Testing The Standards: Do Gender Differences Matter For Combat?

Mar 26, 2015
Originally published on March 26, 2015 6:01 pm

The man who designed the training experiment to determine if female Marines should be allowed into combat positions is not a Marine himself, but a civilian scientist. His data could also help the Marines justify their own standards for what makes a person fit for combat.

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The Marines are trying to determine whether women can serve in ground combat units, infantry, armor and artillery. The man who helped design the training is not a battle-hardened Marine, but a civilian scientist well-versed in statistics. NPR's Tom Bowman met with him at the Marine's desert training base in California.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: For weeks now, male and female Marines have been training in the Mojave Desert shooting at pop-up targets, changing tires on armored vehicles, firing artillery rounds. Ask them whether men and women can form an effective combat team and you're likely to get this response...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What do the numbers show?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know, there's going to be a ton of data up there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Look at all the data.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: All the data will go to the commandant.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The data will show what the Marine Corps needs to.

BOWMAN: Data - and the keeper of that data is a former Navy corpsman with an advanced degree in operations research.

PAUL JOHNSON: Nice to meet you. Please sit down. Make yourself comfortable.

BOWMAN: He works out of a one-story, prefab building at the Marine training range at Twentynine Palms.

JOHNSON: My name is Paul Johnson. I work for the Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity.

BOWMAN: Johnson has dozens of researchers and data collectors working with him in the field, closely following the progress of the Marine training designed to replicate, over weeks, combat conditions. Both male and female Marines wear sensors to determine their heart rate, their pace and location. Sensors on their weapons will show which Marine hits a target. Johnson has one squad with all men mount an attack; then a squad with one woman; then two women, so he can make comparisons.

JOHNSON: Given that we know that there are physiological differences between men and women, we're trying to answer the next logical question is OK, so there's differences, but does it matter? And that's really what we're trying to get at.

BOWMAN: So Johnson and his team will determine how women Marines will affect what is now an all-male unit's ability to fight.

JOHNSON: How quickly do they move carrying all of their combat equipment? The rounds that they fire - how many of them are hitting the target?

BOWMAN: Johnson says there could be differences. The squad with two women could be a bit slower carrying the heavy pack than one with all men. Or the squad with one woman could hit more targets than the all-male squad. The question is this - how much different is it with female Marines taking part?

JOHNSON: Is the difference between them so great that you would observe and notice and that it may have some technical impact on the operations?

BOWMAN: The Marine Corps has never undertaken such a detailed training experiment. Marines in the past would simply train in the desert before deployment. Much of it was subjective. So the data Johnson is collecting will be used by the Marines in the future to determine what standards must be met by all Marines, male or female. What is the ideal Marine for, let's say, infantry duty?

JOHNSON: Just where should a Marine fall on the spectrum? Or what should they be required to demonstrate?

BOWMAN: When he leaves his office, Johnson often climbs a tower above the training range. He wanted us to see what it looks like from there when the men and women mount an attack.

JOHNSON: And then when you come back I'll show you what it looks like in data.

BOWMAN: It can tell us how the men and women did.

JOHNSON: I can, but I won't tell you.

BOWMAN: That's because the first person to get all the data will be the Marine Commandant, General Joe Dunford. Johnson will give him a final report in August. That's when the Marines will decide can women serve in ground combat jobs? Tom Bowman, NPR News, Twentynine Palms, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.