Air Force Secretary Deborah James addressed the issue Monday, telling reporters at the Pentagon that she and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have not yet received recommendations from her commanders about how they should proceed. She anticipates making her recommendations to Carter by October 1.
“The key thing is we don’t want to lower standards,” she said.
But the Air Force is looking at changing physical standards, drawing concern from those who believe that it leaves the door open to access to the elite jobs being granted more easily in the name of being more inclusive. The current standards include push-ups, sit-ups, running, swimming and other exercises required to show fitness for combat. James said in a statement to The Washington Post that the service took the research called for by the Pentagon in 2013 — known as the Women in Service Review — as an opportunity to do make sure it has the right standards in place for both men and women.
“I look at this matter in this way: What I want to know is, are you capable of doing the job laid out by the standards and are you living the core values?” she said. “At the end of the day, that’s what counts.”
Numerous defense officials suggest they are willing to open virtually all jobs to women, including in Special Operations units. Retiring Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert was among the latest to signal a willingness to do so, telling the independent Navy Times and Defense News newspapers in a joint interview last week that he and Rear Adm. Brian Losey, the top officer in Naval Special Warfare Command, are open to letting women serve in Navy SEAL teams if they can meet the requirements.
Research carried out by the Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas this summer concluded at the beginning of August, and is currently under review by Air Force officials, Capt. Brooke Brzozowske, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Thursday. Recommendations will be submitted to James, who will in turn make recommendations to Carter. James will coordinate with U.S. Special Operations Command and the other services before making her recommendations to Carter, Brzozowske said.
More than 99 percent of all Air Force jobs already are open to women, but six job fields with a combined 4,300 positions remain closed, service officials said. They include pararescueman, special tactics officer, tactical air control party, combat rescue officer, combat control team and Special Operations weather team specialist.
Some of those jobs, such as pararescueman, exist in both the conventional Air Force and in Special Operations Command. James has signaled for more than a year that she intended to open all positions to women, but it remains to be seen what requirements men and women alike will have to meet if gender integration in them occurs.
The research into the physical standards was led by Neil Baumgartner, an exercise physiologist and retired Air Force major. To determine what physical skills are needed to do the jobs closed, he and his colleagues met with airmen serving in them, eventually developing a battery of tests that nearly 200 elite service members and regular airmen underwent earlier this year at Lackland, he said.
Baumgartner said the research will provide a better understanding and rationale for what is needed. The new standards will amount to a “paradigm shift” in the discussion about what is needed to carry out the missions required, he said. Critics have questioned if the requirements will be made easier in order to allow women to serve in the closed positions, but the service hasn’t said yet what could change — and is considering broadening what is required to include other exercises.
“There’s nothing wrong with the run and swimming and calisthenics, but what about leg strength?” Baumgartner said of existing requirements. “What about leg endurance? What about core strength and core endurance? What about rotational motion and twisting?”
The existing standards are rigorous. Combat rescue officers, for example, are required to complete a three-mile run in less than 24 minutes, eight pull-ups in less than a minute, 50 sit-ups in less than two minutes, 45 push-ups in less than two minutes and a 1,500-meter swim in less than 34 minutes. Those are the minimum standards, with many elite airmen doing far better.
The service already was investigating whether to alter its standards for the jobs before the Pentagon leaders decided to rescind the ban on women serving in ground combat jobs in 2013, said Col. Matthew “Wolfe” Davidson, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Elite units provided feedback on what is needed, and participated in the research at Lackland.
Davidson said the service has historically struggled to find enough airmen who are able to not only meet the physical requirements of the elite jobs, but carry out the complicated work involved in integrating air power into ground Special Operations on the fly as situations develop. The service incorporated physical therapists and strength coaches in the last decade to keep more airmen ready to fight when needed, he said.
Women will be accepted into the new jobs if they’re opened as long as they can meet the physical standards, the colonel added. Women have served in elite Air Force special tactics units for years in other positions, like pilot.
“For us, it really has nothing to do with the integration of females,” Davison said. “It’s about the standards. We want to get better, and we want to make sure that the standards we use to select and maintain standards are absolutely tied to what we are expected to do on the battlefield.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said in a statement that female airmen will be ready if new positions are opened, and are “excited about every future opportunity.
“We’re working hard to put the correct operationally relevant standards in place so we can integrate our few remaining career fields in a responsible way,” he said.