Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter's order that all ground-combat jobs, including special-operations billets, be opened to women, has provoked strong reactions on both sides of the debate.
The reactions have been mixed, with many service members fearing standards will be watered down to accommodate women, while others cheered when the first women completed the Army's grueling Ranger School. The Marine Corps even pushed a study claiming that all-male teams outperformed mixed-gender units in combat functions, though some have claimed this study to be flawed.
What has largely been absent from this debate, though, are the reasons behind the Pentagon’s push to create a gender-neutral military and incorporate women into combat roles. At face value, gender equality in the military certainly appeals to the president’s liberal base. However, there is a more important point being glossed over: the U.S. and the world at large are entering a paradigm shift in the way wars will be fought in the future.
Paradigm shifts in military operations have occurred numerous times throughout history, forcing commanders to change and adapt organizational structures and tactics.
During the first Gulf War, precision-guided munitions and laser systems that decimated Iraqi forces with low coalition casualties resulted in doctrinal shifts in defense operations and planning. The use of advanced sensor technology, information warfare and increased reliance on air power shifted the military’s previous reliance on armor and mechanized operations.
Other paradigm shifts have included the introduction of the mini ball and faster loading rifles that produced more accurate firepower during the Civil War. That allowed troops to fire at further distance and at higher rates, changing the tactic of standing battle formations, and resulting in high battlefield casualties. World War I saw a plethora of defensive technologies that included the use of barbed wire and machine guns, diminishing the impact of offensive capabilities. The failure to adapt to those rapid changes resulted in millions of deaths.
Now a new paradigm shift is on the horizon. It includes new battle spaces like the exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, cyber warfare and virtual battlefields, drone technology and the push for automated weapon systems.
As computing power increases and technology becomes cheaper, this shift is not only being achieved in the U.S. but also around the world — to include some of our adversaries. Russia has embarked on an overhaul of its armed forces and has fielded impressive signals intelligence capabilities on the battlefield, exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum to inflict casualties on its enemies and spread propaganda. Russia has been fielding these capabilities in proxy battlefields in places like Syria and Ukraine.
China has also announced an overhaul of its armed forces, calling for a reduction in the size of its army. That reduction should not imply that China's military is weak or facing budgetary issues. Instead, it's pushing for a smaller more technologically adept military.
The U.S. is faced with a new reality as it slowly loses its powerful edge in the realm of military technology as other nations catch up. To continue competing on the global stage, the U.S. needs to be able to recruit from the brightest and smartest of its people.
Last year, a Pentagon study highlighted that roughly two-thirds of Americans would not qualify to enlist in the armed services as a result of health problems, obesity and the failure to complete a high school education. On top of that, the armed services face retention and recruitment challenges stemming from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and competition with a rebounding economy that attracts veterans into the civilian job market. A gender-neutral military opens up the recruiting pool.
As technology dominates the battlefield, it is becoming ever more important that combat forces on the front lines be equipped with capabilities to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum and cyber warfare. No longer are these fields only relevant to analysts in an office at Fort Meade, Maryland, or Fort Gordon, Georgia. Cyber warriors and SIGINT operators are needed in the field to conduct collection and targeting operations, and run equipment to exploit, jam and attack enemy communications or weapons systems.
The military will need America's best and brightest to compete in these new battle spaces. That should include incorporating these individuals in special operations teams.
We are living in a rapidly changing world, with new weapon systems being procured at lightning speeds. It is a national security priority that our military adapt to reflect these changes, even if that means the integration of women into combat roles or gender-neutral basic training.
At the end of the day, individual leaders in the Marine Corps are what make the recruit depots the hellscape they are. Marine Corps traditions will continue, and Marines will be made. San Diego’s hills aren’t getting any smaller, packs aren’t getting lighter, and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, is still a terrible muggy swamp.
Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, specializing in Central and Southwest Asia. He served 10 years as a signals intelligence analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. His work has been published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat and Small Wars Journal.