September 3, 2015

Combat Leadership, Not Political Correctness: How Female Rangers Can Disrupt Enemy Ops

By The Kojo Nnamdi Show Staff

Author David Taylor (second from right) with the men of 2nd Platoon in Patika, Afghanistan in 2006.

Author David Taylor (second from right) with the men of 2nd Platoon in Patika, Afghanistan in 2006.

David Taylor was a Ranger-qualified Infantry officer, commissioned in 2004 through the Tufts-MIT ROTC program. While serving with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in 2006, he led a light infantry platoon in tactical combat operations along the volatile border region of Eastern Afghanistan. David completed active service in 2008 and began a career in private sector management consulting and technology development.

David now resides in Silicon Valley where he manages a ‘DARPA/Google[X]-esque’ private investment fund focused on developing advanced brain and cognitive technologies.

Two weeks ago, two soldiers became the first female graduates of the U.S. Army’s elite ranger school. On Wednesday, the Army’s subsequent announcement to make the school open to all genders affirms what most of us know: women can be physically and emotionally ready to lead troops in frontline combat. Let’s put that debate to rest and move forward.

If there’s a positive thing to say about combat it’s that it’s as real as the human experience can get. When the bullets start cutting down the trees around you, political and social topics are not prominent in your thoughts. Things become pretty simple: what is the most effective way for me to survive the next 30 minutes? If there’s a gay guy on my right and a black guy on my left, the only things I care about are that they stay with me and whether they’re returning fire effectively.

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David Taylor serving as an Army Ranger. Courtesy of David Taylor.

The current physical training regime for ground close combat roles is optimized for a male cohort; the training has been proven effective in the most demanding of operational environments. Research will need to be conducted to identify the most effective methods of achieving the same output from a female cohort whilst continuing to foster team cohesion.

Regardless of how politically or socially loaded this debate is, forced or otherwise inadequately prepared change undermines an organizations’ ability to perform its duties effectively. The organization we’re discussing here – the U.S. Army – is principally responsible for providing peace, security and stability for America and arguably for the entire globe. I hope we can all appreciate the differences between a company like Apple and our Army and not expect the latter to be as agile and adaptive to changing social dynamics as the former.

I’d like to focus less on whether we should integrate and more on how to proceed smoothly.

The Army changes most willingly when the mission requires it.

If the Army wants to promote smooth transition to a fully integrated and gender neutral armed forces, the best way to influence buy-in from members of the military, especially the ground close combat (GCC) types is to address our concerns about combat effectiveness. We can deal with just about anything else, but we will resist any changes that undermine our ability to execute our mission and return home to our families in one piece. It is after all our sworn duty to do so.

Author David Taylor meeting with Bermel elders in 2006.

Here are three things I think we need to all agree on in order to move the discussion forward:

Women will continue to excel in training and prove themselves capable of combat positions.

Women have demonstrated the physical and mental toughness required to complete Ranger training. This year, two graduated. Next year, perhaps four will make it through. The upward trend will continue. The standards will never change – the Ranger School cadre would never allow it.

The military must be open to change.

Women have been volunteering for, fighting in, leading in and dying in combat for years. Our military needs to acknowledge the realities of the asymmetrical battlefield and do a better job preparing all of its leaders to be effective in combat.

When I went through Ranger training in 2005, it was only open to the Infantry. After acknowledging that the Infantry weren’t the only units engaging the enemy in ground close combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army opened up Ranger School slots for other occupations to send their leaders, a move that I admittedly objected to initially in defense of tradition and out of baseless concern that the quality of the training would deteriorate, resulting in fewer reliable leaders to collaborate with against the enemy.

However, I now see great value in having Ranger-qualified leaders distributed throughout the battlefield. Insurgents’ fundamental tactic is to attack the weakest, most vulnerable targets. Since they win on public sentiment and political leverage, a dead logistician looks the same on TV as a dead Infantryman, except the latter has tended to be a much costlier get for them. Having Rangers spread throughout the different types of units means the insurgents have less vulnerability to go after. They know what the tab means and have learned to avoid it. I’ve been out of the game for a while now, but I have to suspect that this simple change in U.S. Army training policy back in 2007 has disrupted the enemy’s operational effectiveness and forced them to make unwanted changes to their strategy. With Wednesday’s news, it seems time for the Army to apply this sound logic comprehensively.

Combat effectiveness should remain the top priority

Brainstorming how to implement integration and gender neutrality among ground close combat units needs to address combat effectiveness (CE) above all else. Studies conducted by the armed forces identify 21 factors that contribute to CE, of which physiology and team cohesion are the most relevant.

Personally, I have no doubt that women will continue to prove they have the physical and mental toughness to lead troops in front line combat. I am more concerned about adverse effects on team cohesion. Many of these effects can be mitigated away with sound policy, training and technology. However, complex gender psychology and fiercely masculine infantry culture are arguably both still functionally pragmatic characteristics and will remain deeply entrenched and oppositional to smooth progress.

Every weekday, from 12-2 p.m. we do deep dives into diverse topics on our show. But here, on our blog, we want to do more to highlight the human experiences we talk about on air. On our blog, you can read short, personal essays that expand our on-air discussions. Submit your ideas here and happy reading!

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