Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Defense Department is ending its ban on women serving in direct combat roles, opening hundreds of thousands of military jobs to female troops in the biggest move yet toward equal opportunity in the armed services.
President Barack Obama hailed the decision made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on the recommendation of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love,” Obama said in a statement today.
Panetta said his move reflects the themes of inclusiveness and equality that Obama laid out in his inaugural address this week as guiding principles for his second term. Opening ground-combat units will provide more opportunities for women to serve and to advance their military careers.
“Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles,” Panetta said in a statement. “The department’s goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender.”
The changes won’t be immediate and they may not wipe away all limits on women in combat. Ending the U.S. ban will open as many as 237,000 positions to women by January 2016, the date set for final implementation, according to a defense official who asked not to be identified. The military services have been directed to have plans completed by May 15, the official said.
Women seeking direct combat jobs will have to meet the same physical standards as men, according to defense officials who briefed reporters at the Pentagon today. The military branches can request exemptions to continue barring women from certain specialties. The defense secretary would decide whether to make such exceptions.
“Not everyone is going to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance,” Panetta told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
Women, who make up about 15 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel, have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle blur in an age of terrorism and unconventional warfare. Women also fly combat aircraft, including helicopters and carrier-based Navy fighters, and the Navy has begun assigning women to duty on submarines.
More than 280,000 women have deployed over the past decade in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Pentagon. At least 144 female troops have been killed in those wars, out of more than 6,600 U.S. dead, and more than 860 women have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.
The expanding role of women in the military after a decade of war has hastened the need for a policy change, said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain who now serves as executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonpartisan civil-rights group led by female veterans.
“This is a tremendous victory for equality and justice in our military,” Bhagwati said in a statement. “Women’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan set the stage for this. The policy on the books simply did not reflect the reality of women’s service.”
The move drew criticism as well.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said the decision could lead to more injuries for female soldiers and lowered standards for male troops.
“For the same reason that professional football does not seek diversity on the gridiron, this is not a good idea,” Donnelly said. “It’s very irresponsible on the part of the secretary of defense on his way out the door. There’s no good reason to do this. It will do great harm to the majority of women in the military.”
Army General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended the change in a Jan. 9 memo to Panetta. Dempsey said that the heads of all the military service branches were unanimous in their support for the proposal, recognizing the “bravery and contributions of women in combat.”
“The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” according to the memo.
Dempsey said that the military would need time to execute the change to ensure combat readiness and that gender-neutral “performance standards, both physical and mental” must be set for occupations that remain closed to women. In a statement today, Dempsey said the Joint Chiefs “are committed to a purposeful and principled approach.”
Laws barring women from serving in combat units were repealed in the early 1990s, according to the Congressional Research Service. Since then, it has been military policy to restrict women from certain units and military jobs, particularly ground-combat units.
Women have long served alongside men in Israel, whose universal conscription laws gives them the choice of military duty or some form of national service. About 1,500 Israeli women are annually drafted into combat units, according to the army’s website. Last September a female army sniper serving in a co-ed patrol unit shot dead an armed infiltrator along Israel’s border with Egypt.
The new policy will change a 1994 measure that barred women from being assigned to ground-combat units below the brigade level. A brigade typically has several thousand troops, and women have been restricted to serving in support roles for ground-combat forces.
Panetta’s move will be one of his final initiatives before his planned retirement. Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon in his second term, may face questions about the policy change at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Hagel supports the new policy, one of the defense officials said today.
Panetta is the second Pentagon chief in recent years to push a major social policy change as he leaves office. His predecessor, Robert Gates, ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had prevented openly gay troops from serving.
By law, the Defense Department must submit a report to Congress justifying the change. The policy must be reviewed for 30 days before it can take effect.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services panel, said he supports Panetta’s decision.
“It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations,” Levin said in a statement.
Some Republican lawmakers have opposed opening combat roles to women in the past. Yesterday, they emphasized their support for women as warriors even as they called for care in making changes.
“American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed services,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Vietnam War veteran, said in a statement. He said the military’s high standards must be maintained, “particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units.”
Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he didn’t think Panetta’s action would lead to a broad opening of combat roles for women because “there are practical barriers which must be resolved so that the department can maximize the safety and privacy of all military members while maintaining military readiness.”
“Women have demonstrated their abilities to serve with distinction, in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Inhofe said in a statement.
Representative Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost both her legs in Iraq when the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004, praised Panetta’s move as advancing both greater fairness and military effectiveness.
“There has always been some level of opposition to increasing the diversity in our military, whether it has been minorities or women,” Duckworth, a Democrat, said in a statement.
“The inclusion of groups like African-Americans and Asians has made our military stronger,” she said. “I know the inclusion of women in combat roles will make America safer and provide inspiration to women throughout our country.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Women’s Action Network sued Panetta last month, challenging the combat-exclusion policy for women.
The decision to end it means “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 for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org