Another Clinton legacy

The Army has been deliberately flouting the legislated ban on women in direct combat roles, causing considerable anger among some in Congress.  The controversy came to a head last week, with Congressional Republicans backing down from enacting a measure to freeze the number of positions open to women supporting ground combat operations.  The proposal apparently drew sufficient opposition not only from Democrats, but from some Republicans as well. 

However, the House did approve, by a 428—1 vote, an alternative measure authored by California Republican Duncan Hunter that, Congress more time to override the Army if the service ever made what the lawmaker called "a profound decision" to end the Pentagon's long—standing ban on women in direct land combat.

During a time of war, perhaps it was best that Congress avoided taking up this issue in earnest.  After all, most on the right side of the aisle probably don't have a clue as to how the Army got to this point.  The downright obfuscation and word games played by some in the Army leadership don't clear up the issue, either.  From the point of view of the entrenched powerbrokers at the Department of the Army (DA) and the Department of Defense (DoD), these muddy waters are just what the doctor ordered, and only serve to further their agenda, with the cooperation of the leftwing mainstream press.

Regardless of what one thinks about women in combat, the bottom line is that Congress has had legal restrictions on women in units that directly support combat operations since the early 90s, and the Inside—the—Beltway Army has been busy trying to circumvent those restrictions.  Even Max Boot, a knowledgeable and sensible commentator, makes the unfounded assertion that Rummy's generals somehow caused the problem, ostensibly because they decided to reorganize into modular and operationally agile Units of Action.  Boot is simply wrong.

In reality, this farce has its genesis in the Clinton administration, where the pressures of excessive troop cutbacks resulted in a shell game approach to eek out every last dollar for the military services from budgets drastically cut to produce the so—called 'peace dividend.'

The focus of the current problem with female staffing has rightfully been on units called Forward Support Companies (FSC).  These are organizationally separate units that are regularly attached to the combat maneuver battalions from the Division Support Command (DISCOM) to fuel, fix, feed, and arm the line companies of the Army.  It wasn't always done this way.

Prior to changes based on Force XXI experimentation in the mid to late the 90s, the maneuver battalions had their own support platoons, maintenance platoons, and mess sections to perform these combat service support functions.  In Army parlance, these support units were 'organic' to the battalions; that is, they were part of the Table of Organization and Equipment (TOE) of an infantry or armor battalion.  As such, they were all male and were generally led by officers of the branch of the parent unit.

By 1993, the drawdown had reduced the Army well below the floor established by Colin Powell's Base Force Plan.  But in 1996, the Clinton administration made it clear that even these levels weren't enough.  In the mid—to—late 90s, the Army was under pressure to not only reduce the number of active duty divisions, but to also reduce the numbers of Soldiers within the combat divisions themselves. The Force XXI experiments initiated some major changes in the armor and mechanized infantry maneuver battalions that included eliminating an entire maneuver company from the battalion organization.  Instead of four companies, battalions now had only three. 

Following these changes, the service support elements in the combat maneuver battalions were then centralized, and no longer part of the downsized combat units.  They were instead absorbed into the DISCOM forward support battalions (FSB). (This consolidation did not include the medics and ambulance sections.)

The rationale for this organizational shift was the potential benefit in new digitized command, control, and service support systems, and the somewhat dubious notion that the reorganization would free up brigade and battalion commanders from the 'worry' of logistics, so they could focus on combat operations.  However, as one force modernization officer put it, a battalion commander losing his organic support capability was akin to assigning a Navy destroyer skipper a combat mission, taking away his engineering department, and then promising that it would return to the ship just before it set sail.  Rather than freeing the commander of logistical concerns, the new arrangement meant that planning and coordination would have to be initiated earlier and in greater detail.

Key to understanding the current dilemma is the longstanding restriction that women could not be assigned below brigade—level in combat unit headquarters, but could be assigned to any service support unit in the DISCOM, including the forward support battalion (FSB).  The FSBs were normally attached to support brigade combat teams in tactical operations, but these units were located in the brigade rear area.  Prior to the reorganization, supply convoys to the forward maneuver battalions were normally conducted by the all—male support platoons of the maneuver battalions. Under the concept of 'centralized logistics,' these units now on paper belonged to a parent organization where females were authorized.  Of course, the intent was for the FSCs to remain all male, but once the paper shift was made, best intentions fell by the wayside, and female Soldiers began to appear in frontline territories.

Of course, in the 90s, with its use of the American military primarily in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, stability and support operations seemed to be the wave of the future.  Why worry about women being exposed to sustained combat operations, anyway?

Recently, Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough in their 'Inside the Ring' column in The Washington Times described the situation thus,

The Army used to keep FSCs all—male.  With new modular brigades, called units of action, and a shortage of soldiers, the service moved to redesign the way FSCs deploy.

This statement is doing the Official Washington Army bureaucracy a favor; and it's also somewhat misleading.  Yes, the Army's FSCs used to be all male when they were first absorbed by the DISCOM.  But manpower shortages in the combat units and the push in the 90s to expand women's roles in the Army led to the inevitable slotting of more women in support units.  Writiing that the service 'moved to redesign the way FSC deploy,' is just a another way of saying that the Army will now be operating in brigade—sized Units of Action, and therefore, the Division Support Command no longer exists as an entity to provide authorized female billets in accordance with the law.  In other words, the paper drill reorganization is no longer in place. So, Rumsfeld and the transformation effort didn't mysteriously create the problem, it simply tore down the facade of politically correct and questionable assignment preferences  and recognized the reality which had been created by decisions taken in the Clinton administration.

We are in the middle of a Global War on Terror and our men and women are fighting and dying in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (and also in some places we'll never hear about).  There has never been such a visible gap between our divisions and regiments in the field and certain segments of the military and political bureaucracy in Official Washington. Putting women in units directly supporting combat operations at one time seemed like the only way to help squeeze blood from a turnip to satisfy the requirements of a drawdown gone too far.  As in the case of so many other pet programs, this assignment of women has become an entrenched interest for some in the Pentagon. 

In one of life's great coincidences, a political mover and shaker from the 90s who promoted an increased role for women in the military has stepped forward to stop any effort to further restrict assignment of women in combat zones.  Senator Hillary Clinton stated that  she,

...would try to put the Senate on record opposing further restrictions on military rules regarding female soldiers.

Now that the Army has no choice but to send women to the front in supply and support roles, given manpower shortfalls that originated during her husband's administration, the junior Senator from New York proudly rides to the rescue to take political advantage of a serious military policy situation.

If we were not at war then maybe we would have the time for these legalistic, bureaucratic and political games.  But our forces are in the middle of a fight now, so let's win the war first, and solve our policy problems later.  At any rate, it is a task that requires a high degree of intellectual honesty; and that's something in short supply of late in the Official Washington bureaucracy.

Douglas Hanson is our national security correspondent.