Female Fitment Program: a 75-year journey

  • Published
  • By Jack Waid
  • Air Force Materiel Command History Office

Women have had to adjust to wearing suits and equipment designed to fit men… Improved, form-fitting uniforms have been a goal. Former Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, 2018

The Female Fitment Program and the development of Air Force uniforms and equipment specifically created for women has been a long journey. For years, females endured a duty to wear uncomfortable uniforms designed and built for men, but forced upon women. 

Contemporary Air Force operations clearly demonstrated the importance of acquiring the proper equipment, for both males and females. Unfortunately, these operations have highlighted the decentralized manner in which the Air Force equips Airmen. It is disjointed, and in general, has not adequately addressed the needs/requirements of female Airmen.

In early history, the Air Force relied heavily on a one size fits all standard/strategy, which remained in place well into the 2000s. The current Female Fitment initiative owes a great deal to the Combat Ready Airman (CRA) and the Battlefield Airman (BA) programs. Addressing this issue, Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., Commander, Air Force Materiel Command asked, “What are we doing for Female Fitment, where’s the money, how do we get after this?”  He later stated, “I shamed the Guard and Reserve into buying for their Airmen so that we were/are the same.”  Bunch also noted that Maj. Gen. Andrea D. Tullos, Deputy Commander, Air Education and Training Command, asked, “Why do I have a Militia where every base has a different uniform?”  Bunch responded, “It was because no one was putting the right amount of money and effort into it.” AFMC leadership addressed the issue, and in short, this is the story of where the Female Fitment Program came from and how we got to where we are today.

As World War Two passed into history, by 1952 the Nation was again embroiled in another war: Korea.  By this time, the old brown shoe days were gone, though there may have been a few, but not many.  Airmen of the Women’s Air Force, along with their male counterparts, wore uniforms consisting of summer issue and winter issue ensembles – with several combinations in-between.  During the transition period, enlisted members wore the enlisted Army Olive Drab (OD) “Ike” jacket or waist coat uniform with new Air Force silver/blue chevrons added along with gold collar brass and cap devices used by the Army, but now hollowed out.  From the beginning there was little doubt the Air Force uniform would be a shade of blue (eventually leaders settled on Shade #84 blue), though the style remained in debate. 

Some leaders wanted a civilian business suit look. Others favored a typical military look and wanted to continue to wear Army uniforms, dyed in blue. Leaders also wanted to limit liberties with the uniform.  Liberties included things such as wearing different clothing items with a uniform and/or tailoring a uniform to personal preference.  These liberties and more uniform violations ran rampant in the military during WWII, and Air Force leaders wanted to make sure the rank and file were subdued with a clean and plain uniform. 

As the Air Force became a separate military branch, leaders within developed a policy of a clean or plain uniform.  This policy expressed a desire to have a uniform unadorned by multiple accouterments, badges and other flashy devices (limited ornamentation).  The Air Force uniform was stripped of all Army looking ornaments however, despite the concept of a clean uniform, there was considerable pressure from Air Force personnel to approve for wear several insignia and badges.

Slowly Air Force leaders accepted an Air Force blue uniform that was clean with standardized accessories, insignia and career field badges.  As new career Fields slowly opened to female Airmen, they pushed for recognition of their career success through badges.

The President, in November 1967, signed a law removing grade limitations for women, and by the beginning of 1968, five women wore Chief Master Sergeant Chevrons.  Also heading into 1968, Air Force leadership made an exception to policy, and women were permitted to volunteer for service in the three locations:  Saigon, Bangkok and Don Muang in Southeast Asia. However, this exception to policy soon changed, and more locations opened.  By the end of the Vietnam War, all but five Air Force AFSCs were open to women.  It seems after 25 years, Women in the Air Force appeared to be on track to an equal partnership with their male counterparts.

For women in the military, the 1970s brought a decade of changes all at once. According to Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm, “During most of the 1960s, the Air Force limited women, officers and enlisted, to a narrow range of specialties, predominately in the clerical, administrative, personnel, information and medical fields.  Women were no longer allowed to serve in intelligence, weather, flight attendant, equipment maintenance and control tower activities, even though they had done so during World War II and into the 1950s.”  In the early 1970s, the status and role female Airmen shifted due to societal norms and in part manpower shortages due to Vietnam.  As a result, there was a corresponding expansion of the WAF manpower ceiling and career field open to female Airmen.

By the early 1980s, the Air Force made more moves to show its support of female service members.  The service approved a maternity work uniform, consisting of shirt and trousers in the Air Force Green color along with a camouflage pattern (in the late 1970s the Air Force released a blue service maternity uniform).  These maternity uniforms became available for purchase, and within a few years, maternity work uniforms became organizational equipment and issued at government expense.  A blue service maternity uniform had been fielded in the late 1970s. Senior Master Sgt. William J. Bruetsch shares, “On the institutional front, the issuance, availability, and utility of women’s uniforms did not meet the needs of the women in the Air Force.  Although women had been assigned to the “industrial career fields” for three years, problems existed in the issuance of utility type uniforms to women in basic training and technical school.  This in-turn forced women to wear uniforms designed for men and highlighted the shortage and problems of obtaining safety and other protective type of clothing and footwear.”

