Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Defense Department plans to lift its ban on women serving in direct combat roles, opening hundreds of thousands of military jobs to them for the first time.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the decision on the recommendation of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to a defense official, who asked not to be identified in advance of a planned announcement.
Opening ground-combat units will provide women more opportunities to serve and to advance their military careers. Women, who make up about 15 percent of active-duty troops, have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle have become blurred 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. At least 144 female troops have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and more than 860 have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.
The action 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.
Panetta’s move will be one of his final initiatives before his planned retirement. It removes one controversy from the agenda that former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon, would have to face if he wins Senate confirmation.
The lifting of the ban will open as many as 200,000 positions to women by January 2016, the date set for final implementation, according to a second defense official who also asked not to be identified. The military services have been directed to have plans completed by May 15, the official said.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, 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. Today 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 supporting Panetta’s decision. 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 panel, said he didn’t believe 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.”
Inhofe said in an e-mailed statement that “women have demonstrated their abilities to serve with distinction, in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which has opposed lifting the combat ban, said doing so 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.”
No congressional action is needed to lift the ban because laws prohibiting women from serving in combat units were repealed in the early 1990’s, 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.
Panetta’s decision to lift the ban was reported earlier today by the Associated Press.