Questioning the Assumptions in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Women-in-Combat Test

Are female Marines really below average?

Questioning the Assumptions in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Women-in-Combat Test Questioning the Assumptions in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Women-in-Combat Test
Questioning the Assumptions in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Women-in-Combat Test

Since the first four pages of a summary of the results of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force appeared online a few days ago, there have been a flurry of articles on the topic by such outlets as National Public Radio, USA Today and The Washington Post.

Sadly, those pieces have merely paraphrased fragments of an already fragmentary document, rather than taking a hard look at what the limited information provided in this summary is really saying about how the Marine Corps should proceed in meeting the Department of Defense guidance to fully integrate women into all military specialties, including the infantry, artillery and armor specialties from which they have historically been excluded.

The summary starts on a positive note, observing that the lifting of restrictions on women in combat has “been an unquestionable combat multiplier for our Marine Air Ground Task Forces serving throughout the world,” giving MAGTF commanders “the widest latitude to employ the fullest capabilities of their force. Leveraging the talents of every Marine without restrictions throughout the depth and breadth of what are increasingly more complex operating environments enables a more capable Marine Corps.”

Additionally, the summary correctly notes that “female Marines have performed superbly in the combat environments of Iraq and Afghanistan and are fully part of the fabric of a combat-hardened Marine Corps after the longest period of continuous combat operations in the Corps’ history,” and observes that reviews of foreign militaries which have already integrated women into the infantry “point to the fact that female Marines are clearly among the most combat experienced servicewomen in the world.”


However, after this strong opening the study frames its research approach by reaching back over a decade to pull a questionable quote from a 1992 study which claimed that winning a war is sometimes “only a matter of inches.” As difficult as it is to even make sense of that quote, it does beg the question of exactly when the Marine Corps, or the nation as a whole, has won actually won a war?

Iraq? Afghanistan? The Taliban are still active in one-time Marine strongholds such as Helmand province, with 2015 being the bloodiest year since 2001, and Islamic State controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. It is difficult to see that the lack of women in standard Marine infantry squads has impacted, either for better or worse, the tactical, operational and strategic outcomes of The Long War.

Korea remains a stalemate, the NVA won the Vietnam War. Only Desert Storm can be held up as a win in any meaningful sense, and Pres. George W. Bush managed to snatch defeat from his father’s victory little more than a decade after that sand-table set piece.

All photos — U.S. Navy


The summary highlights differences in physiology, injuries, speed and lethality, and I’ll address each of these issues in the following paragraphs, but first, let’s talk about what’s missing from the summary, which notes that all-male units performed better in 93 tasks. Gender integrated teams actually performed better in two tasks — but the summary does not tell us which ones — and mixed-gender teams performed equally well with all-male teams on 39 tasks.

This indicates that in fact, there are potential gains to be found in integration, and begs the question of exactly what tasks mapped to what proficiencies, skills, and strengths.

Sources within the Beltway have indicated that integrated groups performed better in cognitive tests and had higher morale and mental well-being, and that there are serious questions about the science behind the research; small sample size, lack of generalizability, use of a statistical p-value of 0.1, and bias in the allowable Body Mass Index (BMI) for male vs. female Marines. This is a good time to call on the leadership of the Corps to release the full 978 page report, so that peer-reviewers can make an informed, critical review of the quality of the research methodology, the data analysis, and the cherry picking of results that may have gone into the executive summary. The American taxpayer deserves to see the complete findings from all lines of effort from the Marine Corps gender integration research, which has cost $36 million to date.

It’s also a good time to question the analytical approach and the “thesis question” for this study. Was it actually “principally focused on those unique physical and physiological demands of service in ground combat occupations,” and if so, why does it appear to have used only gender as the independent variable? When evaluating speed and lethality, for example, wouldn’t individual attributes such as prior marksmanship scores, height, weight and physical fitness be more likely to have a causative effect than gender?

That said, since this summary has been extensively quoted in the mainstream media, let’s see what it says about physiology; the average female Marine subject weighed 30 pounds less, had four-percent higher body fat and had lower scores in strength and endurance than their average male counterpart.

But here’s the catch. There’s no such thing as an “average” person. The study was comprised of 300 male subjects and 100 female subjects. No one is questioning the fact that all 300 of the men would be suitable for service in the infantry. But the top 10 women had the same anaerobic capacity — ability to perform short bursts of high-intensity effort — as the bottom 150 men.

Similarly, these 10 women had the same endurance — aerobic capacity — as those bottom 150 males , Marines whose qualifications for service in the infantry was not being questioned or assessed.

