Women's role in special operations forces could grow, analysts say

All-women units, known as female engagement teams, are already play a key role in assisting American regular and special forces units train and equip U.S.-backed local militias in Afghanistan, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) noted during Wednesday's hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. 

The local militias would act as a government-backed paramilitary force to back up Afghan National Security Forces in particularly restive provinces in Afghanistan. 

These militias would also theoretically be the frontline forces that would detect Taliban or al Qaeda activities in areas beyond the reach of Kabul. 

While those female engagement teams are being rotated out of the country, the opportunities for women to serve with special forces units on certain types of missions will only increase Jacqueline Davis, executive vice president at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, testified on Wednesday.

Female soldiers and officers have also risen through the intelligence and personnel fields within Special Operations Command, she told members of the committee. 

But with special operations forces set to grow, in both size and operational tempo, the opportunities for women within the command to take part in operations worldwide will only increase. 

"I think in the future as the numbers go up in [special operations forces] to 71,000 ... I think you will see a larger percentage of women in operational settings as well as in the headquarters in the United States as well as in the [theater special operations command] organizations," Davis told subcommittee members. 

Those opportunities will likely fall under "indirect action" missions, such as long-term training and advising efforts with foreign militaries, rather than direct combat-type operations, such as the Osama bin Laden raid last May. 

"In this set of indirect action [type] mission areas [is] where women I think will increasingly be able to bring to bear their capabilities," Davis told the subcommittee. 

To that end, Davis testified that Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven has recognized the importance of "utilization and leveraging of our particular assets as part of the female gender" within the command. 

In February, the Pentagon announced that women would be formally permitted in crucial and dangerous jobs closer to the battlefield, allowing female soldiers to assume frontline jobs such as medics and radio operators. 

However, the department's decision did not lift the military's ban on women serving in regular combat infantry units or special operations teams engaged in direct action missions.