Exclusive Access to Marine Corps Study Shows it Misses the Mark

By Ellen Haring and Megan MacKenzie*

In August, the Marine Corps completed a two and a half year, $36 million dollar series of studies that examined the possible impacts of integrating women into combat occupations. On 10 September, they issued a four-page, unsigned, undated, summary of their research findings that concluded that women degrade combat effectiveness, contribute to increased injury rates and may negatively impact recruiting and retention.

After gaining unprecedented access to over 380 pages of this research, we found that the primary study was inherently flawed and that the limited information the Marines released hid a myriad of problems and weaknesses associated with the design, small volunteer pool, and lack of generalizability of the findings. Significantly, the unclassified yet previously unreleased research documents indicate that women do not negatively impact unit cohesion, that the study sought to measure the impacts of integration in the absence of established combat standards, that female volunteers in the study had no operating force experience in ground combat units, and that better physical screening would have all but eliminated the rates of injury for women. We have released these documents to the Washington Post and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Evidence in the longer versions of the study also contradicts the general conclusion that all-male infantry teams performed better than other teams. For example, the research indicates that mixed gender teams are better at solving complex problems, have fewer disciplinary problems, and will likely increase the recruiting pool. The results also showed that non-infantry male Marines outshot infantry trained Marines and that setting valid standards will likely improve overall combat effectiveness.

When the Secretary of Defense rescinded the combat exclusion policy in 2013, the Services were tasked with setting valid occupational standards. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act further entrenched this, requiring that “outcome-based standards” be developed to “accurately predict performance of actual, regular and recurring duties of a military occupation” and that they be applied to “measure individual capabilities.”

While the Army has some well-defined elite infantry training standards in the form of its Ranger School standards, the Marines have historically assumed that any male should be capable of infantry occupations simply because of his sex. In other words, until now, the only required standard for an infantry Marine has not been his individual capabilities or physical and mental qualifications but has simply been his biology and a passing Physical Fitness Test (PFT) score; the latter is an achievement most female Marines also meet.

In unpublished portions of the research the Marines acknowledge this as a limitation, stating “they relied heavily on the fundamental assumption that simply because a Marine in a particular ground combat arms MOS is a male, he should be capable of performing all of the physical tasks” of a combat occupation. They also concluded “perhaps the single-most important result of this almost three year process” has been “to essentially deconstruct many collective ground combat arms tasks to identify what individual tasks and standards an individual Marine must achieve …to be a fully contributing member of that unit.”

Although the Marines had clear directives from DOD and acknowledged the limitations of their current standards for infantry, their studies did not focus on establishing quantifiable job-specific performance standards. Instead, their main research effort, the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force (GCEITF) had as its objective “to evaluate the physical performance of individual Marine volunteers in the execution of individual and collective tasks in an operational environment” and to “estimate the effect of gender integration.”

The problem with this objective was that the Marines were seeking to evaluate the physical performance of Marines in the absence of quantifiable job-specific standards. Not only did they lack clear standards at the start of the research program, but they failed to define or outline criteria for evaluating success or “combat effectiveness” at any point whatsoever in their research. Throughout the analyses, the only criteria used to measure achievement or combat effectiveness appears to be absolute speed and accuracy when completing a select number of physically demanding tasks: in other words, no standard was established to be met, and each task was turned into an absolute competition.

Since the study does not establish minimum operational standards associated with combat tasks and duties, and it fails to measure study participants against job-specific standards, this research does little to further the discussion on gender integration. The conclusion that all-male groups, on average, performed faster than integrated groups has been taken as proof that there are risks to gender integration and that the inclusion of female Marines would therefore render the Marines less combat effective, regardless of any individual Marines’ qualifications, male or female. Despite the importance placed on speed, the study does not define how fast a task needs to be accomplished or under what conditions to meet combat effective screening criteria. They just say that men are faster, therefore better. Although it is interesting that all-male teams – on average- performed better than integrated ones, the results do not tell us whether the integrated teams performed adequately. Moreover, an unexpected and unreported finding was that males with no infantry training consistently outshot their infantry trained counterparts on three of the four weapons tested and tied them on the fourth.

The Marine study came to mixed conclusions when it came to morale and cohesion. This is significant since it is often assumed that women spoil the “band of brothers” dynamic that is considered essential to combat effectiveness. In a widely circulated editorial, retired Marine General Gregory Newbold stated that the mysterious bonds between men are “what tempers the steel of an infantry unit” and “serves as the basis of its combat power.” The Marine Corps’ study does not demonstrate a clear link between gender integration and a loss of group cohesion. Participants were asked questions that measured cohesion levels at several stages in the study. Overall it was reported that there was “no significant difference” in cohesion levels between gender integrated and all-male units and that “gender integration, in and of itself, will not have a significant impact on unit morale.” The research also found that “gender-neutral standards facilitate task cohesion in integrated units.”

