WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will lift a ban on women serving in combat, a senior defense official said Wednesday, after a decade of war that saw female troops thrust onto the battlefield.
Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“This policy change will initiate a process whereby the services will develop plans to implement this decision, which was made by the Secretary of Defense upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the official said.
The decision marks yet another sweeping change for the military under President Barack Obama’s administration, which led a drive to lift a prohibition on openly gay troops.
The official announcement of the move, which would open up hundreds of thousands of combat posts to women, was expected on Thursday, officials said.
Under the decision, the armed services will have until January 2016 to carry out the changes.
In February last year, Panetta opened up about 14,000 combat-related jobs to women in an incremental move that was criticized as timid by some activists.
Calls to lift the blanket prohibition have mounted after more than 10 years of war in which women fought and died in counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan where front lines were blurred.
Some senior officers have privately voiced concerns that infantry and special forces units require major upper body strength and that difficult physical tests should not be relaxed for female recruits.
And right-leaning commentators have questioned whether mothers in uniform — especially single parents — should be sent into combat, even if they volunteered for service.
But female veterans and activists say they are only demanding an equal chance to apply for combat jobs — and not any special treatment.
U.S. commanders began taking a second look at the ban in 2010 to reflect the reality on the battlefield, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put women in harm’s way in any case.
Women make up about 14.5 percent of the active duty U.S. military, or about 204,000 service members, according to the Pentagon.
The 1990-91 Gulf War sparked an earlier wave of reform, paving the way for women to serve in fighter jets, attack helicopters and naval warships.
Panetta’s decision would apply mainly to the army and the Marine Corps, as the Air Force and Navy already have lifted most prohibitions on women in combat. In 2010, the Navy opted to allow women to serve on submarines.
The combat exclusion policy adopted in 1994 bars women from being assigned to ground combat units, but female troops have found themselves in battlefield situations by serving in units that are “attached” to ground units.
Democrats in Congress and rights groups welcomed the decision.
“After two wars over 10 years in which our enemies did not recognize a clear ‘front,’ it is appropriate that we recognize the realities of modern military combat,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it was “thrilled” and that the policy change meant “qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers-in-arms, which they actually already have been doing with valor and distinction.”
Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said that her organization hoped that “it will be implemented fairly and quickly so that servicewomen can receive the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts.”