1991: Senate Approves Females to Fly Combat Missions
Female Combat Pilots
Senate Votes Approval
The Senate voted today overwhelmingly to overturn a 43-year-old law that bars women from flying warplanes in combat.
The new measure, an amendment to the military budget bill for the 1992 fiscal year, would permit, but would not require, the Air Force, the Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps to allow women to fly combat missions.
Today’s vote made enactment of the measure virtually certain. The House of Representatives approved similar legislation last month, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has indicated that he does not oppose the provision.
The chiefs of the four uniformed services have expressed strong reservations to opening combat positions to women. But the performance of the 35,000 women who served in the Persian Gulf war has generated strong support in Congress and in public opinion polls to broaden women’s role in the military, and the Pentagon is likely to go along grudgingly.
Sometimes a Fine Distinction
“I can’t predict exactly what we’ll do,” the Pentagon spokesman, Pete Williams said. “But if the ultimate direction given us is to lift the combat-exclusionary law, then I think we’ll look at it and proceed carefully.”
Current military policies technically restrict women to noncombat functions, but the distinction is sometimes a fine one. Although women could not serve in infantry or artillery units, aboard fighting ships or on combat aircraft during the gulf war, female helicopter pilots ferried food, fuel and troops throughout combat zones.
Most senior military officers and Pentagon officials oppose allowing women to serve in ground combat forces, which may require superior physical strength and endurance, but some lawmakers and women’s rights advocates want servicewomen to have the option of making the grade. Hailing Heroism and Competency
The measure approved today does not apply to combat surface ships or submarines, or to armored, artillery or other ground forces. But it does apply to combat flying by women in all four services.
The Army, unlike the other services, is not technically covered by the 1948 law and instead has internal regulations consistent with that law.
A vote on the entire $291 billion military budget bill is expected Friday or Saturday.
Although the Senate approved the measure today by voice vote, the outcome was actually sealed earlier in the day when, on a vote of 69 to 30, the amendment’s supporters defeated an attempt to kill it. Both Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas, the two female members of the Senate, voted to save the measure.
“This is a victory for the women pilots who demonstrated in the gulf their capabilities, their heroism and their competency,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a principal sponsor of the amendment. Senator William V. Roth Jr., Republican of Delaware, was the measure’s other main sponsor.
Opponents of the amendment offered a competing measure to create a 15-member commission to study the issue and make recommendations by December 1992. That amendment also passed, by a vote of 96 to 3, but the strategy failed: 29 Republicans and 40 Democrats voted for the aviator amendment as well. Setback for Nunn
The commission, which is not expected to conflict with provisions of the aviator amendment, is expected to ask Mr. Cheney to open temporarily to women a select number of positions in a wide array of combat jobs to test women’s performances and their effect on previously all-male units.
The large vote in favor of the aviator amendment shocked even the bill’s staunchest supporters and marked a stinging setback for Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, and Senator John W. Warner, the committee’s senior Republican.
They along with Senator John Glenn, Democrat of Ohio, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, sponsored the commission amendment, and lobbied furiously to kill the rival measure.
They argued that the Senate needed more time to study the complicated issue.
Limits Called ‘Neanderthal’
Three hours of spirited debate filled the Senate chambers that is home to 98 male and two female lawmakers.
Supporters of the amendment to lift the ban on female combat aviators cast the existing law as an “archaic, antiquated, Neanderthal” statute that discriminated against women and undermined the national security by putting sex ahead of talent.
“These laws are bad for women because they deny them an equal opportunity for service and advancement in the military,” said Mr. Kennedy.
In response to public opinion after World War II that women should play a smaller role in the military, Congress approved legislation in 1948 that limited the number of women serving in the military, restricted the rank they could achieve and created the ban on flying warplanes in combat. The first two provisions were repealed in the late 1960’s.
“This Congressional restriction is as old and outdated in today’s military as a World War II propeller,” Mr. Roth said. Call for Deliberation
Critics, however, warned that the Senate would be rushing pell-mell into a momentous decision with scant evidence to back it up.
“If we’re going to make such a radical change, a year or so of careful deliberation would be invaluable,” said Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot.
If combat restrictions were lifted, Mr. Glenn said, the commission would be ideally suited to tackle thorny issues like whether women should be compelled to serve in combat roles or have a choice. Male soldiers have no option.
The commission could also consider whether women should be required to register for a future draft when they turn 18 years old, the impact of pregnancies and child-care needs of servicewomen and whether allowing females into tank crews and mortar companies would undermine morale in those all-male bastions.
“Substantially more study is required before we can act conclusively on the future role of women in combat,” said Mr. Glenn.
Supporters, though, argued that women had proved themselves not only in the gulf, but in military training schools across the country. The Navy, for example, has 248 female pilots and 106 female navigators, many of whom train male fighter pilots.
“It is ludicrous for Congress to bar them from flying in combat in the planes they have tested and with the officers they have trained,” said Mr. Kennedy.