentagon to start moving women into combat roles.
Women serve in combat roles in a few nations including Canada and Israel, but officials say demand from women for such jobs in NATO nations is very low. Last year, Britain decided after a review that it would not change rules excluding women from infantry or combat arms teams.
Geoff Morrell, deputy assistant defense secretary and chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said he was sure “the appropriate folks here will thoroughly review and carefully consider the commission’s recommendations, but frankly we are already in the midst of preparing for another significant cultural change so that is where our focus is right now.”
The military is preparing to implement an end to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ rules prohibiting gay soldiers from revealing their sexuality. Congress voted to repeal the controversial law late last year.
Gates suggested last year in an exchange with students that women would eventually be able to serve with Special Operations forces, but gave no hint about timing.
Most of the support for change comes from interest groups or from some in Congress, who may be less likely to pursue such changes after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in November.
Retired Major General Robert Scales, former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, said not enough was known about how the presence of women soldiers would affect units living, for example, in close quarters in dangerous, isolated areas of Afghanistan.
“That’s not to the say the politics of this won’t drive it into the services” eventually, he said.
Claire Russo, a former Marine lieutenant who served in Iraq and later was an advisor to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said she believes few women would be able to meet the rigorous physical fitness levels required for troops toting heavy equipment and going after enemies at close range.
“I don’t see any positive in putting women in the infantry, in combat arms, just for the sake of doing it,” she said.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Vicki Allen