A Long Time Coming — And Still A Long Way To Go

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Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Goodwin/

Then-Rear Adm. Michelle Howard talks to the crew of the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan upon its return to Norfolk following its deployment to Haiti to help in the wake of the 2010 earthquake there.

I just found out that President Obama has nominated Air Force Lieut. General Janet Wolfenbarger for her fourth star, making her the first woman in the Air Force to earn that rank, and only the second woman in the history of the United States military to be nominated. This announcement came on the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement, still pending approval by Congress, that women will be able to serve in some combat support billets that are considered “closer to the front lines”.

This plan to increase the number of women in the forward forces comes after 10 years of war and service with those forces, but without formal acknowledgement of that service. The move is being lauded by some, vilified by others, and with complaints by others that it is not enough. But it is only policy catching up with reality.

I find the announcements coming close on the heels of each other to be very interesting. Wolfenbarger is a logistics and acquisition expert. Obviously, getting the most powerful and effective weapons to the troops is a major undertaking at any time in a military’s cycle, but especially during wartime. We want war materiel to be top notch, and we need it where it does the most good, at the front.

But, it is interesting that actual operators of that equipment, the women who are Navy ship-drivers (Surface Warfare Officers, SWO), military police, and the military pilots of all the services, including helicopter pilots —  who put their lives on the line at the front — are still in the background of the senior ranks. So these new rules will primarily benefit women in the Army and the Marine Corps, but not for a long, long time.

Why is that? The argument that proponents raise for totally revoking the combat exclusion policies is that it is unfair to women because they do not have the same career opportunities as men vis a vis combat deployments. The argument goes that if women had these same opportunities, voila! Women would soon be at the top ranks of the military (i.e. more with their fourth star), and serving in either the top service billet (Army or Air Force chief of staff, Marine Corps commandant, or Navy chief of naval operations), or as a four-star Unified Combatant Commander.

No logistician, no matter how good, will ever be appointed to those billets. Female combat pilots and combatant ship commanders had restrictions lifted on their service back in 1992 (for pilots) and 1994 (for service on combatant ships), and we have yet to see a “warfare qualified” women admiral or general in either the Navy or the Air Force. This is because it takes more than longevity to make it to the upper ranks; it also takes the right kind of jobs in preparation for future stars.

In preparation for this post, I decided to see how the two female three-star admirals in the Navy compared to the men. I was actually not expecting these findings, but they are interesting:

It turns out that as an Air Force Academy graduate (class of 1980), LGEN Wolfenbarger is in good company. Of the 54 Admirals (6) and Vice-Admirals (48) in the Navy, 63% are Academy graduates; 17 are aviators, all but one a fighter pilot, and 65% of those are academy graduates; 16 are surface warfare officers, all except one were combatant commanders, and 69% are academy graduates; 10 are submariners, 80% are academy graduates; and of the 4 Navy SEALs, 75% are academy grads.

Of the two women, Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger is a SWO and a NROTC graduate, and served on non-combatant ships such as tenders, ammunitions ships, and oilers (logistics ships); Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau is SWO qualified, though never served on ships, and commissioned through OCS. VADM Rondeau is currently the President of the National War College. Even though she is “warfare qualified”, she has not been a warfare commander, nor has she deployed in support of OIF or OEF. What this means to me is that the Navy will probably not promote VADM Rondeau to full admiral. There are no non-combatant four-star admirals in the Navy.

VADM Pottenger might have a chance, but she also has a few strikes against her. First, she is a reservist, not regular Navy, though she has been on active duty for at least the last five years. In addition, she did not command any surface combatants (destroyers, frigates or cruisers), nor is she a Naval Academy graduate. Pottenger has deployed in support of OEF commanding USS Bridge (AOE 10), and was in command of an Amphibious Force Strike Group as well as the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, supporting both OIF and OEF. Since there are no male admirals who commanded either support vessels or amphibious vessels, I would say that her chances for four stars are less than 50/50.

Frankly, the next two women who could possibly be in line for three stars, RADM Michelle Howard, a SWO and 1982 Naval Academy graduate, and RADM Nora Tyson, a Naval Flight Officer, and Officer Candidate graduate, have similar issues working against them. Howard has served on the same types of vessels as VADM Pottenger, but at least is regular Navy, as well as an Academy graduate. Tyson is an NFO, not a pilot. Although both of these women have stellar careers to date, in reality they cannot compete with the men who have had combat experience their entire Navy careers.

So, it is great that LGEN Wolfenbarger has been nominated to four stars, and I congratulate her! However, I do not see an influx of women from the operational side of the military becoming a four-star admiral, nevermind a unified commander or a service chief, for a long, long time.