Pvt. Tatiana Maldonado climbs over an obstacle on the Endurance Course during Marine Combat Training on Feb. 20, 2013, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Not everyone is sold on the idea of a mixed-gender MAGTF. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The Marine Corps’ experimental infantry unit comprised of at least 25 percent women has its fair share of challenges, observers say.
Last week’s announcement of a scaled down Marine air ground task force, slated to be based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., marked the next phase in testing that will further determine to what degree women can successfully serve in combat arms roles.
With the help of college researchers, Marine leaders will spend a training period of roughly six to eight months gathering information along several metrics, including the psychological and social integrity of individuals and of the units in which they’ll operate, Marine Brig. Gen. George Smith, the head of the Marines’ effort to examine the integration of women into combat roles, told Marine Corps Times.
“We’re going to mirror a predeployment workup,” he said.
The proposed task force will be made up of 460 Marine volunteers, 120 of them female, and contain four distinct squad-level co-ed compositions: All men, all women, roughly 50/50, and women in the vast minority.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who often finds himself as a staunch critic of infantry integration, said there is a “magic number” to the proportion of women that can serve in an infantry unit and still remain an effective fighting force.
“Inside the squad, boys and girls can make anything work,” said McCaffery, who said he believes women already contribute “greatly” to the armed forces.
“But at some point, there’s no getting around the 100 pounds on your back,” he said, referring to the heavy load of equipment combat troops must carry. He cited other examples, such as lugging several gallons of gas or water across great distances or carrying a wounded Marine to safety.
The latest move by service leaders opens an additional 11 specialties to women, including three in the artillery field, six in the ground ordnance maintenance field and two in the low-altitude air defense field. A Marine administrative message will be released later this spring that will detail the number of male and female volunteers required for each job, Smith explained.
Another pitfall of mixed gender units is involving too few female Marines, according to McCaffery, to the point “where they feel isolated.”
Lory Manning, a former Navy captain, said the new experimental unit “seems like a very hard way to gather data.”
“We’ve been doing this for years and nobody’s ever had to do an experiment that involved sending women to school and not giving them the occupational designator for completing those schools,” said Manning, a senior policy fellow at The Women’s Research and Education Institute.
She took issue with the fact that women who volunteer, attend school and pass, cannot then continue on in the specialties offered by the new unit. She also noted that women entering those new specialties as a part of the MAGTF will have no real fleet experience, whereas many of the men may have served in those specialties for years.
“It seems rigged in that sense,” she said.
However, the service argues that most any unit on any given day is comprised of lateral movers new to the field, junior fresh faces, as well as seasoned veterans.
The experimental task force will allow the Marine Corps to gather data “in stride,” according to Smith. The University of Pittsburgh will work with the service to determine the physical impact serving in the unit has on women and the units they will serve in, the one-star said. The university boasts a half-dozen ongoing research efforts throughout special operations, including one with Marine special operations.
University researchers will assist the service with its assessment of the requirements of the closed MOSs and whether female Marines can meet those standards, according to Scott Lephart, chair of the school’s department of sports medicine. In addition, they will study how successfully women are being integrated into the unit operations, he said.
A Marine Corps official said universities have expressed an interest in studying the sociological and psychological aspects of the experimental unit
Smith said leaders are also examining successful integration efforts by allied nations and that the information is serving as a “set of data points for us.” Specifically, “to see what analysis did they do, what were their experiences, how did they reach the conclusions they reached and, probably most importantly, what have been their experiences post-decision, after integration.”
He declined to name which nations the service is looking at or what lessons learned had been gleaned thus far.
For his part, McCaffery said he has “zero confidence” that the Marine Corps, or any of the other armed services, are “capable of coming up with a rational strategy for integration and being able to explain it.”
Meanwhile, Manning predicted that the Marine Corps would have a tough time getting volunteers for the task force.
“I think they’re going to have trouble finding people” who are willing to leave their established career path for an experimental infantry unit only to return when research has concluded, she said. “I don’t know how many men they’d find that would be willing to pay that price either.”
Service leaders need to be “very careful if they intend to use [the findings from the experimental task force] for anything that will prove anything” about men and women operating at the same level, she warned.
Commandant Gen. James Amos, during an official interview in which he answered questions via social media, said the service is “building this data base right now” of information on how best to integrate women into combat operations. “We’re collecting information that we heretofore have not had.”
Amos said that female Marines serving on the front lines is “not a done deal yet” but that he was “pretty optimistic” that the service was taking the right approach.
The infantry unit will start training this summer and wrap up operations in late 2015.