The Pentagon’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat presents a daunting challenge to top military leaders who now will have to decide which, if any, jobs they believe should be open only to men.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was yesterday expected to announce that more than 230,000 battlefront posts — many in army and marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs — are now open to women. It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs.
The historic change, which was recommended by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
The change will not take place overnight: Service chiefs will have to develop plans for allowing women to seek the 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, may take longer. The services will have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.
Officials briefed The Associated Press (AP) on the changes on Wednesday on condition of anonymity so they could speak ahead of the official announcement.
There long has been opposition to putting women in combat, based on questions of whether they have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion.
However, as news of Panetta’s expected order got out, many members of US Congress, including the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, announced their support.
“It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations,” Levin said.
Objections were few. Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council, called the move “another social experiment” that will place unnecessary burdens on military commanders.
“While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast moving and deadly situations,” said Boykin, a retired army lieutenant general.
He said that small units often are in sustained combat for extended periods of time under primal living conditions with no privacy.
Panetta’s 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.
In addition to questions of strength and performance, there also have been suggestions that the US public would not tolerate large numbers of women being killed in war.
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 they often included top command and support staff.
However, the necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached — but not formally assigned — to battalions. These conflicts, where battlefield lines are blurred and insurgents can lurk around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat.
Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 US service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
The senior military official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.