Come next year women can become Navy SEALs and Army Rangers in their own right should they meet the test, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday. But according to a study special operations leadership commissioned when the end of the ban on women in ground combat was announced, committed senior leadership and a single, gender-neutral standard for performance will be absolutely critical to winning acceptance from male colleagues who say they oppose the battlefield entrance.
In a nearly 300-page report obtained exclusively by Defense One with more than 150 additional pages of technical notes based on focus groups and a survey of those inside the special operations community, RAND Corporation researchers note that, according to their work, SEALs, Air Force special operations forces and non-commissioned officers “appeared most strongly opposed” to integrating women into special operations forces.
“There is strong, deep seated and intensely felt opposition to opening SOF (special operations forces) specialties that have been closed to women,” the report notes. “Overall, 85 percent of survey participants opposed letting women into their specialty, and 71 percent opposed women in their unit.”
Noted RAND, “the dominant perspective across the focus groups was that women should not be integrated into special operations forces units and specialties, with potential impact on mission effectiveness and their continued ability to function as a highly performing team central to participants’ concerns.”
The study notes the three biggest areas of worry among special operators, all of which have arisen during the conversation around women in combat: eroding standards, a decline in unit cohesion, and a question about how leadership would resolve conflicts between men and women. And it says that all of them can be overcome if leaders set the pace, the tone and, most importantly, the standard.
“Based on our analyses, the challenges facing SOCOM,” or U.S. Special Operations Command, “should it decide to integrate women into SOF units, are real and multifaceted, but none of them is insurmountable,” the study says. “The key to successful integration of out-groups is the implementation process. A successful integration of women into SOF…will require transparency, effective leadership and communication, monitoring of progress, and openness to innovation, flexibility and adaptability. Even with all of the above, the process is still likely to face major challenges because of the depth and scope of opposition and concern among the force.”
The study also examines the issue of women’s physical readiness for operator standards.
“To address the question of women’s abilities to meet SOF standards, we examined research exploring differences between males and females on physical ability and motor skill tests. On average, males generally outperform females,” the report says. “That said, although there are often large differences between men and women, primary emphasis must be placed on an individual’s capabilities to perform critical tasks…Just as very few men succeed in qualifying for SOF and the ones that do are in the tail of the distribution, the same is likely to apply to women.”
And when it comes to the issue of male operators’ worries about women in their units, RAND noted the following:
“We note an overarching caveat to the findings,” RAND wrote. “Our effort was designed to elicit speculation as to the impact of the integration into women in SOF so as to gauge the extent of challenges and a deeper understanding of the concerns of SOF personnel. This speculation was not based on actual experiences of SOF personnel, because women are not in those units.”
Changing that perception is now the focus of special operations command, as SOCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel said in an eight-minute video released to his troops Thursday endorsing Carter’s decision to open all combat roles to women and explaining why.
“We need a wide range of exceptional people to be combat effective and to help us address the complex security problems of today’s environment,” Votel said. “After weighing and considering the rigorous analysis… I have determined that there is no compelling analytical data that would support an exception of policy for special operations.”
The test will be in the implementation – and the leadership shown – in the months and, more likely, years ahead.