“Make us more lethal” was the plea of Major Sharon Arana of the Air Force Special Operations’ Athena team, one of many similarly named groups of female Airmen tasked with bringing down the technical and tactical obstacles in the path of female war fighters. While the military as a whole makes strides towards an increasing role for women in the armed services, there are still struggles to get these forces into the field. Some of these roadblocks are exactly what you would expect, but some are decidedly more mundane.
We should start at the beginning of the story, although we don’t have to look very far back to find it. In 2015, the decision was made to integrate women into the Air Force’s Special Warfare programs. As of February of 2023, seven females have graduated from the various Special Warfare pipelines, which would be a feat for anyone. Maj. Gen. Michelle Edmondson said it best; “Of all of the Air Force’s training programs, Special Warfare training has the highest attrition rate due to extremely high-performance standards.” Suffice to say, anyone who graduates that level of training is ready to hit the deck running. Unfortunately, that’s not always how things go.
Then came the Athena teams. Beginning in 2019, the Air Force Athena program was designed specifically to assist the Air Force in overcoming systemic barriers for women in different areas of the branch. Formed to address problems on the operational level, Air Combat Command was the first to stand up. Since over 20% of the Air Force is female, the push was not only needed, but welcomed. More Athena teams sprouted up, each taking a different prefix to differentiate; ACC became Sword Athena. Special Operations Command has Daggar Athena, and the reserves has ARC Athena.
At the top of the Athena agenda? Give us our guns and get out of the way. Lt. Col. Meghan O’Rourke of AFSOC said “I don’t want them worrying about their families back home, I don’t want them worrying about personal hygiene or anything like that. I want these barriers tackled. These are leadership issues, not women’s issues. I want those tackled so that they can do their job as well as they possibly can.” CMSgt. Diana M. Scaramouche echoed this sentiment; “Take care of the basic physiological needs… And I think it makes us even more lethal. Because when you look at China, I don’t think they’re considering that.” Given these conditions, where do we go from here?
Better readiness, better equipment. As an infantry Marine, I can say firsthand that not all gear fits the same. Two Marines may wear ‘medium’ ballistic vests, but that doesn’t mean each won’t have to make adjustments. Efforts are already underway, and in some cases, orders filled and shipped, to increase the effectiveness of female warfighters. Ballistic vests designed to accommodate different physiology, flight gear to better protect pilots and air crews, and most importantly, a command climate where the training and hard work isn’t wasted. In an ever more integrated military organization, especially America's venerated special operations forces, the opportunity is here for us to see what we are truly capable of.
Active duty, veterans, lawmakers, and civilians can armchair quarterback the possible scenarios until we are all blue in the face, but at the end of the day there is only one truth that matters. America’s military has long prided itself on being an all-volunteer fighting force. If those volunteers step forward, swear their oath, and pass their training… Time to take the brakes off and let them hunt.