August 1, 2011  

Break the brass ceiling

It’s time a woman joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff

With the announcement that Adm. Jon Greenert, the vice chief of naval operations, will move up to become the chief of naval operations, President Obama and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have replaced four of the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gates was responsible for making 10 appointments.

Not surprisingly, there have been some complaints about the most recent appointments. Some have wondered why Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the JCS, was passed over for chairman, especially given his willingness to provide the president with alternatives to the Gates/Mullen/McChrystal plan for the surge in Afghanistan. Others have wondered why Gen. Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff of the Air Force, was not elevated to the post of vice chairman, given the way in which he stabilized the Air Force after the firings of his predecessor and the Air Force secretary. In fact, some of his staff called his being passed over an insult.

But the real insult is that none of the six members of the JCS is a woman and that, as far as we know, not a single woman was considered for one of the open posts by Gates or Obama.

Women now make up 14 percent of the military and, as of 2008, there were 57 female generals or admirals on active duty, including six with three-star rank and one who had achieved four stars. More than 220,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 100 have been killed and thousands wounded. Women can be assigned to all units in the military except those engaged in ground combat.

And as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the difference between being assigned to a ground combat unit such as the 101st Airborne or attached to the unit, a practice used to circumvent the prohibition on women in combat, is a distinction without a difference. A recent congressional study commission recommended doing away with this restriction entirely.

But the country doesn’t need a female chief just to bring recognition to the increasing role and achievements of our women in uniform. It’s time for the president to pick a woman for one of these top posts because doing so would strengthen our military.

A woman would bring special experience to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As the Pentagon continues to grapple with such issues as sexual violence and harassment, as well as women in combat, our military could profit from a leader who has walked through some of those minefields. Last year there were more than 3,100 cases of sexual violence reported in the military, a number that the Pentagon estimates accounts for less than 15 percent of the actual incidents.


Putting a woman in one of the top slots would also improve the ability of the JCS to shape a truly 21st-century force. Perhaps because antiquated restrictions have kept them out of ground combat, our top female officers have developed the type of nontraditional expertise that our armed forces need to be ready for an increasingly broad and uncertain threat environment.

For example, Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, commander of 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, is not only a weapons separation and flight test engineer, but also an astronaut. She has spent 211 days in space and holds the record for the longest spacewalk. The Pentagon is only starting to come to grips with the challenges of space and cyberwarfare, relatively new domains that will increasingly push the military to reimagine national defense. So what better choice to lead the service forward than someone who was an astronaut?

Or consider Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman to achieve four-star rank. Dunwoody is a logistics expert and is the commanding general of Army Materiel Command. As the Army spends increasing amounts of its budget on fixing war-worn equipment and investing in new technologies to make our forces more independent and sustainable in the field, Army Materiel Command will be an invaluable source of support and expertise. A chief who understands the details of these challenges will help our military grow stronger, faster.

Finally, there is Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, a senior three-star officer with 38 years’ service, serving as president of National Defense University, the military’s premier educational institution. Not only is Rondeau a qualified surface warfare officer (like Adm. Mike Mullen and Adm. Gary Roughead, the retiring chairman of the JCS and chief of naval operations, respectively), but she has been a White House Fellow (like Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the JCS from 1989 to 1993), and has a master’s degree and a doctorate (something none of the current or incoming members of the JCS can claim).

Most importantly, picking a woman for one of our nation’s most prominent military posts would send a message to society that the military is not only open to women, but that if they perform well, there is no “brass ceiling” in this traditionally male occupation. Not only could this inspire a new pool of recruits, it could draw much-needed attention to the diversity of people who choose to serve our country in uniform. After a decade of war in which less than 1 percent of the population has borne an inordinate burden, while the lack of a draft has kept everyday Americans insulated from their sacrifices, an opportunity to break through the military-civilian barrier would be invaluable.

No doubt some traditionalists will argue that our female flag officers do not have as many stars, or as much combat or command experience as most of the male candidates. But they forget that the chairman and members of the JCS are primarily staff officers. They do not command troops, and many presidents have selected less-experienced officers to the JCS, including some of two-star rank. We have capable women ready to assume these leadership positions, and it’s time to put aside the barriers that have kept them out. AFJ

LAWRENCE KORB, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. LAURA CONLEY is a research associate at the center.