The top commander of U.S. special operations says he thinks it's time for women to go into combat as Navy SEALS.
A Navy SEAL himself, Admiral Eric T. Olson said at the opening session of the 2011 Aspen Security Forum that he would like to see female SEALs in combat roles.
"As soon as policy permits it, we'll be ready to go down that road," said Olson.
He added that being a SEAL is not just about physical strength. "I don't think the idea is to select G.I. Jane and put her through SEAL training, but there are a number of things that a man and a woman can do together that two guys can't," said Olson. "I don't think it's as important that they can do a lot of push-ups. I think it's much more important what they're made of and whether or not they have the courage and the intellectual agility to do that."
While women serve in the U.S. special forces community as information specialists and civil affairs specialists, there are currently no female SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers or Marine special operators as a result of the 1994 combat exclusion policy that precludes women from being assigned to ground combat units.
But given the unique access females can secure with local women in conservative societies where the U.S. military is operating, said Admiral Olson, "Cultural Support Teams" made up of two to four women were created last year to be attached to SEAL teams and Green Beret units and are already at work. Olson said that 56 more women graduated last week, "all of whom will be in Afghanistan by the end of August."
"We don't have nearly enough," said Olson, "and we're too late bringing them into what it is we have them doing."
Last March, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended that the Department of Defense and the services eliminate combat exclusion policies for women. Though women have for years served in ground combat they have done so by serving in units deemed attached to ground units, which keeps them from being recognized for their combat experience and curtails their chances of being promotes.
While he would not comment on the May 2nd raid in that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Admiral Olson said that "there were somewhere between 3,000 to 4000, depending on how you count them, operations of this nature conducted in 2010 alone." Calling the operations "routine," the admiral said they range from knocking on a door to more "kinetic" action.
Admiral Olson, who is in charge of managing and coordinating the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special forces, jokingly likened his job to that of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, saying, "There's a lot of warlord management," drawing laughter from the audience. "It's a paella and at the end of the day it tastes good, but it's tough to put together sometimes."
Martha Raddatz of ABC News was interviewing Admiral Olson as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, "The Role of Special Operations Forces in the Global War on Terrorism."
Organized by the think tank "The Aspen Institute" and held at the Aspen Meadows campus in Aspen, Colorado, The Aspen Security Forum, in its second edition this year, spans three days of in-depth discussions on security, intelligence and terrorism.