An MH-6 Little Bird flown by Army Special Operations soldiers is seen in 2009. (Army)
Women have been cleared for Army special operations.
The Army is recruiting women to become pilots and crew chiefs for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment for the first time as part of its ongoing effort to expand roles for women in the service.
The move by the 160th is the result of an appeal by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to expand combat roles for women.
"We are looking for women to serve in the cockpit, we'll start with a pilot [trial] program, and assuming there's no significant issues, we'll integrate women," said Brig. Gen. Clayton Hutmacher, the commander of Army Special Operations Aviation Command. "We plan on going out and actively recruiting women. We're fully supportive of this initiative."
Women would serve as pilots of 160th aircraft and non-rated women would serve as crew chiefs in the backs of those aircraft, said Col. John Evans, the regimental commander.
Conventional aviation units are typically employed downrange frequently over longer periods, while special operations aviation units are often deployed heavily over shorter periods and in more austere conditions, with less support. Much of what the 160th does are dangerous and highly classified missions in support of special operations forces.
Women already serve as aviators and on air crews within conventional units in the aviation branch. Since the early 1990s, women have served in cavalry and attack missions that were closed to them up until that point, Evans said. Though Evans would not discuss specifics, he said women are already "doing lots of operational things in SOF."
"This will certainly be one of the first forays for Army Special Operations Command, putting them in this type of role," Evans said.
Hutmacher emphasized that there will be one standard for both men and women as the assessment and selection process becomes gender-agnostic.
Evans said he has informed his troops.
"As we bring these very talented female candidates into the 160th, they will understand up front that there is but one standard, and they're going to have to meet that to be a part of the organization," Evans said. "As I've talked to senior female officers in the Army, they say they would expect no less. They don't want special consideration."
Candidates must complete an application packet, kicking off a process that takes several months. The expectation is that by summer the 160th will assess its first female candidates.
Both Evans and Hutmacher said women will be recruited first in limited numbers and that they expect them to be fully integrated into the formation after the pilot program.
Odierno had issued broad guidance for leaders to examine which roles could be opened to women, and the question of female special operations aviators filtered down from Army Special Operations Command to Army Special Operations Aviation Command and the 160th itself.
"We've had them in Apaches and OH-58Ds for twenty years now. What is it about the 160th mission set you believe is unsuitable for them, and our answer is ‘Well, there's nothing,' " Evans said.
Hutmacher described Army senior leaders as "very supportive" of the move. He said it was inevitable and that he was "very excited" by it.
The move is expected to aid pilot shortages, increasing the pool of available candidates, Hutmacher said.
Both Hutmacher and Evans said they have not heard any signs of displeasure from the ranks in reaction. Hutmacher said he assembled warrant officers and commanders to prepare them for the move.
"I haven't gotten any push-back," Hutmacher said. "If you think about it, we have already integrated gays into the military, and that, I don't see it as a problem. We represent the values of the American people."
"Militaries go through evolutions," Evans said. "We have homosexuals serving in the military and there was a lot of consternation about that, it's come to pass, and lo and behold we've seen little impact."