WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon will lift its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs, defense officials said Wednesday.
The changes, to be announced Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will happen gradually.
Each of the service branches must now develop plans for allowing women to seek combat positions, a senior military official said. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALS and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer.
The branches also will have until January 2016 to make a case that women should remain barred from some jobs.
The groundbreaking move, recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
There long has been opposition to putting women in combat, based on questions whether they have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion.
But as news of Panetta's expected order got out, members of Congress, including the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) announced support. "It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations," Levin said.
The order expands the department's action of nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. Panetta's decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.
Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women were sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of the wars, and 152 have been killed.
Under the 1994 Pentagon policy, women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines and often included top command and support staff.
The necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached to the smaller battalion level. So while a woman couldn't be assigned to infantry in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit or move in to provide medical aid.
In the recent conflicts, battlefield lines have been blurred. Insurgents can lurk around every corner, making it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat.
Two lawsuits were filed last year challenging the Pentagon ban, adding pressure on officials to overturn the policy. And the military services have been studying the matter to determine how it may affect performance and morale.
Still, recent surveys have shown it will not be an easy transition. When the Marine Corps sought women for its tough infantry course last year, two volunteered and both failed.