By the 1980’s, women had crushed many barriers, but one large one remained: aircrew positions.  This dilemma enhanced an ever-lingering problem; a need for flight uniforms and equipment specifically for women.  The old one-size-fits-all mentality remained the main designer proponent.  Also between the 1970s and 1980s, the Air Force expanded its definition of what aircraft women qualified to fly, and of which intercontinental ballistic missiles women could launch.  For these specialized mission sets, the Air Force continued with a tried and true method of using male uniforms (flight suits and flight coveralls) requiring women work within “male parameters,” rather than having female specific needs.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, spawning Operation DESERT SHIELD, and then DESERT STORM.  During that conflict, women served in almost all of the hundreds of occupations open to them with their male counterparts, enduring tall the same hardships under the same harsh conditions. Further, during the war, women served as administrators, air traffic controllers, logisticians, engineers, equipment mechanics, ammo operators, ordnance specialists, communicators, radio operators, drivers, law enforcement specialist, aircraft maintainers and guards.  Additionally, they flew multiple different platforms during multiple combat operations. With this in mind, many of the women (approximately 5,300) who served during these operations, operated in uniforms and utilized equipment not specifically suited to their needs. These would be surmountable obstacles if the Air Force had taken time to focus on the specific needs of female Airman.  The ever-changing world of female Airman with regards to complex missions across multiple career fields set the stage for the need of new uniforms/accoutrements and gear used with these skill sets.

The Female Fitment Program did not develop in a vacuum, as the program’s roots grew from the Battlefield Airman (BA) program, the Combat Airman Initiative, and the Combat Ready Airman (CRA) program.  While these programs addressed the larger Air Force uniform and equipment deficiencies, they did not directly focus on female fitment.  The Global War on Terror and the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq uncovered a weakness in the Air Force’s organize/train/equip responsibilities at each base and command, but as the service began to dig into these problems, leadership realized that the problem reached across the entire spectrum of Air Force operations, not just combat.

Between 2018 and 2019, AFMC began turning its attention to the needs of female Airmen. Leadership buy-in at the time was the key; momentum and culture had changed, and from the foundations of the Combat Ready Airman Program arose the Female Fitment Office, a program office created within Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.  Now, after 75 years, the Air Force assembled an office to impact and direct Air Force female specifications for uniform and equipment manufacturing.  The Air Force would now aggressively fight to eliminate the “one size fits all,” mentally.  During July 2020, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), understanding the need for the Female Fitment Program, directed its acceleration.  The initial key focus directed by the CSAF were projects such as the Massif 2-Piece Flight Suit, Advanced Army Aircrew Combat Uniform-Female (A2CU-F), Maternity Flight Duty Uniform (FDU) and In-Flight Bladder Relief Systems. 

Every day, Airmen across the Air Force Materiel Command are delivering war-winning capabilities to our warfighters. We can win on the battlefield because we provide tailored gear that protects all our Airmen and allows them to more effectively complete their mission. I’m proud of the AFLCMC team for their hard work and for making this happen. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., AFMC Commander

The current body armor in service since the early 2000s was the Interceptor Multi-Threat Body Armor (IBA) System.  In early 2020, as part of the Air Force Chief of Staff’s initiative to optimize uniforms for female Airmen, the Female Fitment Program Office began design and procurement work for a female Airmen-specific body armor.  Body armor for Air Force females, such as a one-size-fits-all body armor, could no longer work.  As discussed briefly above, body armor issued to male and females had cumbersome parts, it was heavy, not functional for women and what was typically considered male armor was not formfitting.

Initially designed as Security Forces female body armor and issued in 2021, this armor will make its way to female Airmen who deploy in a multitude of Air Force career fields.  Flight clothing, bladder relief and body armor have changed and in an effort to move into the future and understand the needs of Airmen.

AFMC’s Human Systems and Female Fitment offices also collaborated to create the AF GearFit App.  The AF GearFit App is a secure app enabling aircrew to report issues with equipment and gear.  Through the AF GearFit App, data is gathered and presented to Air Force leaders.  Data related to gear issues is gathered in an effort to develop new requirements and designs for future flight equipment.

The Female Fitment Program and the development of Air Force uniforms and equipment specifically created for women in the Air Force has had a long journey.  Females in the Air Force, often times, endured uncomfortable uniform designs built for men, but forced upon women.  Contemporary Air Force operations clearly demonstrates the importance of acquiring the proper equipment, for both males and females. Unfortunately, these operations highlighted the decentralized manner in which the Air Force equips Airmen.  Contemporary Air Force operations have clearly demonstrated the importance of getting the right equipment, at the right time, to every Airman.  The decentralized manner in which the Air Force equips Airmen is disjointed and in general, did not adequately addressed the needs/requirements of female Airmen.  In the early days of the Army Air Forces and the Air Force, the service relied heavily on a one size fits all mindset; which remained in-place well into the 2000s.  Female Fitment initiatives owe a great deal too early initiatives such as the Battlefield Airman, the Combat Airman Initiative and Combat Ready Airman programs.  Lastly, the Air Force can be proud, not that it took 75 years to arrive where we are today but, that we are finally here. 

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