An oft-heard concern is that the Air Force will lower the physical standards for special operations career fields to allow women to become tactical air control party airmen, pararescue airmen and other battlefield airmen.
That's not going to happen, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, told Air Force Times.
"The standards will not be lowered to incorporate or integrate women into our formations at U.S.Special Operations Command or in AFSOC — repeat, will not be lowered," Heithold said.
Right now, six Air Force Specialty Codes are closed to women: special tactics officer and combat rescue officer, as well as the enlisted fields of special operations weather, combat control, pararescue and tactical air control party. A seventh AFSC, special operations weather officer had been closed to women, but that career field is now closed.
"There are currently no special operations weather officers in the Air Force," said service spokesman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske. "A few months ago, the small career field was absorbed under the larger weather officer career field in order to provide a more viable career path for its officers."
Over the past year and a half, AFSOC has done a "very thorough and deliberate" review of the requirements for battlefield airmen's AFSCs, Heithold said.
"It starts with a review of what are the mission profiles that these individuals would be finding themselves in — we call them 'full mission profiles' — to [a review of] a set of physical standards that are required to do those full mission profiles, and then down to what are the physical tests that you need," he said. "We need to validate those tests, so if you can pass the test, theoretically, you can meet the physical standards and, theoretically, you can then accomplish the operational mission that we have come up [with] for those AFSCs."
In order to become battlefield airmen, women will have to be able to do all the tasks that come with the job, including dragging a wounded comrade who is wearing body armor and other gear, Heithold said.
On June 19, Air Education and Training Command completed two months of testing in which 175 male and female airmen were put through simulations of what battlefield airmen do downrange. In one test, the airmen simulated carrying a litter up a mockup of a C-17 ramp, raising it, holding it and then mounting it on the simulated aircraft. The results will be used to create gender-neutral physical training for special operations.
Heithold will make a recommendation to Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, on whether any of the AFSCs should remain closed to women, he said. Votel by Sept. 30 will recommend to Defense Secretary Ash Carter whether any SOCOM positions require an exception to the Defense Department policy eliminating gender restrictions on combat jobs. By Jan. 1, all of the military's jobs, including special operations, will be open to women unless Carter grants an exception.
"Those AFSCs — as far as the secretary of defense is concerned — those AFSCs are open," Heithold said. "The [Defense] Department then must come in and request any exceptions to that policy."
The Air Force's director of military force management policy has said he expects the gender restrictions on the roughly 4,000 positions now closed to women to be gone by 2018.
"My best bet is if the secretary of defense opens up the career field in January, two-plus years from then we'll see Air Force women in [special operations] career fields," Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly told USA Today for a Sept. 1 story.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Air Force Times' sister publication Defense News that he is open to the idea of women serving in special operations AFSCs, but the decision is not entirely the Air Force's to make. "Is there a reason a woman can't do a combat job versus a man? No. could there be reasons the other services feel that it's not the right environment for a women? I don't know. Maybe. But there's certainly nothing from an Air Force perspective that would inhibit it," he said.