Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Jan. 19 during a news conference in London. Panetta is expected to announce that he has removed the U.S. military ban on women in combat, opening thousands of front-line positions. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
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The Pentagon has ordered the elimination all formal restrictions preventing women from serving in ground combat and in combat career fields, potentially opening up more than 200,000 jobs that for years have been restricted to men.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that some jobs will be opened up later this year and all billets and career fields across the force should be open to women by the start of 2016 unless the services seek specific exemptions.
"Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier — but everyone is entitled to a chance," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.
The groundbreaking policy will set in motion a sweeping review of physical standards and result in job-specific tests that will be the same for both men and women. The military's current rules often do not clearly define job-specific standards for strength and fitness.
"This means setting clear standards of performance for all occupations based on what it actually takes to do the job. It also means ensuring that these standards are gender-neutral in occupations that are open to women," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Panetta said women will be held to the same standard as men, and those standards will not be deliberately lowered to allow more women to serve in combat units or jobs. "Let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job," Panetta said.
For women, the change opens the door to the jobs and assignments that are considered vital to career progression toward senior leadership positions. Critics say barring women from combat creates a "brass ceiling" and note that while women make up about 15 percent of the active-duty force, they account for only 7 percent of general and flag officers.
For men, the change will mean a renewed focus on the strength and fitness standards required for their particular jobs. One military official acknowledged that "the males might become more aware of what those standards are."
The change comes after a year-long review and the unanimous approval of the Joint Chiefs. Dempsey said the new rule creates a "reverse paradigm" that assumes women will be able to serve in all jobs.
Yet the new policy and its "principles" also leave open the possibility of keeping some jobs off-limits to women. "Adherence to those principles may lead to the assessments that some specialties or ratings should remain exceptions. In such cases though, the service will bear the responsibility for providing the thorough analysis needed to better understand and better articulate what is best for the joint force and the women who serve in it," Dempsey said.
He said he believes women will ultimately serve in the most elite special operations forces such as the Navy's SEALs or the Army's Delta Force. "I think that we all believe that there will be women who can meet those standards," Dempsey said.
He also brushed aside privacy concerns as insufficient reason to continue excluding women from some units.
"We can figure out privacy," Dempsey said.
The change formally rescinds a combat exclusion policy that dated to 1994 and defined "direct combat" as "engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew-served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile personnel."
Critics said that policy failed to recognize the complexity of the counterinsurgency-style fights that the military has faced during the past decade.
More than 130 women have died and more than 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
The service secretaries will have to provide the defense secretary with a detailed implementation plan by May 15. The Pentagon is required to notify Congress of the change, but no congressional action is required before the policy takes effect.
While the change largely affects the Army and Marine Corps, it will also allow women in the Navy to serve on Virginia-class submarines and will force the Air Force to open up high-risk jobs that put airman on the ground alongside infantry troops.
The rules may have a significant impact on the recruiting process as the services develop preliminary physical fitness and strength tests to determine whether women — and men — will be well suited for entry into combat career fields.
One military official said that could result in a new "physical ASFAB," referring to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the written test that evaluates potential recruits. Such a test would be administered before enlistment and influence a recruits job prospects.
Dempsey dismissed critics who suggest that putting women in largely male combat units will increase the potential for sexual harassment and sexual assault. In fact, Dempsey said, the combat exclusion rules may have contributed to those problems.
"When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. The more we treat people equally, they more likely they are to treat each other equally," Dempsey said.
The change in the policy reflects the lessons learned from the past decade of war, Panetta said.
"As secretary, I've gone to Bethesda to visit wounded warriors and I've gone to Arlington to bury our dead. There is no distinction that is made between the sacrifices made by men and women in uniform. They serve, are wounded, and they die right next to each other."