Exclusive Access to Marine Corps Study Shows it Missees the Mark

OCTOBER 14, 2015
By Ellen Haring and Megan MacKenzie*

Originally published at meganhmackenzie.com
In August, the Marine Corps completed a two and a half year, $36 million dollar series of studies that examined the possible impacts of integrating women into combat occupations. On 10 September, they issued a four-page, unsigned, undated, summary of their research findings that concluded that women degrade combat effectiveness, contribute to increased injury rates and may negatively impact recruiting and retention.

After gaining unprecedented access to over 380 pages of this research, we found that the primary study was inherently flawed and that the limited information the Marines released hid a myriad of problems and weaknesses associated with the design, small volunteer pool, and lack of generalizability of the findings. Significantly, the unclassified yet previously unreleased research documents indicate that women do not negatively impact unit cohesion, that the study sought to measure the impacts of integration in the absence of established combat standards, that female volunteers in the study had no operating force experience in ground combat units, and that better physical screening would have all but eliminated the rates of injury for women. We have released these documents to the Washington Post and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Evidence in the longer versions of the study also contradicts the general conclusion that all-male infantry teams performed better than other teams. For example, the research indicates that mixed gender teams are better at solving complex problems, have fewer disciplinary problems, and will likely increase the recruiting pool. The results also showed that non-infantry male Marines outshot infantry trained Marines and that setting valid standards will likely improve overall combat effectiveness.

When the Secretary of Defense rescinded the combat exclusion policy in 2013, the Services were tasked with setting valid occupational standards. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act further entrenched this, requiring that “outcome-based standards” be developed to “accurately predict performance of actual, regular and recurring duties of a military occupation” and that they be applied to “measure individual capabilities.”

While the Army has some well-defined elite infantry training standards in the form of its Ranger School standards, the Marines have historically assumed that any male should be capable of infantry occupations simply because of his sex. In other words, until now, the only required standard for an infantry Marine has not been his individual capabilities or physical and mental qualifications but has simply been his biology and a passing Physical Fitness Test (PFT) score; the latter is an achievement most female Marines also meet.

In unpublished portions of the research the Marines acknowledge this as a limitation, stating “they relied heavily on the fundamental assumption that simply because a Marine in a particular ground combat arms MOS is a male, he should be capable of performing all of the physical tasks” of a combat occupation. They also concluded “perhaps the single-most important result of this almost three year process” has been “to essentially deconstruct many collective ground combat arms tasks to identify what individual tasks and standards an individual Marine must achieve …to be a fully contributing member of that unit.”

Although the Marines had clear directives from DOD and acknowledged the limitations of their current standards for infantry, their studies did not focus on establishing quantifiable job-specific performance standards. Instead, their main research effort, the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force (GCEITF) had as its objective “to evaluate the physical performance of individual Marine volunteers in the execution of individual and collective tasks in an operational environment” and to “estimate the effect of gender integration.”

The problem with this objective was that the Marines were seeking to evaluate the physical performance of Marines in the absence of quantifiable job-specific standards. Not only did they lack clear standards at the start of the research program, but they failed to define or outline criteria for evaluating success or “combat effectiveness” at any point whatsoever in their research. Throughout the analyses, the only criteria used to measure achievement or combat effectiveness appears to be absolute speed and accuracy when completing a select number of physically demanding tasks: in other words, no standard was established to be met, and each task was turned into an absolute competition.

Since the study does not establish minimum operational standards associated with combat tasks and duties, and it fails to measure study participants against job-specific standards, this research does little to further the discussion on gender integration. The conclusion that all-male groups, on average, performed faster than integrated groups has been taken as proof that there are risks to gender integration and that the inclusion of female Marines would therefore render the Marines less combat effective, regardless of any individual Marines’ qualifications, male or female. Despite the importance placed on speed, the study does not define how fast a task needs to be accomplished or under what conditions to meet combat effective screening criteria. They just say that men are faster, therefore better. Although it is interesting that all-male teams – on average- performed better than integrated ones, the results do not tell us whether the integrated teams performed adequately. Moreover, an unexpected and unreported finding was that males with no infantry training consistently outshot their infantry trained counterparts on three of the four weapons tested and tied them on the fourth.