The summary states clearly that “the importance of leveraging the talents of each individual Marine to the fullest extent possible within our Marine Air Ground Task Forces cannot be overstated.” To imagine that one could take a group of 160 Marines who performed at similar levels of physical output and tell 150 that they were qualified to serve in the infantry because they were men, and then tell the other 10 to pick a second choice of careers because they are women is a difficult mental exercise at best.

Now let’s talk about the ugly truth behind injuries, both in training and in the field. Simply put, the modern infantry Marine is overloaded by at least 50 percent. This is not a new observation; in 1950, S.L.A. Marshall pointed it out in his classic text “Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation” — and the situation has only gotten worse.

Injuries generated from moving under a heavy load may appear more quickly in females, but sooner or later, it manifests throughout the force; in the 10-year period between 1998 and 2008, service members were diagnosed with 108,266 cases of mechanical degenerative arthritis, or osteoarthritis, at rates of 26 to 50 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. population.

The older the service member, the more likely they were to suffer from this degenerative injury that has no cure. It’s anecdotal, but I personally have never met a Marine sergeant major who had not already had, or wasn’t scheduled for knee replacement surgery. This is not a question of males versus females; it’s about the fact that while we are investing $400 billion on a “fifth-generation” fighter jet to support Marine infantry, we have made no significant investment in taking the infantry beyond a “first-generation” force.

The infantry fights with weapons, armor and communications gear whose design has not functionally changed in over half a century — and in fact, according to the Marine Corp’s own report on combat loads, the infantry Marine of today is more heavily laden than any historic infantry soldier, to include King Leonidas’ 300 Spartans, Alexander the Great’s hoplites, the Roman centurions and Western infantry during the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and World War I.

Speed is the next attribute in which the study finds women to lag their male peers, and explains why it’s so important by referencing a single passage in Warfighting, the Marine Corps’ doctrinal publication that has not been updated for almost 20 years. The study cherry-picks its quote out of the entire passage, ignoring the part that states “in war, it is relative speed that matters rather than absolute speed” — that is, regardless of the speed of one Marine to another, what is their speed relative to the enemy?

And speed is not the only factor that Warfighting deems important — the ability to focus combat power at a particular time and place, leverage surprise and boldness, along with a focus on centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities are also listed as critical elements in the Marine theory of war.

To say that gender-integrated squads move by foot, on average, slower than all-male squads, thus we should not have integrated squads is akin to saying that dismounted infantry move slower, on the average, than those mounted in armored personnel carriers, and thus we should do away with all dismounted infantry, or that armored personnel carriers move slower than air-mobile infantry, etc., ad nauseum.

Pursue that line of reasoning very far, and you will quickly find yourself on the sidelines with the Air Force, claiming that everything can be done most quickly and efficiently from the air.

Finally, let’s close our review of this matter with lethality. The study clearly shows that the average female subject didn’t shoot as well as her male counterpart — but it also seems to show that the average male Marines are terrible shots, hitting their targets less than half the time! This should raise a red flag, as the Corps prides itself on its marksmanship program. One shot, one kill? Not today, it seems. And again, we see a problem with using “the average” as our yardstick.

The thing with averages, for both men and women, is that half are above it, half are below, and there are often some really good and bad outliers in each group. A full review of the individual data should show that there were some really accurate male and female shooters, a lot of so-so shooters, and some really bad shooters in both groups that brought the average down. If we need to train to a higher standard of accuracy for our infantry, why would we arbitrarily eliminate the women who can meet that standard?

The bottom line? Out of those 400 young men and women, the Marine Corps is currently willing to give 300 of them a pass straight to infantry, whether they are good shots or bad, whether they are strong or weak, fat or skinny, short or tall, fast or slow, simply because they are men. Similarly, it is willing to tell the other 100 that, regardless of how great they are with a gun, how fast they can run or how long they can exert themselves, that they cannot serve in the infantry, because the average female Marine scores lower in those areas.

The summary notes that “the Marine Corps must continue to attract, develop, and retain highly talented female Marines to meet current and future challenges throughout the range of military operations” — but when the U.S. Army and even the Navy SEALS will accept qualified women into the ranks of their infantry forces, the Marine Corps cannot hope to attract the best and most qualified American women if we do not — because they will go where the opportunities are.

Segregation and discrimination have never been the best policy. Not with race, not with sexual preference, and not with gender. The Corps has been on the wrong side of history on the first two questions; let’s get it right the third time.

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