WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is too white and too male at the top and needs to change recruiting and promotion policies and lift its ban on women in combat, an independent report for Congress said Monday.
Seventy-seven percent of senior officers in the active-duty military are white, while only 8 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are women, the report by an independent panel said, quoting data from September 2008.
One barrier that keeps women from the highest ranks is their inability to serve in combat units. Promotion and job opportunities have favored those with battlefield leadership credentials.
The report ordered by Congress in 2009 calls for greater diversity in the military's leadership so it will better reflect the racial, ethnic and gender mix in the armed forces and in American society.
Efforts over the years to develop a more equal opportunity military have increased the number of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the ranks of leadership. But, the report said, "despite undeniable successes ... the armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve."
"This problem will only become more acute as the racial, ethnic and cultural makeup of the United States continues to change," said the report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, whose more than two dozen members included current and former military personnel as well as businessmen and other civilians.
Having military brass that better mirrors the nation can inspire future recruits and help create trust among the general population, the commission said.
Among recommendations is that the military eliminate policies that exclude women from combat units, phasing in additional career fields and units that they can be assigned to as long as they are qualified. A 1994 combat exclusion policy bans women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level even though women have for years served in combat situations.
"If you look at today's battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not like it was in the Cold War, when we had a defined battlefield," retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, the commission's chairman, said in an interview. "Women serve — and they lead — military security, military police units, air defense units, intelligence units, all of which have to be right there with combat veterans in order to do the job appropriately."
Because they are technically attached to, but not assigned to, combat units, they don't get credit for being in combat arms, something important for promotion to the most senior ranks.
Lyles said the commission consulted a panel of enlisted women on the issue. "I didn't hear, 'Rah, rah, we want to be in combat,'" Lyles said. "But I also didn't hear, 'We don't want to be in combat.' What they want is an equal opportunity to serve where their skills allow them to serve."
Stretching the definition of diversity, the report also said the military must harness people with a greater range of skills and backgrounds in, for instance, cyber systems, languages and cultural knowledge to be able to operate in an era of new threats and to collaborate with international partners and others.