The Marine study came to mixed conclusions when it came to morale and cohesion. This is significant since it is often assumed that women spoil the “band of brothers” dynamic that is considered essential to combat effectiveness. In a widely circulated editorial, retired Marine General Gregory Newbold stated that the mysterious bonds between men are “what tempers the steel of an infantry unit” and “serves as the basis of its combat power.” The Marine Corps’ study does not demonstrate a clear link between gender integration and a loss of group cohesion. Participants were asked questions that measured cohesion levels at several stages in the study. Overall it was reported that there was “no significant difference” in cohesion levels between gender integrated and all-male units and that “gender integration, in and of itself, will not have a significant impact on unit morale.” The research also found that “gender-neutral standards facilitate task cohesion in integrated units.”

The Marines’ own research counters one of the most prolific arguments used to keep women out of combat roles. Moreover, their research indicates that the development of gender-neutral standards might actually enhance group cohesion within the Corps.

There are several issues with the applicability and generalizability of the findings. The study claims that the impact of gender integration on small units in the study “are generalizable to larger unit effectiveness,” yet later in the findings contradicts this, stating that due to small population sizes and possible selection bias “caution should be used when considering the generalizability of findings.” In terms of selection problems, effort was made to include a population that was representative of the Marines; however, it was acknowledged “Our sourcing of volunteers from the operating forces means accepting variations in some important respects, such as Time in Service, Time in MOS, training levels, and physiological development. We cannot be certain that male and female participants were totally equitable in these characteristics.” It was also noted that all of the female Marines had “no operating force experience in ground combat units” and that “even with the training period prior to the experimental phase designed to mitigate differences in training and physiological development, some differences likely remained” between volunteers.

In addition to possible selection bias issues, there was a clear problem of simply having enough participants for each of the elements of the study to draw any reliable conclusions. When describing the volunteer pool, it was admitted that “in some MOSs there is only a small quantity of males and females … In the extreme cases of the experiment, there were no more than three males (i.e., PIMG) and females (i.e., tanks) completing the entire experimental phase.” The study compares what it considers ‘low density’ and ‘high density’ gender integrated groups to all-male units. However, due to drop out rates and issues with numbers of volunteers, often the ‘high density’ groups contained only 2 women and analysis of some tasks could not be completed at all due to a lack of participants.

Another issue associated with the volunteer population and representativeness relates to selection and physical requirements. There has been significant attention given to the relatively high rates of injury for women in the Marine study. However, the longer reports show that “when fitness is considered, female injury rates are similar/the same as male injury rates” and that “a stricter physical screening tool would have eliminated all the female Marines who sustained injury and were dropped during ITB” (infantry initial entry training). They also conclude that “it is unknown how much a stricter (higher) physical screen would have improved the physical performance of female volunteers” during the integrated task force testing.

Female volunteers were allowed to participate in the GCEITF experiment if they could meet minimum male fitness scores; scores the Marines no longer believe correlate to combat occupational success. Additionally, female Marines are held to a stricter body mass index (25%) than men (27.5%). According to their own analysis, “This appears to be counterproductive, especially for enabling females to enter physically demanding MOSs” since a higher body mass index in women is more advantageous for physically demanding jobs than a lower body mass index.

By the Marines’ own admission, “ground combat units have many years of historical bias, much of which will take time to eliminate.” This bias isn’t just evident in ground combat units; it’s also evident in the design, research and published findings of this set of studies. At best, the research amounts to a competition between groups of men and women with different qualifications and experience. In the absence of standards or evidence about the performance of individuals, the results do not indicate if some women outperformed some men or whether women are capable of performing combat duties. The fact that the Marines felt confident concluding women negatively impact combat units despite the poor design, inconsistent volunteer pool, small numbers of participants and confounding results regarding both women and men’s performance indicates a clear intent to keep women out.

*Ellen Haring is a retired Army colonel and senior fellow at Women in International Security
Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and the author of Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Miltiary and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight

9 thoughts on “Exclusive Access to Marine Corps Study Shows it Missees the Mark

  1. “Despite the importance placed on speed, the study does not define how fast a task needs to be accomplished or under what conditions to meet combat effective screening criteria. They just say that men are faster, therefore better. Although it is interesting that all-male teams – on average- performed better than integrated ones, the results do not tell us whether the integrated teams performed adequately” — I’m sorry but the difference between “faster” and “adequately” equate to people dying in actual combat. The fact the male teams out performed the mixed squads should be enough in itself to not integrate teams. It was a competition because that’s how you know who was better. Sorry, the side with the females lost. Speed kills. Literally.


