For the first time, the Army is planning to allow female solders to attend Ranger School as part of an assessment that could permanently open the grueling infantry course to women.
The service recently started calling for female volunteers for the effort, but Army officials are not expected to make a final decision to hold the assessment until January.
"We will be prepared to execute the assessment professionally and objectively, if directed," Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Ga., said in a Sept. 12 press statement.
The Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Benning conducts the physically and mentally exhausting course. Only about 50 percent of Ranger School students graduate from the two-month course.
The Ranger assessment course -- tentatively scheduled for next spring -- would train men and women together in order to help prepare Army institutions, schools and leaders for future integration decisions, according to Army G-1 officials at the Pentagon.
The assessment course would be open to all women in the ranks of specialist to major, if they can meet the physical qualifications and prerequisites. Women who complete the Ranger assessment course as students will be awarded the Ranger tab to wear, but will not be awarded associated Ranger skill identifiers due to restrictions in Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 652, according to the Army release.
The decision to change that or not is scheduled to be made by the defense secretary no later than Jan. 1, 2016, when he determines if women will be permitted to become infantry soldiers and serve in other closed military occupational specialties.
Last November, three women graduated from the Marine Corps' Infantry Training Battalion course, the first women to do so in the Corps' 238-year history.
The trio represented a major step toward the U.S. military formally introducing women into combat roles. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the order to open these roles to women in January 2013.
Despite the milestone, women who have volunteered for the Marine Infantry Officers Course have not experienced the same success.
Nine of the 10 women who first volunteered out of The Basic School failed to make it through the first day of IOC. The remaining female volunteer dropped because of an injury from the course a week later.
IOC is a demanding 13-week school that historically averages a 25 percent attrition rate for male Marines.
Plenty of obstacles still exist in formally opening up combat roles that have traditionally been male-only.
For example, leaders must decide if the standards will remain the same for women. Cultural obstacles may prove to serve as the largest roadblock, as many male soldiers try to come to grips with women entering male-exclusive segments of the military.
Current Ranger School standards will remain the same for all students, Army officials maintain. Prerequisites, phase performance requirements and graduation standards would not change for the assessment.
"The standards are not going to change," said Fort Benning spokeswoman Monica Manganaro. "The Ranger standards are going to be the Ranger standards."
To be eligible, candidates must be able pass the Ranger physical assessment, which includes 49 push-ups, 59-sit-ups, a five-mile run in 40 minutes and six pull-ups. There's also a 12-mile foot march in Army uniform, boots, fighting load carrier, patrol cap and a rucksack, "weighing a minimum of 35 pounds [without water] while carrying an individual weapon," according to an All Army Activity message. There's also a Combat Water Survival Assessment and land navigation.
All female candidates would be required to attend the Army National Guard Ranger Training and Assessment Course, known as RTAC, conducted at Fort Benning prior to the assessment course.
In addition, female observers would be needed to serve as advisers to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. Staff sergeants to master sergeants would be eligible, along with chief warrant officers 2 and 3, first lieutenants, captains and majors.
Female observers will need to be able to keep up with the students and instructors. Women who volunteer to serve as observers for the Ranger course must also undergo a selection process that includes a fitness test, land navigation, a combat water survival assessment, an operations order test, 12-mile road march with 35-pound rucksack, and review boards. The deadline to submit selection packets is Oct. 10. Potential students and observers will be identified in December.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@monster.com.