Female Rangers Will Lead The Way, Sooner or Later

April 21, 2015

Yesterday, April 20, marked a turning point for U.S. Army women, as the first female soldiers started Ranger School. Those who successfully complete the course will be awarded the coveted black and gold Ranger tab. And whenever the first woman pins on her hard-won Ranger tab and steps in front of a platoon of soldiers, it will do much to silence the debate about whether women can serve in the toughest combat units in the Army.

Ranger School is the Army’s arguably most demanding leadership experience as well as a significant training ground for its combat leaders. And with both combat deployments and battlefield experience now diminishing, the importance of Ranger School as a crucible for training future Army combat leaders will only increase. The 62-day course is the equivalent of an Olympic competition for combat arms volunteers. It produces unparalleled small unit leaders capable of leading all types of troops under highly adverse conditions. Ranger students negotiate swamps, mountains, and forests with ever-decreasing sleep and food while conducting ever more arduous day and night patrols with heavy loads.

To make it through the first week of the course, any Ranger candidate — male or female — has to complete 49 pushups, 59 sit-ups, six chin-ups, run five miles in 40 minutes, complete a 15 meter swim, foot march 12 miles in three hours with a 45 pound pack, navigate a cross-country compass course, traverse an elevated log obstacle and water drop, and plunge into the water after zooming down a zipline. And then the real course starts. More than 60 percent of those who fail do so in the first week; overall graduation rates in previous (all male) classes hovered around 50 percent.

Soldiers who graduate from Ranger School wear the prized Ranger tab on their uniforms for the rest of their careers. While few ultimately serve in the very select special operations battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Ranger tab itself is a mark of utter toughness and successful leadership under pressure. Since its beginnings in the 1950s, many graduates of the course have looked back on Ranger School as physically tougher than their later combat experiences. Others have argued that the repeat combat experiences of recent wars have lessened its importance as a key combat leader qualification.

Ranger School is not the be-all and end-all litmus test of whether women can perform in ground combat roles in the U.S. military, but it is a significant and symbolic cultural and practical benchmark. And it has not been watered down for female candidates.

Although this week’s course is technically an experiment — the Army has only approved one gender-integrated course so far — there is little question that Ranger School will be fully open to women in the near future. For decades, small numbers of soldiers from all Army specialties — including signal corps, aviation, and intelligence — have attended, often despite having no prospects for a future assignment in a Ranger unit. Even if some Army ground combat units are unexpectedly not fully opened to women, there is no reason that women in these other fields who meet the prerequisites should not attend future courses.

Women who graduate will set the same example of tough, uncompromising leadership across the Army that their Ranger-qualified male peers do today. And eventually women will graduate, whether that happens in this test course or not. Women who earn the Ranger tab will slowly change the culture of the Army, much as women fighter pilots and destroyer skippers did for their warfare communities. Women graduates will personify the highest standards of leadership. They will be accepted in a culture focused on ground combat because they have demonstrated in unqualified terms that they can succeed at the toughest physical and mental leadership challenges that can be found outside of combat.

Much ink has been spilled in recent years as to why women should not be permitted in ground combat units, or the military schools that train principally ground combat troops. Retired Army four-star General and World War Two veteran Frederick Kroesen argued recently that the infantry in particular is not suited to women because women compete separately in the Olympics and most professional sports. Others have argued that ground combat units need to remain all male so the bands of social cohesion that permit those units to adhere in combat are not eroded.

Both viewpoints are off base. Women successfully serve in the infantry of several NATO allies. Social cohesion arguments were used to argue against integrating gays and African-Americans into the military, and turned out to be wrong. Numerous studies have shown that task cohesion (the shared commitment to achieving a common goal) is a stronger predictor of performance than social cohesion. Furthermore, performance seems to be more important for cohesion than the other way around — groups that perform well tend to be more cohesive.

As long as the physical, objective standards required of ground combat units are not compromised — and the standards represent real, validated performance requirements and not simply arbitrary traditions — then qualified women should be part of their makeup. To suggest otherwise perpetuates the same hoary traditions that once permeated the jet fighter community, as well as Navy warships and submarines.

One of this column’s authors served three tours of duty in Army Ranger battalions, including during the invasions of Panama and Grenada. As a Ranger company commander, he remembers well an overheard conversation between the battalion’s combat-experienced second-in-command and the unit personnel officer at the headquarters some months after a combat operation. The staff officer noted approvingly that a young lieutenant about to be newly assigned to the unit was “a real [physical] stud.” The battalion exec retorted, “I don’t care if he is a stud or not. I want to know if he is smart!”

Completing Ranger School is about far more than superior physical fitness. As any graduate will tell you, it is an intensive two-month long test of the spirit and soul. Endurance, fortitude, stamina, and teamwork count for more than raw physical abilities. Many highly fit candidates break down under the stress of repeatedly being thrust into graded leadership positions under ever-more arduous conditions compounded by seemingly unending difficulties.

Women should be tested in this cauldron. In today’s world, combat can erupt during the mission of any type of unit, from infantry patrols to logistics convoys. Afghanistan and Iraq have together provided innumerable examples of all types of integrated units of men and women coming under fire. The men and women leading those units had to respond and lead in combat. Soldiers of all specialties deserve to have leaders who are trained to the very highest combat standards and can lead them effectively under fire. To deny women leaders the opportunity to receive the Army’s premier combat leader training in Ranger School deprives these units of the most highly trained leadership they rightly deserve in battle. Combat does not differentiate by gender and neither should the military’s preparation of its leaders to perform in that crucible.

The first women to earn Ranger tabs will effectively end the debate as to whether women have what it takes to lead combat units. A female lieutenant with a Ranger tab will demonstrate indisputably that women are capable of leading troops under the toughest conditions — including combat. Ranger School has long been built on that premise, and its graduates admired for their superior small unit combat skills. Graduating from Ranger School and earning the tab unquestionably connotes having met the Army’s toughest standards for its combat leaders outside of the battlefield. And while this inaugural integrated class may not produce that first Ranger-qualified female leader, that day is coming and the Army will be a far better service for it.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army