Professor of Gender and War. University of Sydney

Summary of the Studies Measuring Women’s Capacity for Combat


This article by Kelly Servick examines the various scientific studies conducted by the US military, with a particular focus on the Air Force.

Air Force

The US Air Force has commissioned a scientific study, directed by exercise physiologist Neal Baumgartner, about the physical standards for airmen who fight in combat. The study includes 63 female airmen and 109 male airmen, with approximately half being current combat service members.
Despite the policy announcement by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in January 2013 that the ban on women in combat would be lifted, questions about the physical capabilities of female service members persist. Many skeptics of women in combat cite “small hearts, smaller skeletons, less muscle mass and more fat” as reasons women will be unable to perform critical combat tasks such as loading artillery or conducting rescues.

But one woman in the study argues that physical requirements and standards are not the main obstacle. She states that culture is the biggest stumbling block when it comes to integration: ”we are going up against a pretty big cultural block… women in these career fields are generally seen as a hindrance, a burden: ‘Oh she’s not going to be able to keep up.’” Baumgartner has been a vocal advocate for realistic physical training since 1998, arguing tasks should be based on the demands of “real-world fighting,’ and not the physical fitness of previous candidates. He has been working on designing the study since 2011, as all standards must now be ‘scientifically defensible and gender neutral,’ which begs the question, what were they based on before? There is further information in the article about the research design, statistics and the peculiarities of the fifteen combat and rescue simulations of the Air Force study.


Jack Myers, senior planner with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, is critical of the practicalities of the suggested predictive model, which has recruits complete combat tasks to screen them and determine if they are likely to complete training or get injured. The US Army Institute of Environmental Medicine is working on a more nuanced predictive model that reduces jobs to their 5 to 7 most physical demanding tasks, and using them for recruitment and training.

Marine Corps

A great focus is on the effect of female soldier’s on a team’s performance in a combat mission. A study of 350 soldiers (Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force) includes 65 women who have completed occupational specialty schools, required for all combat jobs. The women were integrated into various teams, to carry out test missions, in an effort to compare the performance of male-only teams with integrated teams.

SOURCE: Kelly Servick, July 30 2015, ‘Feature: As US moves to allow women in combat, researchers help set the bar,’ Science Magazine,

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