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More Women in Special Ops Forces, Gates Predicts

Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

ROTC cadets from Duke University, University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University listen as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Sept. 29, 2010. DOD photo by Cherie Cullen

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2010 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday he anticipates that more women will serve in military special operations in the future.

“My guess at some point is that there will be a careful step in that direction with the special operations forces,” Gates told about 300 ROTC students here at Duke University.

Women already serve in a limited capacity within the special operations community -- primarily in civil affairs, mission information support and aviation capacities, a U.S. Special Operations Command official confirmed. However, most special operations billets, including Navy Sea, Air and Land teams, more commonly known as SEAL teams, and Special Forces A-teams, are limited to males.

The military, Gates predicted, likely will use lessons learned by the Navy as it introduces women into its submarine force to guide any similar changes within special operations.

He noted that only women officers will be assigned to submarines, and that they’ll serve only on Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines large enough to provide them separate living facilities.

And, he said, females assigned to submarine duty will have a mentor aboard -- a senior woman officer who has served aboard a surface ship at least at department-head level.

“And we will learn from that [submarine] experience,” Gates said.

Gates discussed another issue being debated across the special operations community: Should civil affairs capabilities remain in specialized units within special operations, or be extended more widely across the force?

“My own bias is that we ought to spread those skills -- and language skills -- more broadly in the Army than just special operations forces,” the secretary told the cadets.

In many ways, he said, the discussion has become academic.

“The reality is, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have ended up using regular, conventional forces in ways that special operations forces used to do by themselves,” Gates told the cadets. “A lot of regular Army infantry units are doing civil affairs, are doing development, along with fighting the fight.”

“We have to keep the SOF capability,” he continued. “But when it comes to civil affairs and so on, do you spread those capabilities more widely in the Army?”

Not one ROTC cadet, nor any of the 1,200 other people who attended Gates’ lecture at Duke University’s Page Auditorium posed a question about the possible repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Gates, who supports the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” acknowledged during his lecture that some elite universities use the law as a rationale for banning ROTC on their campuses.

Duke, he said, is a “notable and admirable exception,” with its Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC programs.

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