    1. If absolute speed is the ultimate test of combat effectiveness than why haven’t the Marines been more successful defeating slower, less accurate foes? If we were to pit a squad of Marine infantrymen against a squad of Taliban in a similar experiment I suspect the Marines would, without a doubt, be faster and more accurate. If, in fact speed = combat effectiveness, then the Marines should have won every battle against the Taliban, AQI, etc. … but they haven’t…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Please, with all your inside information, please tell me(a marine afghan vet) where we didn’t win a battle with the Taliban? What the above post was relating to was the speed at which a mission task is completed. So how about this? Instead of writing a blog, walk on over to the recruiting center and sign on up, because obviously the female Marines we sent weren’t from a large enough ‘pool’ to draw from as you stated. It’s easy to dissect a method when all you did was read a paper. The female Marine I sent to the GCEITF was a stellar performer with a high first class PFT and a perfect CFT. I truly hope that at some point women will rise to the occasion, but the physiology isn’t looking that way. It’s not just that I don’t want a woman next to me that can’t perform at my level, I also don’t want that 120 pound male next to me either. Unfortunately we can’t restrict who we let in more. However, that sure as shit doesn’t mean we should lower the MINIMUM standard to pass IOC.
        I love all my Marines, male and female, but if you have never seen the tasks associated with combat or a deployed environment, you can’t sit on your soapbox and judge us as misyogynists for not allowing women in just to satisfy equal opportunity. Your life isn’t on the line, it will be my life and the woman you send in to combat with me.


      2. Out of curiosity, what direct infantry battle, assuming similar numbers (or even a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio), has the Marine Corps lost against terrorist groups? Everything I’ve seen and read has indicated that the U. S. military (not just the Marines) overwhelmingly defeated insurgent forces in direct combat. I mean, the actual military of Iraq was defeated in less than a month. I can’t remember a single case where American military forces were defeated outside of serious ambushes with overwhelming force or IED attacks, and most of those losses were against logistics and support elements, not infantry.

        I’m not really arguing that speed is the sole measure combat effectiveness, but I can’t really think of any actual battles that we lost against insurgent forces outside of guerilla warfare, and every AAR I’ve read indicates that the superior training of U. S. forces is why insurgents avoided direct confrontation at all costs.


  2. Having worked as a civilian employee for the Marine Corps for two years now, I can say that this study its totally indicative of the way Marines think. Everything is a competition to them. They are a much less deliberative organization owing to their desire to be the first and fastest. I don’t know that the Marines are capable of studying themselves in an objective manner, because they believe their own press. This isn’t to say that the Marine Corps isn’t a very effective combat organization, I however do not believe they are capable of the level of introspection needed to complete a study of this nature.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A good analysis, but a couple of things stood out to me. I haven’t read the report (I couldn’t find it online) but there were a few questions and issues I had based on your summary.

    1. You stated that “passing a PFT” was a requirement that male and female Marines meet, yet did not mention that the standards and exercises required for each gender are different. The Marine Corps has delayed its intended modification for the female PFT to include pull-ups several times because a significant portion of active-duty female Marines could not meet the minimum standard of three. Even in the modified version, 8 pull-ups is a max score for females, whereas the max is 20 for males. Likewise men must complete a faster run time for a higher score. There are women that can out perform men, absolutely, but “the PFT” does not mean the same thing for men and women currently in the Marine Corps.

    2. You stated several times that none of the women involved in the study had ” operating force experience in ground combat units.” Since women are currently not permitted to serve in ground combat units, I’m not sure how this could have been avoided. What is your objection here?

    3. At one point you mentioned that “Additionally, female Marines are held to a stricter body mass index (25%) than men (27.5%).” If you’re talking about Marine Corps height/weight standards, both of those numbers are incorrect. The actual standards are 18% for men and 26% for women. I’m not sure where you got those numbers, but any male Marine at 27.5% BMI would be processed for administrative separation, regardless of age, and at all points the BMI is much stricter for men than women (due to biological differences, not because the standards for women are lower).

