As noted widely throughout the press, Army 1st Lieutenant Ashley White died on 22 October 2011 in Kandahar when the joint special operations task force to which she was attached triggered an IED. In a press release, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) stated that White "played a crucial role as a member of a special operations strike force. Her efforts highlight both the importance and necessity of women on the battlefield today."
Despite the public praise and emphasis on the value of women on the battlefield, the fact remains that Ashley White should not have been in the company of that particular assault force on that day in Kandahar. In fact, unless U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) had granted an exception specifically for White to be assigned to that particular ground unit, she should not have been there at all. At least, not according to the DoD Combat Exclusion Policy and Army Regulation 600-13.
Combat Exclusion Policies
The Combat Exclusion Policy is based on a 1988 DoD restriction on women’s service that created the “Risk Rule” for assignment of women in the military. The rule excluded women from non-combat units or missions if the risks of exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture were equal to or greater than the risk in the combat units they supported.
Based on the experiences of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, DoD concluded that everyone in theater was at risk and thus a risk-based policy was no longer appropriate. As a result, the “Risk Rule” was rescinded on 13 January 1994 by then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and was replaced by the “direct ground combat assignment rule.”  The policy also permits the Services to impose further restrictions on the assignment of women when where the Service Secretary attests that the costs of appropriate berthing and privacy arrangements are prohibitive; where units and positions are doctrinally required to physically collocate and remain with direct ground combat units that are closed to women; where units are engaged in long range reconnaissance operations and Special Operations Forces missions; and where job related physical requirements would necessarily exclude the vast majority of women Service members.
The rationale for these restrictions at the time was that there was no military need for women in ground combat positions because an adequate number of men were available. Additionally, transcripts of a 1994 press briefing indicate that DoD officials believed that the assignment of women to direct ground combat units “would not contribute to the readiness and effectiveness of those units” because of physical strength, stamina, and privacy issues.”
Of course, the logic of combat exclusion policies, as currently written, turns on the conceptualization of the battlefield as a linear environment. Because the modern battlefield in increasingly non-linear and fluid, these policies are nearly impossible to apply, particularly in COIN environments that lack a well-defined forward area, such as Afghanistan. This fact was most recently noted by the March 2011 report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. At this time, its recommendation that DoD eliminate “combat exclusion policies” that prevent women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level has not been acted upon. 
Female Soldiers in Combined Joint Operations Area-Afghanistan (CJOA-A)
Female Engagement Teams (FET) are currently being employed in theater by U.S. and coalition forces to support their battle space owners’ COIN objectives by conducting key female engagements with the local population to build individual, group and community relationships, conduct information gathering, female searches and limited tactical operations. Similarly, Cultural Support Teams (CST), such as the one 1st LT White was a part of, provide direct support to Special Forces. The contributions currently being made by FETs and CSTs are receiving attention in CJOA-A and in the United States. From an information operations perspective, their value lies as much in their ability to engage with women and children (approximately 51% of the Afghan population is women) as to glean valuable population-centric information that men might not be able to get. Therefore, it is not surprising that women are viewed as valuable “battlefield enablers.”
Commander, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (COMUSASOC) recently stated that “they [women] are in Afghanistan right now and the reviews are off the charts. They’re doing great.” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities (SOLIC) Michael Lumpkin said that commanders agree that the program has been a success. Current plans are consistent with these statements - the third group of CST women is about to begin training, and the tentative plan is to have 25 permanent Army CST teams by 2016. Lumpkin noted that "We're coming late to the table, but we've recognized the value (of the program), and I think this will transcend beyond Afghanistan. ... I don't see them going away any time soon."
Our conventional force leadership clearly agrees. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) recently published the Army’s Female Engagement Team Handbook (version 3) in September 2011 and there is a March 2011 Forces Command directive that requires each deploying brigade combat team to have nine FETs per brigade; providing three FETs for each of their maneuver battalions and two FETs for each Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). In August 2011, International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) echoed the same requirements and units in theater are currently forming those teams.
Rationale for Lifting Combat Exclusion Policies
White’s death should serve as a catalyst for serious debate about the role of women in the military more generally. Most people are familiar with the equity-based arguments against combat exclusion policies. According to the Principal Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations, female U.S. Soldiers have served and are currently serving in dangerous roles. Some have been killed and maimed. "Any day that they're walking into a village and engaging with the population they are at the same risk as those Special Operation Forces, battlefield they're detailed to... These women are on the front lines in very austere locations."
And yet their inability to formally hold a “combat position” affects their career trajectories. For example, the exclusion of women from specific requirements, such as combat service experience, translates into an inability to reflect their contributions on their officer evaluation report (OER), non-commissioned officer evaluation reports (NCOER) and both officer and enlisted officer’s record briefs (ORB/ERB). The merit of this service would provide women with a greater opportunity for promotion into the senior ranks, specifically general officer levels. While such equity-based lines of argument obviously have merit, they are usually consumed by the politics of gender and are dismissed before serious debate has time to emerge.
We argue, however, that the need to revisit DoD’s combat exclusion policies sooner rather than later is not primarily derived from any aspect of gender politics. Instead, we assert that DoD’s current policies regarding the role of women in combat is serving to tie the hands of commanders and place additional strain on our already overburdened forces.
Numerous defense officials have cited the tremendous stress placed upon our all-volunteer force by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Gates said during a speech at Duke University’s Page Auditorium on 29 September 2010, “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed tremendous strain on U.S. forces and their families. The all-volunteer force conceived in the 1970s was designed to train, prepare, and deploy for a major and quick conventional conflict…” During a 2009 Senate hearing, Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter W. Chiarelli called the Army a “stressed and tired force” and noted that that 12- to 15-month deployments and the stress of repeated deployments play a role in the increase in Army suicides. The Army already faces perpetual shortages of junior officers (2nd Lieutenant through Captain) qualified to deploy. Without change, recruitment of soldiers capable to fill combat positions will become increasingly difficult and male soldiers currently facing multiple combat tours will see almost no change in their op-tempo.
