Women in Combat-Arms: a Case for the Status Quo Ante

Women in Combat-Arms: A Case for the Status Quo Ante

Combat-arms units that are mixed-gender perform worse than all-male units by almost every metric. This is a factual, but controversial statement. Despite the controversy, it should be kept in focus throughout any discussion of gender-integration of combat-arms units.

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It is an uncontroversial statement to say that women are valuable and productive members of society. Any reasonable person, male or female, would have to concur. The controversy arises when we begin to assign roles to women that constrain their area of productivity or societal contribution. Indeed, we need not assign anything at all in order to generate consternation; we need only assert those roles which have been considered traditional up to the present day. It may be helpful when doing so to examine why those roles came about, at least regarding our subject: women serving in combat roles by being integrated into combat-arms units. Combat Arms units in the US Army should not be coed because sex-integration negatively impacts esprit-de-corps, morale, and mission readiness.

Women have played an important part in the United States armed forces since the Revolutionary War. They have served in many roles, many of which were non-combat-arms. These roles included logistics, communications, administration, and most famously: nursing. In 2016, Department of Defense (DoD) policy changed to allow women, who comprise about 15% of the military, to be eligible to serve in combat-arms units (Task and Purpose, 2017). In order to illustrate why this policy is potentially harmful to the military’s warfighting capabilities, an honest discussion of the physical differences between the sexes is called for.

A yearlong study conducted by the United States Marine Corps (USMC) yielded confirmation of long-recognized differences between the sexes in areas that directly affect combat task performance. The study contrasted mixed-gender squads against all-male squads. One of the significant discoveries was that the mixed-gender squads were less lethal than their counterparts. This was due to mixed-gender squads performing worse with various weapons-systems typical to an infantry team (M4, M249, M203). These squads not only scored lower in basic marksmanship; they moved slower and generally performed worse in combat drills that featured tactical movement with the afore-mentioned weapons (Peralta, 2015). The females generally had a more difficult time moving with the weapons and associated gear required for the combat infantry mission.

A potential explanation for these difficulties lies in the physical differences between the sexes. According to the Marine Corps study; females have a higher percentage of body fat: 24% for females and 20% for males. On average, females possess 15% less anaerobic capacity, and 10% less aerobic capacity than males. This means that the top 10% of female overlapped with the bottom 50% of males. Even more concerning than that, however, is that female Marines were 6 times more likely to be injured in training than their male counterparts (Peralta, 2015).

The discrepancies in average performances and injury rates is partially explained by more physiological facts. The average female Marine was more than 4 inches shorter, had 37 fewer pounds of muscle, and had nearly 6 pounds more fat than a male. They also were measured to have only 55% of the upper body strength and 70% of the lower body strength of a male Marine (Peralta, 2015). These differences have been recognized and codified in the differing physical testing standards the military uses to evaluate their servicemembers. Every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has lower standards for passing on their respective physical fitness test for females (Fumento, 2016).

The military is supposed to be a meritocracy. Because of the unique nature of it’s mission, the military has the legal ability to discriminate based on physical condition and fitness in ways that civilian or other governmental agencies are not able. This is because the ability to successfully prosecute a war requires the best, most fit, most disciplined Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines available. In order to fit females into roles formerly closed to them, the DoD must simultaneously enact policies that ignore important differences between males and females (open combat-arms to females) and keep in place physical testing standards that acknowledge those differences vis-? -vis lower standards for females (Simons, 2018). This schizophrenic policy and the cognitive dissonance that seems to have resulted from it breeds confusion, mistrust, and resentment. These feelings are not conducive to building and maintaining effective warfighting units (Klimas, 2016).

The usual arguments cited against integrating combat-arms units can be made again: there will be romantic entanglements and competition for the affection and attention of the females. These entanglements will lead to pregnancies. We know these things occur on a regular basis because we see them happening in non-combat-arms units that are currently gender-integrated. The means by which the DoD attempts to mitigate these problems creates further complications. Separate sleeping quarters, for example, presents serious logistical challenges; and can be very expensive. The Navy’s current program to refurbish its submarines is a contemporary example. Separate quarters also prevents the sort of bonding that occurs between servicemembers of the same gender (Klimas, 2016).

In the midst of the debate over whether or not the new policy is tenable and practical, few people are talking about what seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for this experiment on the part of women themselves: they are not signing up. The vehemence with which advocates for the change demand it would suggest that there would have been a rush to fill these slots by females. The opposite seems to be the case (Scoti, 2016). The Sergeant Major of the Army (the highest-ranking enlisted member of the Army and advisor to the Secretary of the Army) recently put out a call for female Soldiers to ‘step up’ and sign up for combat-arms jobs (Tan, 2016). If this radical policy is expensive, causes morale and esprit-de-corps problems, decreases the effectiveness of combat-arms units, and is not being embraced by those it was meant to benefit; then should it be in place (Donnelly, 2016).

The military should not be the place for social experimentation. While it is often referred to as a ‘microcosm’ of society; to a great degree, the military is a bastion against societal change. It is so because war will always place a demand for disciplined, fit Soldiers who can close with and destroy the enemy. Policies that allow for females to serve in combat-arms units sabotage the ability of the nation to fulfill the requirements of that demand. They endanger national security by placing political concerns over mission-readiness and warfighting capability. According to the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces: Any unnecessary distraction or any dilution of the combat effectiveness puts the mission and lives in jeopardy. Risking the lives of a military unit in combat to provide career opportunities or accommodate the personal desires or interests of an individual, or group of individuals, is more than bad military judgment. It is morally wrong.


  1. Donnelly, E. (2016). Statement for the Record: Executive Summary. Center for Military Readiness, Senate Armed Services Committee. Retrieved from https://cmrlink.org/data/sites/85/CMRDocuments/ExecSummDonnellySASCStatement_020216.pdf
  2. Fumento, M. (2016). A Weighty Argument Against Women in Combat. The American Conservative. Retrieved from https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/a-weighty-argument-against-women-in-combat/comment-page-1/
  3. Herres, R. (1992). The Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces (Report to the President). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  4. Klimas, J. (2016). Integrating Women Into Combat Reduces Effectiveness, Harms Unit Cohesion. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/mar/19/problems-women-combat-cant-be-mitigated-report/
  5. Peralta, E. (2015). Marine Corps Study: All-Male Combat Units Performed Better Than Mixed Units. The Two-Way: Breaking News From NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/10/439190586/marine-corps-study-finds-all-male-combat-units-faster-than-mixed-units
  6. Scoti, C. (2016). After All That, Few Female Soldiers Sign Up For Combat. The Fiscal Times. Retrieved from www.thefiscaltimes.com/2016/08/02/After-All-Few-Women-Soldiers-Sign-Combat
  7. Simons, A. (2018). Women Don’t Belong In Combat: Opposing View. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/08/26/women-combat-ranger-school-sex-editorials-debates/32415995/
  8. Tan, M. (2016). SMA: Army Needs Female Soldiers to Step Up for Combat Jobs. The Army Times. Retrieved from https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2016/08/01/sma-army-needs-female-soldiers-to-step-up-for-combat-jobs/
  9. TIMELINE: A History of Women in the U.S. Military. (2017). TIMELINE: A History of Women in the U.S. Military. Task and Purpose. Retrieved from https://taskandpurpose.com/timeline-history-women-us-military/
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