    4. I don’t really understand the logic of minimum standards. You state that, although the male groups performed overall better than mixed groups in most categories, since no minimum standard was created it doesn’t show whether or not the mixed groups were good enough for combat? How exactly do you determine a minimum standard for combat? Men and women were given the same minimum standard (male PFT) and the all-male groups performed better in common infantry tasks.

    I’d love to read the full report, so far I’ve been unconvinced either way. But so far the main objections seem to be that the women who participated weren’t good enough or that the test was unfair, but I haven’t really seen any conclusive evidence this was the case (comparing PT scores of men and women who participated, a breakdown of why the events tested did not cover common infantry tasks, or why arbitrary minimum standards are a better metric than “better” or “worse” which can at least be directly compared). I’ll be interested to see how it plays out.


    1. JP,
      Thanks for your points. I’ll answer them in order and based on what was provided in the Marine Corps documents that we reviewed. The San Diego Tribune posted the documents on their site. You can access them there.

      1. The women volunteers were screened using the male PFT/CFT standard not the women’s standard. As to the pull up standard-I have no doubt that Marine women will eventually achieve the minimum standard given time. It took male marines almost 20 years to recover their scores when kipping was no longer allowed. Seems to me that female Marines should be given at least half that time to go from a flexed arm hang to the pull up minimum. However, I am still trying to understand the requirement for pull ups vs push ups in the first place. Do pull ups make Marine’s more combat effective? If there is a clear link then why don’t we do them in the Army?

      2. The fact that the volunteers didn’t have ground combat force operating experience is of course obvious since they have been largely excluded but there are Marine women who have operated with combat units-FETs and Lionesses come to mind. However, that was a point highlighted in the research study, we quoted it from the study to call attention to it since even the researchers noted that it may have impacted the findings.

      3. The BMI info is directly from the study documents. If it isn’t correct then perhaps you should contact the MCFIP team that headed up the study and inform them of their error. Frankly, I found it surprising too.

      4. Tasks, conditions and standards require that a minimum standard be set for all tasks in each MOS so that we know if Soldiers and Marines are meeting minimum requirements to effectively function in their MOS. I think the easiest and most familiar example is weapons qualification. We all must meet a minimum standard of qualification on our assigned weapon and we must routinely re-qualify. Although we’d all like fire “expert” many of us just qualify as “marksmen”. Instead of evaluating the volunteers against a qualification standard they competed as teams against each other and the fastest team (“expert”) was determined to be the most effective but maybe all teams qualified (“marksmen”). I don’t know because there doesn’t seem to have been any defined qualification threshold. At least none was reported in the documents that we reviewed. But please take a look at the documents yourself and see what you think.

      Hope this helps!


  4. Some really good information came out of this study. Some very realistic standards were produced and validated. Will Marines be biased when evaluating themselves? Most likely. However, what critics fail to understand (and they always will, until they fully immerse themselves in the culture and have meaningful experiences to draw from) are the intangible, unquantifiable realities and platitudes for a warfighting organization. Marines are pissed across the board, you know why? Because female Marines still do not perform to the save standard as male Marines. They don’t take the same PFT, they don’t have the same scoring rubric (both PFT and CFT), they get quotas on selection boards (officer candidates, promotion, etc) and they get preferential treatment on a myriad of issues (berthing, heads, tasking) AND they literally get months, yes MONTHS to desert their jobs (duties) when they become pregnant (forcing other Marines to fill their gap). And the elephant in the room that no one wants to address but in fact IT IS REALITY AND WILL NEVER, EVER CHANGE: they are a distraction to men. Sorry, no brain washing will ever change that. Yes, some male Marines are not up to the standard. Guess what, they need to be held accountable if they fail the standard. You get what you incentivize. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit (unfortunately you, the critic, won’t be the one in some war torn country when shit gets real -you’ll be sitting your critic ridden self in your comfortable American home with all the amenities of a king). There is a paradigm shift happening in the Corps (probably other “war fighting” organizations as well) cadre and careerists are seeing what is being forced on them and THEY foresee the consequences for the future–AND THEY ARE GETTING OUT AT THE CYCLIC RATE. No thanks, good riddens they are saying. And for you military inclined out there, stand by because when your top motivated and professional troops leave, what you get is a tough looking, spit polished facade (Marines will always look good) but an amateur filled core (wholly unprepared emotionally weak driven mental and physical fiasco). Sucks for the troops, but then again, who really cares about the troops…


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