Hunter Bucks Pentagon on Women in Combat
Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is clashing with the Pentagon on the issue of women in combat.
Hunter bucks the top brass (Washington Times, p.1)
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter took the extraordinary step of bucking the Pentagon on a major issue, after he failed to convince senior defense officials to change an Army policy on women in combat. The California Republican has been a staunch ally of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the armed forces on nearly every aspect of how they fight the war against Islamic terrorists. But when it came to women in combat, an important issue to cultural conservatives, he broke with the Pentagon last week and sided with the Republican party’s base.
Mr. Hunter put before the Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel an amendment to the 2006 defense authorization bill. The amendment would bar women from serving in Army forward support companies (FSCs) that embed, or collocate, with ground combat units. The amendment passed on a party-line vote and will be taken up by the full Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
Mr. Hunter’s decision to take on the Pentagon came after he had a series of discussions with Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff and Army Secretary Francis Harvey, but he failed to convince them the Army was violating the current collocation rule. “The nation should not put women into the front lines of combat,” Mr. Hunter said. “In my judgment, we will cross that line soon unless we make policy decisions as we design the new Army.”
Hunter is certainly right that the current use of women is in violation of the law, which is aimed at keeping women from direct combat. Unfortunately, stabilization operations and counterinsurgency warfare do not recognize traditional battle lines. The only way to ensure that women are not placed in harm’s way is to keep them out of combat zones to begin with. For all practical purposes, that means no women in the military. That, like it or not, is a political non-starter.
The issue has been boiling since last year, when the Army redesigned combat brigades into lighter “units of action.” The Army describes them as modular units that deploy and fight with support units in tow. The 3rd Infantry Division now in Iraq is the first division to fight with units of action and has 13 FSCs. However, Pentagon policy bars women from serving in FSCs that routinely collocate with units assigned to ground combat roles. The Army itself describes the FSC role as “to provide direct and habitual combat service support to itself and the maneuver/fires/armed reconnaissance battalion.”
The Army, critics say, has moved to get around the rule by rewriting it without Congress’ approval. An internal Army memo previously reported by The Washington Times states that FSCs are only barred from combat units when they are “conducting” actual combat.
While the Constitution gives the president and his chain of command extraordinary latitude over military affairs, Congress has oversight authority. Hunter has every right to demand that the DoD follow the law. Hearings will likely reveal that the results of doing that will be unacceptable, requiring that the law be changed.
Having the law and practice be one and the same is a very good thing.