The Pentagon announced Thursday that it is keeping its longtime ban on women serving as infantry, armor and special operations warriors in ground combat units, but it will open 14,000 support positions for them in units closer to the front lines.
At an afternoon news conference, reporters immediately pressed officials to explain why Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta opted to continue the ban.
Vee Penrod, deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, said it is because the majority of women cannot meet the physical standards for Army infantry units.
"The current standards that exist for infantry all men cannot meet those standards," Ms. Penrod said. "If the majority of women cannot serve in that [mission occupational specialty], the service secretary may restrict that [specialty]. That is with the Army."
Asked how the military knows women can't meet the standards without letting them try, Ms. Penrod said: "That's based on experience with the leadership and experience in combat, and I trust that the service leadership understands those standards."
Panetta spokesman George Little made clear that the armed services will continue to evaluate women's roles.
"I would like to stress that Secretary Panetta believes that this is the beginning, not the end, of a process," Mr. Little said.
The change will reverse an existing rule that says women may not be placed with combat units below the brigade level whose principal mission is direct ground combat.
In reality, it will mean intelligence and other support personnel - jobs women hold today - may now serve with those infantry and armor units at the battalion level and below.
"I think this is a great step forward," Ms. Penrod said. "Eliminating the [placement] provision will now expand career opportunities for women, provide a greater pool of qualified members from whom our commanders may draw, reduce the operational tempo by increasing the total number of personnel available for assignments, and provide commanders greater flexibility in meeting combat support mission requirements."
Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, principal director of military personnel policy, said the change will "allow us the opportunity now to place women in specialties that they've already been assigned to, they've been working in, but not working at that level below the brigade.
"So it allows us to place women in those positions in the Marine Corps, the Navy and the Army. They're generally junior officers, midgrade officers and midgrade noncommissioned officers," he said.
Congress ordered the review two years ago, prompted by stories of heroism by women in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fact that there are no precise battle lines in a counterinsurgency war.
Female military police, for example, were involved in firefights and went on house-to-house raids along with their male colleagues.
Of the 6,376 U.S. military personnel who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 144 were women.
Today, in the 2.2 million active and Reserve force, a vast number of military jobs are open to women and 238,000 are closed. Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active-duty force.
Some battle-hardened male officers inside the Pentagon feared the Obama administration might make a grand policy change by opening the infantry and special operations to women.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus indicated last year that he was open to letting women try out for elite SEAL units, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden. "I think women ought to have whatever opportunities men do," he told the Navy Times.
But the final policy statement issued Thursday states, essentially, that the gritty business of close-in land combat, day in, day out, is a man's world - at least until the next review.
The new Pentagon policy rejects, for now, the recommendation of a blue-ribbon panel established by the Democrat-controlled Congress in 2009. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a mix of civilians and active and retired military members, recommended to President Obama a year ago that he remove all job barriers for women.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, told the TV program "This Week in Defense News" last fall that he wanted support jobs such as intelligence and signal officers open to women below the brigade.
But he did not endorse putting women in infantry, armor or special operations, such as Green Beret "A" teams.
The last major adjustment to women's roles was in 1994, after Persian Gulf War, when President Clinton lifted the ban on women serving on combat aircraft and ships.
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