Last updated: February 20. 2013 3:40AM - 310 Views

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For too long, America's image of its military has not matched its reality. We think Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima, massed attacks on fixed emplacements supported by armor, artillery and aircraft.

It's entirely possible that kind of war will never be fought again; technology has obviated the need and costs are out of sight. Today's reality is irregular warfare, wars without front lines fought by small units against guerrillas. The future is likely to be counter-insurgency operations that require fewer, but better-trained troops, supported by civil affairs units, sophisticated communications and tactical aircraft, with or without pilots.

Given all of that, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have decided that there's no reason that women can't play valuable roles in small-unit combat. On Thursday, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the armed services would begin lifting rules that excluded women from combat branches. There may still be some exclusions — special forces, for example. Plans aren't due until May 15, and full implementation will take three years.

It's about time. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations.

The truth is, the symbolism of this is more important than the reality. In coming years, the nation will need fewer combat soldiers, regardless of gender. Plans are under way to reduce Army troop levels by 27,000 and Marine forces by 20,000 over the next four years. In part this is because the Iraq war is over and the Afghanistan war is winding down.

Women in combat are only part of what Sen. Levin meant by the changing reality of 21st-century military operations. Budgets and missions could shrink as the Pentagon is forced to pay more for pensions and benefits and less for the sorts of weapons it no longer needs. Having been burned by two needless wars, the nation is for the time being far less likely to embark on long-term military operations.

This will create serious displacement as bases are closed and weapons contracts are canceled or cut back. This is a reality the Congress has yet to face.

Compared to all of this, and despite its symbolic importance, Mr. Panetta's announcement Thursday is not a very big change at all.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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