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Hunter fears lax standards for women in combat

Mar. 8, 2013 - 03:10PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 8, 2013 - 03:10PM  |  
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A California lawmaker, concerned that an Obama administration decision to open direct combat positions to women could leave a less capable fighting force, is preparing to push to close a potential loophole that would allow different physical fitness and strength standards for men and women.

At issue for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the specific physical requirements for military occupational specialties and how the 1994 law that governs the performance standards might be interpreted as the services carry out a skill-by-skill review.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says in a memorandum to Hunter that the law appears to allow different standards for men and women while stating that they are gender-neutral.

In a memo, CRS military manpower policy specialist David Burrelli says this is because the law allows the services to set standards based on how much energy is exerted in a task, "regardless of the work that is actually accomplished."

For example, a service might require climbing a rope as a physical standard but allow women to climb a shorter rope than men.

Burrelli said different standards are already in use, citing the scoring system on the Air Force fitness test as an example. A 35-year-old woman gets 10 points on the test for doing 46 push-ups or sit-ups in one minute, while a 35-year-old man has to do 57 push-ups or sit-ups in a minute to receive 10 points, and gets only 8 points for doing 46.

Hunter aides describe the difference as having standards that are "neutral to the gender" rather than "gender-neutral," and believe there is nothing to prevent the services from using this same interpretation as they consider opening previously closed ground combat positions to women.

Draft legislation prepared by Hunter and reviewed by the Congressional Research Service would define gender-neutral standards by saying all members serving or assigned to a military specialty must meet the same physical and performance standards.

Hunter's legislation also would prevent any skill closed to women as of Jan. 1, 2013, from being opened until the Defense Department reports to Congress on whether any physical or performance standards were changed in order to open a particular field to women.

Hunter intends to bring up the issue when the House Armed Services Committee, on which he serves, meets in late spring or early summer to pass its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill.

In a legal opinion from the Congressional Research Service, R. Chuck Mason says the standards under Hunter's proposal would be same "regardless of gender." This would close the loophole Hunter perceives in the 1994 performance standards law.

It is unclear if Hunter's language is necessary. The Marine Corps, the service most closely followed by Hunter, indicates in a Feb. 7 memo that is has until June to review its skill standards that would be used in accession and classification tests in 2014.

"The prediction test will be gender-neutral," the Marine Corps memo says. "For example, lifting a 95-pound artillery round must be done by a Marine, either male or female."

The Corps promised in the memo not to lower standards in order to let women qualify but also not to "artificially raise the standards."

For Hunter, aides said, the problem isn't what the Marine Corps plans to do, but how it might be forced under political pressure to revert to the different performance results now considered to be gender-neutral.

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