The Marines’ own research counters one of the most prolific arguments used to keep women out of combat roles. Moreover, their research indicates that the development of gender-neutral standards might actually enhance group cohesion within the Corps.

There are several issues with the applicability and generalizability of the findings. The study claims that the impact of gender integration on small units in the study “are generalizable to larger unit effectiveness,” yet later in the findings contradicts this, stating that due to small population sizes and possible selection bias “caution should be used when considering the generalizability of findings.” In terms of selection problems, effort was made to include a population that was representative of the Marines; however, it was acknowledged “Our sourcing of volunteers from the operating forces means accepting variations in some important respects, such as Time in Service, Time in MOS, training levels, and physiological development. We cannot be certain that male and female participants were totally equitable in these characteristics.” It was also noted that all of the female Marines had “no operating force experience in ground combat units” and that “even with the training period prior to the experimental phase designed to mitigate differences in training and physiological development, some differences likely remained” between volunteers.

In addition to possible selection bias issues, there was a clear problem of simply having enough participants for each of the elements of the study to draw any reliable conclusions. When describing the volunteer pool, it was admitted that “in some MOSs there is only a small quantity of males and females … In the extreme cases of the experiment, there were no more than three males (i.e., PIMG) and females (i.e., tanks) completing the entire experimental phase.” The study compares what it considers ‘low density’ and ‘high density’ gender integrated groups to all-male units. However, due to drop out rates and issues with numbers of volunteers, often the ‘high density’ groups contained only 2 women and analysis of some tasks could not be completed at all due to a lack of participants.

Another issue associated with the volunteer population and representativeness relates to selection and physical requirements. There has been significant attention given to the relatively high rates of injury for women in the Marine study. However, the longer reports show that “when fitness is considered, female injury rates are similar/the same as male injury rates” and that “a stricter physical screening tool would have eliminated all the female Marines who sustained injury and were dropped during ITB” (infantry initial entry training). They also conclude that “it is unknown how much a stricter (higher) physical screen would have improved the physical performance of female volunteers” during the integrated task force testing.

Female volunteers were allowed to participate in the GCEITF experiment if they could meet minimum male fitness scores; scores the Marines no longer believe correlate to combat occupational success. Additionally, female Marines are held to a stricter body mass index (25%) than men (27.5%). According to their own analysis, “This appears to be counterproductive, especially for enabling females to enter physically demanding MOSs” since a higher body mass index in women is more advantageous for physically demanding jobs than a lower body mass index.

By the Marines’ own admission, “ground combat units have many years of historical bias, much of which will take time to eliminate.” This bias isn’t just evident in ground combat units; it’s also evident in the design, research and published findings of this set of studies. At best, the research amounts to a competition between groups of men and women with different qualifications and experience. In the absence of standards or evidence about the performance of individuals, the results do not indicate if some women outperformed some men or whether women are capable of performing combat duties. The fact that the Marines felt confident concluding women negatively impact combat units despite the poor design, inconsistent volunteer pool, small numbers of participants and confounding results regarding both women and men’s performance indicates a clear intent to keep women out.

*Ellen Haring is a retired Army colonel and senior fellow at Women in International Security
Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and the author of Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Miltiary and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight

Last Woman in Ranger School Recycles Swamp Phase

SUMMARY: The last remaining woman in the US Army’s Ranger School will be ‘recycled’ to attempt the final Swamp phase again. If she graduates, she will join Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver as the first female graduates of Ranger School. The Army has subsequently announced that it would remove all restrictions on women attending Ranger School in the future. General Mark A Milley has rationalised the decision in terms of combat readiness, saying, “giving every qualified soldier the opportunity to attend the Ranger Course, the Army’s premier small unit leadership school, ensures we are maintaining our combat readiness today, tomorrow and for future generations.”

SOURCES: Dan Lamothe, September 15 2015, ‘Last Woman at Army’s Ranger School held back from graduating, but still could pass course,’ The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/09/15/last-woman-at-armys-ranger-school-held-back-from-graduating-but-still-could-pass-course/

Air Forces review physical standards- consider ‘gender neutral’ standards

SUMMARY: The US Air Force conducted a study on new gender-neutral standards for combat jobs, with over 175 male and female volunteers. Brigadier General Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy says that many of the women who took part in the study, “were volunteers from a variety of other career fields…and they were able to compete with and stay up with men.” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has indicated that she wants to open up the last 6 combat jobs in the Air Force to women. With these Air Force jobs requiring 2 to 3 years of special operations combat training, there was no way for women to experience the existing physical standard requirements. This study is therefore even more important to determine physical capability, and will likely be used to develop gender-neutral occupational standards for combat positions.

