If or How will the US Marine Corps Fully Integrate?

By Ellen Haring
December 5, 2014

Ellen Haring blog 2
Pfc. Julia Carroll eats a small meal after a six-hour patrol during patrol week of Infantry Training Battalion near Camp Geiger, N.C. on Oct. 31, 2013. Carroll is one of the first three females to ever graduate from Infantry Training Battalion. Patrol week is a five-day training event that teaches infantry students basic offensive, defensive and patrolling techniques. Delta Company is the first infantry training company to fully integrate female Marines into an entire training cycle. This and future companies will evaluate the performance of the female Marines as part of ongoing research into opening combat-related job fields to women. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler L. Main/Released)


On 22 July 2014, I had the privilege of meeting with the Marine Corps team charged with researching and integrating women into previously closed combat units and specialties. In contrast to their original service plan, which they treated dismissively, the team made it clear that the intent behind the Marine Corps Force Integration Program (MCFIP) is not to assess if women should be integrated but how. While the meeting was an informative one, I nonetheless walked away from this meeting with some lingering doubts about how the four separate lines of effort support the if versus how proposition.

Line of Effort 1, expanding unit assignments, is an ongoing effort to open previously closed unit positions to women. The Marines are expanding opportunities for women to serve in historically open specialties like intelligence, supply and communications, in previously closed combat units like artillery, tanks and amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) battalions. They are assigning and will maintain a minimum of two women in these newly opened units. Early indications are that the women are being well received as they are integrated into these combat units.

However, even support positions in infantry units remain closed to women at all levels. The team offered two explanations for why infantry battalion staffs are not being integrated: 1) not enough women to draw from and 2) all officers in an infantry battalion are considered “provisional” infantry, meaning that they have to be able to step into any infantry role if needed. The numbers explanation appears spurious given their own policy – that is, opening support positions in previously closed units does not mean all said specialties must be filled by women, just two. And, despite the fact that male and female support officers receive the exact same training at The Basic School, only the male support officers seem to be considered qualified to serve as “provisional infantry platoon commanders” in infantry battalions.

Line of Effort 2, expanding entry level training research, is an ongoing effort that consists of letting women attempt to complete some of the previously closed entry level courses. So far the Marines have invited women, enlisted and officers, to attend their respective infantry courses on a trial basis. To date, more than 96 enlisted women have completed the enlisted infantry course while no women have qualified to be infantry officers. The first day of the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) includes the combat endurance test (CET) that officers must pass to gain entry into the school. Only 4 women have passed the CET but all were later dropped from the course. When asked why the CET had recently become a screening test, the team said that a review of the combat records of Marine infantry officers revealed a positive correlation between CET performance and deployed performance. How that correlation was determined is not clear and no evidence has been offered to support the assertion that there is a link between the two.

In a testament to the declared intent that the effort pertains to how to integrate women, the Marines have established a preparatory training period to help female officers prepare for the CET. Interestingly, both men and women are taking advantage of this preparatory training.

The Marines are expanding their research by opening additional enlisted entry level courses including machine gunners, mortars, artillery, tanks and AAVs, to see how enlisted women will do in these initial entry schools. When asked why female officers weren’t similarly being offered this research opportunity the answer was complicated.

First, they said that the Army must open Armor branch to women because that’s where the Marines send their tankers for Armor training. Since the Army still hasn’t opened Armor to women the Marines can’t conduct any research on entry level Armor training for women officers.

When asked about artillery officer training they said that they had considered artillery but apparently the artillery officer course has no physical requirements and therefore there was nothing to research. When I pointed out that the lack of physical requirements should have made artillery an easy early opening they clarified that because enlisted artillery Marines do have physical requirements, women officers need to be able to do what enlisted Marines can do. Therefore, if enlisted women can qualify as cannoneers then the expectation is that women officers will, like their male peers, be qualified. However, this logic is belied by the infantry tests where many enlisted women have qualified while no women officers have qualified.

We didn’t discuss why women officers aren’t being assessed in other combat specialties like AAVs. But what is clear is that women officers are only being assessed on their ability to complete the infantry officer course despite the fact that only the infantry battalions remain completely closed to women officers of all specialties.

Line of Effort 3, the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force (GCEITF), is the most time, labor and dollar intensive effort of the four lines of effort. Previously referenced as an “experiment”, this 15-month effort involves approximately 600 Marines and began in June 2014 with the recruitment and training of Marine volunteers. The purpose is to validate and refine gender-neutral, operationally relevant, occupationally specific standards of performance and occupationally specific physical assessments. Enlisted women, E1-E5, with up to nine years of service are being trained in nine combat specialties and then assigned to the GCEITF. The task force will undergo traditional pre-deployment training at Camp Lejeune, NC. They will then deploy to 29 Palms, Camp Pendleton, and Bridgeport for operational evaluation and data gathering in order to, “review and refine gender-neutral occupational standards in the execution of individual and collective tasks” and “quantify tasks, conditions, and standards that have previously been largely qualitative”.  They will also collect data on a range of measures such as injury rates and cohesion at the individual and small unit level.

The GCEITF will have three comparison groups: an all-male training group and two training groups with varying percentages of women. The three groups’ performance will be recorded and analyzed along a range of collective performance factors, but the nature of those factors and how they will be analyzed is not clear. If this is an experiment where they are trying to determine if women can successfully perform in a ground combat task force then there should be a control group or previously established standards that all groups would be measured against. If this is purely research to quantify higher level collective tasks, conditions and standards that is a different kind of research and could be conducted on any Marine combat unit preparing for deployment. It seems that the performance of these groups will be compared against each other rather than used to quantify standards. My concern is that any group that includes the newly trained junior level women will be outperformed by the more seasoned male groups and the default will be to assume that groups with women are less capable than all male groups.

While the effort is broad based in its goals, its design has limited its possible findings. First, the experiment is only assessing the abilities of junior enlisted women. Women officers and NCOs above the rank of E5 are not included in the study population. Additionally, the focus of the research is on the squad/platoon level. The research team believes it will nonetheless be able to extrapolate lessons from squad/platoon performances to the company level but not beyond.

Line of Effort 4, opening primary MOSs, is focused on opening some of the previously closed MOSs to women. Recently, 11 additional primary military occupational skills were opened to women and accession into the newly opened MOSs began this year.

In a further testament to the Marine Corps’ commitment to successfully integrating women into previously closed positions and units the Marines have developed a new training tool kit designed to help Commander’s tackle gender bias in their ranks. The Marines are ahead of their Service counterparts in this effort and are tackling a problem that is common throughout the military. But gender bias will continue to persist as long as any positions or units remain entirely closed to all women.

While the Marines are clearly making a concerted effort to study integrating women into combat units some of their methodologies raise questions that will potentially leave their findings open to challenge. For me, it remains a question as to whether the Marines are actually conducting experiments and gathering data to support requesting an exception to policy to keep some areas of the Corps closed to women or are performing research to determine how to most effectively integrate women into all specialties and units. Either way, the Marine Corps has a lot of work left in the remaining one year of the three years they were given to open all positions and specialties to women.

Ellen Haring is a senior fellow with Women in International Security where she directs the Combat Integration Initiative project. Her research and work focuses on women and gender in the military. Haring is a West Point graduate and a retired Army colonel. Presently, she is completing a PhD at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Haring has been a guest speaker on numerous foreign and domestic news shows including: BBC Radio, CNN, PBS News Hour, National Public Radio, and Voice of America. She guest lectures at universities and colleges and has been invited to address members of Congress.