In addition, on 6 January 2011, under the direction from the White House, Defense Secretary Gates announced that the Pentagon would cut projected spending by $78 billion over the next five years and shrink the size of the Army and Marine Corps. With the Force Cap Reduction occurring in theater, we need to be more flexible in order to meet current operational needs. DoD’s current policy cripples the battle space owner’s ability to fully utilize female soldiers. By allowing women to serve in all roles, changes in combat exclusion policies would provide commanders at all levels the much needed flexibility to employ all of his or her resources to achieve operational objectives and reduce stress on the force.
Experimentation for our Future Forces
The current COIN environment in CJOA-A provides an excellent opportunity to experiment and rapidly garner valuable lessons about the utility of FETs and CSTs and the challenges of integrating women into combat arms positions more generally. The results of such a trial effort could then be taken into account as we try to find intelligent ways to cut our current force structure and build our future forces.
Some of the important questions to be examined include:
- Are FETs and CSTs having a direct or indirect operational impact? Under what conditions and for what missions are they more (or less) useful?
- Is the type of information that FETs and CSTs gathering primarily useful at a tactical level or can it be aggregated for analysis/inclusion in command-level products?
- What are the primary variables that shape the effectiveness of FET and CST across the Regional Commands (RCs)?
- What does this tell us about how to structure and use this resource in the future? (e.g., mix of male to female, differences in mission, etc.)
- Do commanders believe that they would have more operational flexibility if they were able to place FET and CST members into combat positions?
- In consideration of the coming drawdown, is there a benefit to making further amendments to combat exclusion policies?
The ISAF Joint Command (IJC) FET Program Manager (PM) is currently working to examine some of these issues. Specifically, she is in the process of visiting FETs which are operating in six Regional Commands (RCs) in order to gather information through meetings, interviews and distribution of an IJC FET questionnaire. It is anticipated that a FET Comprehensive Assessment Report will be completed and sent to NATO, TRADOC, the IJC Commander and the RC Commanders by the end of December. She also plans to provide legal guidance on how to integrate FETs to a combat arms position in support of the conventional army and special operations and define the FETs relationship with NATO FETs and Gender Advisors.
Additional studies that focus on the operational imperatives for the integration of women into combat arms positions and the impact this would have on our force structure would be very useful.
In 1979, the repeal of a Dutch law led to the integration of the Dutch military, with no formal restrictions on women serving combat duty. On 27 September 2011, Australia’s government announced that female soldiers will soon be able to serve in front-line roles, removing the barriers of entry to women into seven percent of military specialties. In October, the Mexican Congress voted to allow women to serve in the highest positions in the military. Other countries where women are able to serve in more active combat roles include Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland.
In light of these events, rescinding or changing our combat exclusion policies makes sense because it will help all key players: ISAF, the U.S. Armed Forces writ large, battle space owners, and female soldiers. The Armed Forces will be able to use their current resources (women) to fill the gaps in areas affected by force reduction; women earn equal recognition, combat credit and greater opportunity to obtain senior level promotions; and commanders are no longer limited on how they have greater flexibility to employ their internal resources. The existing combat exclusion policies are outdated and limit not only women, but also the ability to maintain an agile and responsive force; it’s time for change.
 USASOC, “Press Release: U.S. Army Special Operations Soldiers Killed in Combat,” 23 October 2011.
 U.S. General Accounting Office, “Information on DoD’s Assignment Policy and Direct Ground Combat Definition,” October 1998; MILDEC, “Women in Combat” p.2.
 Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule.” The memorandum defined the term “direct ground combat” as: [E]ngaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect.”
 AR 600-13 is particularly restrictive. The Army’s definition of direct combat is broader than DoD’s in that it includes both the risk of capture and the repulsion of an enemy assault. In addition, the Army policy prohibits the assignment of women to units whose routine mission is to engage in direct ground combat, while DoD’s policy prohibits the assignment of women to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat.
U.S. General Accounting Office, October 1998, p. 4.
 Military Leadership Diversity Commission, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st Century Military,” 15 March 2011. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 (Section 596) established the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC).
 Major General Bennet Sacolick, Commander, Army Special Warfare Center and School, Cultural Support Program Briefing, 15 September 2011. OPR: AQOJK-DRSE.
 Associated Press, “Death Highlights Women’s Role in Special Ops Teams,” 26 October 2011.
 US Medicine – The Voice of Federal Medicine, “Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Suicide Rate in the Military.” November 7, 2011, April 2009 < http://www.usmedicine.com/articles/senate-committee-holds-hearing-on-suicide-rate-in-the-military-.html
 In the Army, twenty percent of these ranks are filled by female Soldiers who could be drawn upon as a resource. Fifteen percent of West Point undergraduates are women, yet these potential leaders are precluded from career advancement due to their lack of combat experience is a discriminator. Associated Press, “Death highlights women’s role in Special Ops teams.” October 2011, 3 Nov. 2011 <http://news.yahoo.com/death-highlights-womens-role-special-ops-teams-195034667.html
 Washington Post, “Pentagon to cut spending by $78 billion, reduce troop strength.” January 7, 2011, November 7, 2011 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/06/AR2011010603628.html
 Exceptions to the DoD Combat Exclusion Policy may be granted on an individual mission basis after review by U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A). This is a step in the right direction
The New York Times, “Australia Says It Will Open Combat Roles to Women.” September 27, 2011. November 7, 2011 <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/world/asia/australia-will-allow-women-to-serve-in-frontline-combat.html