SOURCES: Stephen Losey, September 16 2015, ‘USAF General: Women in Combat Standards test can keep up,’ Military Times, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/careers/2015/09/16/kelly-women-in-combat-standards-test-confident-they-can-keep-up/32494747/

Commander of Special Forces Acknowledges Women’s Contributions to Combat

SUMMARY: General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Special Operations Command, has stated that the SOCOM recommendation on women serving in direct-action combat units will be submitted shortly. Votel indicated that SOCOM has considered a range of studies conducted by various branches, including the Marine Corps’ study, which was heavily criticised by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. In the announcement, there was extensive acknowledgment of the women in cultural support teams, who were regarded as a “critical factor for us in being much more effective in things we were being asked to do on the battlefield.” The seemingly positive perspective on women in combat seems indicative of a recommendation without exceptions.

SOURCES: Matthew Cox, September 16 2015, ‘Head of Spec Ops Command: Decision on women in combat imminent,’ Military.com, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/09/16/head-of-specops-command-decision-on-women-in-combat-imminent.html  

Marines Want the Door Closed to Women- Navy wants it Open: what will happen?

SUMMARY: Officials report that the Marine Corps commandant General Dunford has recommended that women not be allowed to compete for several front-line combat jobs, including infantry and reconnaissance positions. The basis of this decision is the Marine Corps gender integration yearlong study, which concluded that overall male-only units performed better than gender-integrated units. The study’s report also cited several outdated sources, including a 25 year-old report by a presidential commission on women in the armed forces that concluded that having women in combat is “morally wrong.” The Marine Corps’ recommendation has inflamed debate over whether Navy Secretary Ray Mabus can veto the proposal. Mabus has recently come under fire for publicly criticizing the study, saying, it “relied on averages… and a lot of the things that women fell a little short in can be remedied by two things: training and leadership.” He went on to say on a different occasion, “I’m not going to ask for an exemption for the Marines, and it’s not going to make them any less fighting effective.” Mabus sides with the other branches, which are all expected to allow women in combat without exceptions. Republican congressman, and ex-Marine Duncan Hunter has called for Mabus’ resignation, on the basis that Mabus “openly disrespected the Marine Corps as an institution.”

The usual process will see the service chiefs present their plans to service secretaries, who will then forward recommendations to the US Defense Secretary Ash Carter. There is seemingly a conflict of interest, as General Dunford will take over as chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs and will likely defend his recommendation, even when the Army, Navy, Air Force and SOCOM are not submitting exceptions. It is no surprise that when women only make up less than 8% of the Marine Corps, it is the only branch pushing for exceptions, especially since the Army, Navy and Air Force are expected to allow women in combat jobs without exceptions.

SOURCES: Lolita C Baldor, September 18 2015, ‘AP Sources: Marines seek to close combat jobs to women,’ Marine Corps Times, http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2015/09/18/ap-sources-marines-seek-close-combat-jobs-women/72398172/

Women in Combat – Current State of the Debate

SUMMARY: As the deadline looms for military branches to submit their recommendations to the US Defense Secretary for exceptions to the lifting of the combat exclusion policy, statistics and data are dominating the debate. More than 9000 female troops have earned Combat Action Badges, with more earning valour awards- including the Silver Star. With more than 214 000 women currently serving in the military, comprising 14.5% of the forces, and more than 280 000 women having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reality of women already in combat is seemingly ignored. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) cites as of April 2015, “161 women have lost their lives and 1,015 had been wounded in action as part of Global War on Terror Operations.” Critics of women in combat ignore this and continue to parrot statistics about higher injury rates for women.

The CRS summarises the arguments on either side:

Opposed to Lifting the Exclusion Ban

“Those in favor of keeping restrictions cite physiological differences between men and women that could potentially affect military readiness and unit effectiveness. Some also argue that social and cultural barriers exist to the successful integration of women into combat occupations and all-male units.”

Advocates for Lifting the Exclusion Ban

“Those who advocate for opening all military occupations to women emphasize equal rights and arguing it is more difficult for service members to advance to top-ranking positions in the armed services without combat experience. In their view, modern weapons have equalized the potential for women in combat since wars are less likely to be fought on a hand-to-hand basis.”

SOURCE: Richard Sisk, August 31 2015, ‘ Women in Combat: Silver Stars, Combat Action Badges and Casualties,’ Military.com, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/08/31/women-in-combat-silver-stars-combat-action-badges-casualties.html

US Defense Secretary wants women who meet the standards in combat

SUMMARY: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made it clear during his speech to the American Legion that restrictions would be lifted on women in combat positions for those who can meet the standards. Carter made reference to the achievements of Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, the two female Ranger school graduates saying, “when put to the test, not everyone, only a select few, will meet our standards of combat excellence. But no one needs to be barred from their chance to be tested.” While the 1994 regulations prohibiting women from serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment still stand, Carter’s comments indicate that top military brass may be relaxing their tight grip on combat positions for women who meet the existing standards.

SOURCE: Richard Sisk, September 1 2015, ‘Carter: Military should let women meet standards for combat jobs,’ Military.com, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/09/01/carter-military-should-let-women-meet-standards-for-combat-jobs.html