Special Ops General Concerned with 'Culture, Social Behavior' Aspects of Women in Combat

As the Defense Department rolled out its plans today to integrate women into combat roles, a director at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) expressed the loudest skepticism from military leaders yet that the administration's Jan. 1, 2016, goal would go off without a hitch.

The Pentagon released implementation plans for shifting women into previously closed positions, following up on the January decision to rescind the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and SOCOM all submitted their plans over the spring for review by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.

"I remain confident that we will retain the trust and confidence of the American people by opening positions to women, while ensuring that all members entering these newly opened positions can meet the standards required to maintain our warfighting capability," Hagel said in a memo accompanying the release.

"The Department remains committed to removing all gender barriers, wherever possible, and meeting our missions with the best qualified and most capable personnel," he added.

As many as 237,000 front-line combat positions could open up to women. Job exemptions would have to be requested by each service branch and approved by Hagel and Dempsey to remain men-only.

And Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, director of force management and development at SOCOM, told reporters at the Pentagon today that he's making no guarantees.

"We have some genuine concerns that must be addressed prior to making an informed recommendation to the secretary of defense, a recommendation which complies with the chairman's guiding principles of preserving unit readiness, cohesion, and morale," Sacolick said.

"Of particular concern is our mission set, which predominantly requires our forces to operate in small, self-contained teams, many of which are in austere, geographically isolated, politically sensitive environments for extended periods of time. This complexity requires a unique assessment predicated upon detailed analysis, ultimately providing a single, clear, consistent procedure for execution throughout the SOCOM enterprise."

He noted that "a decision made by a single service can have rippled effects across the SOCOM enterprise."

SOCOM, through both its own command and the RAND Corp., is studying the potential impacts of letting women into the Navy SEALs and special boat crews and the Army Rangers. In the Marines Special Operations Command, SOCOM is looking at critical skill operator positions; in the Air Force, they are looking at special tactics officers, combat controllers, and special operations weather personnel.

"Because the Rangers are infantrymen, that will be dependent upon an Army decision to ultimately integrate," Sacolick said, adding nearly 15,500 positions could open to women.

"I can ensure you we are not predisposed to any particular course of action. Once the studies are complete and all the facts and the data have been collected, the U.S. SOCOM commander, in conjunction with the service chiefs, will make their recommendation to the secretary of defense," he stressed. "At this point, no decisions have been made. And I'll state that again. We haven't made any decisions whatsoever."

Under questioning from reporters, Sacolick said he was hearing the rank-and-file -- and his concern wasn't so much about a woman's muscular strength.

"Their concerns are, you know, once again, that you got a 12-men ODA and an isolated case, how is that -- what are the implications there?" he said of the reaction from men in the field. "There's all those things that we're concerned about, probably more so than the actual standards in our qualification courses…culture, social behavior. Those aspects of ultimate integration."

Still, Sacolick said it's conceivable that a special ops team in the future could have 11 men and one woman.

"We're looking for smart, qualified operators," he said, noting women are "underrepresented" in civil affairs and psychological operations. "The days of Rambo are over. I mean, we're looking for young men that can speak and learn a foreign language and understand culture, that can work with indigenous populations and culturally attune manners."