Leadership: Women Running Combat Operations


April 21, 2011: Recently, another female military pilot rose high enough in rank to command a combat unit. And not for the first time, that combat unit was in combat. U.S. Air Force major general Margaret Woodward, commander of the 17th Air Force (the U.S. Air Force component of Africom) commanded U.S. air operations over Libya. The air combat began on March 19th, preceded by several weeks of planning and moving in ships and aircraft. The U.S. handed control of air operations over to NATO at the end of March, and withdrew nearly all its combat aircraft. But American transports, aerial tankers and electronic warfare continued to operate off Libya.

Woodward entered the air force in 1982, and spent most of her career flying transports or aerial tankers. She has commanded non-combat units as well. Some in the air force were upset that a non-combat flier was put in charge of a combat operation like this, but American operations were carried out efficiently. Woodward probably got the Africom job because that part of the world largely involves U.S. transports being used for tricky situations. Woodward had a reputation for handling air support units well. But a woman commanding a numbered air force is part of a trend.

For example, last year, for the first time, a female officer served as CAG (commander of the air group on an aircraft carrier.) This was no surprise to those in navy. It's a situation that's been developing for decades. In the mid 1970s, the U.S. Navy began letting women into Annapolis (the Naval Academy) and flight school. Some three decades later we have women commanding combat aircraft squadrons, cruisers, an amphibious task force (expeditionary strike group) and a strike group (a carrier task force.) The same pattern was seen in the air force and army aviation.

The newly appointed CAG captain Sara Joyner had, two years earlier been F-18 pilot Commander Joyner. At that time, she had just completed a tour as the first female commander of a navy combat squadron (VFA 105). This included a seven month cruise to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, where her dozen F-18Cs flew about 412 hours each. The squadron had 245 officers and sailors, including pilots and maintenance personnel. The squadron commander flew combat missions, in addition to running the squadron.

Joyner had been in the navy since 1985, when she entered the Naval Academy. She was a flight instructor in 1993, when the Department of Defense changed its policy and allowed women to fly combat missions. When she took over VFA 105, she already had 3,000 hours in the F-18, and 600 carrier landings. Another female Naval Academy graduate (Class of 1985) received an even more senior naval aviation command. Last year, Rear Admiral Nora Tyson took command of Task Force 73 (CVN USS George H W Bush and escorts). This was another first.

There have also been some less memorable firsts. Like the removal of a female captain of a warship for abusive treatment of the crew, and her demeanor and temperament in general. The relieved captain, of the cruiser USS Cowpens, was also a 1985 Naval Academy graduate, and she was relieved as she was at the end of her tour of duty on the Cowpens, and in the process of turning over command to another officer. The dismissed captain went off to her next assignment, as a staff officer.

Women have only been allowed on combat ships since 1994. Once women were allowed to fly combat aircraft, it was only a matter of time before some of them rose to command positions. Currently, about ten percent of navy officers are female, as are nine percent of enlisted personnel. Only 4.2 percent of navy aviators (pilots) are women, as are 6.9 percent of flight officers (non-pilot aircrew). In the air force, five percent of pilots are women.




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