WASHINGTON (CN) - With the ban on women in ground-combat units newly lifted, top military brass wrangled in the Senate on Tuesday over what it will take to fully integrate women in the armed services.
Republicans in particular scoffed at the rush to integrate so soon after the Marine Corps unveiled the results
of a $36 million study that found women are able to perform physically demanding tasks, "but not necessarily at the same level as their male counterparts in terms of performance, fatigue, workload, or cohesion."
A task force behind the study said it trained female Marine volunteers in live-fire environments that closely resembled ground combat conditions. It found women were also more vulnerable to injury.
The corps conducted the study on the heels of a 2013 order by then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the armed services to begin integrating women into closed units.
In its 978-report issued this past August, the Marine Corps requested an exemption to keep women out of armor and infantry positions.
Panetta's successor, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, nevertheless lifted the ban on women in ground combat units two months ago.
At a hearing today of the Senate Armed Services Committee, some sticking points emerged along partisan lines, though many witnesses and committee members supported having women serve the military in ever-increasing capacities.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., condemned the study's flawed methodology, noting that the men in the study had more training and more experience.
Rejecting Gillibrand's assessment, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller conceded that the men had more experience, but said the females were as good if not better than their male counterparts in every other standard.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, meanwhile highlighted the study's conclusion that "all-male task force teams outperformed mixed gender units in 69 percent of ground combat tasks."
Overlooking women's lesser physical capabilities will pose a danger to troops who will be less prepared for violent combat, and will make women "targets of resentment," Donnelly said in written testimony.
"This is not a 'pro-woman' policy; it is a cruel deception, betraying the interests of uniformed women who deserve better," said Donnelly, who did not actually attend the three-hour hearing.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told committee members that the new policy is on track to have women, 25 to 35 years from now, leading the units from which they were once barred.
"We opened up apache helicopters 25 years ago, and we now have apache battalion commanders that are female," Milley said. "I think the same phenomenon will occur over the same period of time."
The Army does not have integrated basic training now, but some women could start integrated training this fall for previously closed units at Fort Benning, Ga., Milley said.
"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind and my professional judgment, that women - some women - can perform every single job in the United States Army," he added.
Witnesses tried to allay concerns by Republicans that integration would compromise fighting capability and lower physical standards women might struggle to meet, saying combat-readiness standards and capabilities would not bend to quotas or pressure to increase the number of women serving in battalion-sized or smaller units previously off-limits to women.
"An incredibly important thing that came out of this study was the establishment of operationally relevant, occupation-specific, gender-neutral standards," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said.
"What we have now are a set of standards based on the actual requirements and demands for every Marine Corps MOS, and the corps is more effective and more ready because of this work," Mabus added, abbreviating Military Occupations Specialty.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed Mabus public statements the secretary made one day after he received a copy of the Marine Corps study - about why he sees no need for an exemption to keep some combat units closed to women.
"I am concerned that the department has gone about things backwards," McCain said. "This consequential decision was made and mandated before the military services could study its implications, and before any implementation plans were devised to address the serious challenges raised in the studies."
Though Democratic senators touted the ability of women to excel in the previously off-limit units, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama reiterated the study's results.
"How do you evaluate the risk of injury and the ability to perform effectively on the battlefield when you consider the integration of combat forces?" Sessions asked Gen. Neller.
"We're going to find out," Neller said. "We believe that there's ways that this can be, to some degree, mitigated. How much? We don't know what we don't know."
An individual Marine's physical capability, susceptibility to injury and overall fitness are part of the ongoing evaluation the Marine Corps will monitor through the implementation process, Neller added.
McCain noted that Congress has not received implementation plans for any of the armed services.
The panelists indicated that implementation could begin after Defense Secretary Carter reviews the plans, they said.
Some witnesses said the ban lift for women in combat units means that qualified and eligible women should begin registering for the draft.
"It's the right thing going forward," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said.