Pentagon officials announced Thursday that though the ban on women serving in combat has been lifted, implementing the new policy will be a gradual process that may not put women in the most physically demanding positions anytime soon and possibly not at all.
Under the policy, the armed services must present the defense secretary with an implementation plan by May 15. If they find that any position should remain closed, they can seek an exception from the secretary.
"The guidance from the secretary and the chairman is very clear: Come to us with implementation plans on how you will open all billets ... but if detailed analysis shows that is not the case for some sort of reason, we have to request an exception to policy," a senior military official said during a Pentagon background briefing with reporters Thursday.
The Pentagon formally announced Thursday that all 237,000 combat-related jobs that had been closed to women are now open to them, rescinding the 1994 Combat Exclusion Policy.
Previously restricted military occupations include infantryman and cannon crew member in the Army, scout sniper in the Marine Corps, and special warfare boat operator in the Navy.
At at news conference with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said "everyone is entitled to a chance" to serve the country to the utmost of their abilities, regardless of gender.
"The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," Mr. Panetta said, noting that female service members have served honorably and bravely beside their male counterparts.
"Every person in today's military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die for our nation's defense," he said. "We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their abilities to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance."
Still, recent surveys and experiences have shown that the transition will not be easy, and women may not be clamoring for the more intense, dangerous and difficult jobs, including some infantry and commando positions.
Nonetheless, each service will be required to determine which, if any, jobs will remain closed to women depending on the standards that each service devises. The standards are to be based on the physical and mental requirements to perform the job successfully and be the exactly same for men and women.
"We may not raise or lower the standards for the sole purpose of increasing or decreasing the number of women in an occupation," a senior defense official said.
Other criteria also could be taken into account. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has directed top officers that assigning women to any position should not be in conflict with guiding principles, one of which is to preserve unit readiness, cohesion and morale.
"If we see anything in there, maybe culturally, that we didn't understand before, we'll have to assess that," said Army Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, deputy chief of staff responsible for personnel plans, programs and policies, adding that challenges may be overcome with sufficient leadership and education.
Military officials, however, say they do not anticipate keeping any of the new 237,000 combat-related positions closed, though some positions may not be opened until later.
"The way we'll do this is we'll pick what we think is the [job] that's ready to be integrated first. … We'll probably do that as quickly as we can," said Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
One such position that may be integrated first is the Army's fire support specialist, who backs up an artillery team and operates laser range finders and target devices.
Any special operations positions will need to be looked at and integrated along with U.S. Special Operations Command.
Specialty infantry schools also are not immediately open. Successful female volunteers for the Marine Corps' Infantry Officer Course still will not receive credit for the course or be automatically allowed into the infantry. Two women stepped forward to take the course in March.
Similarly, standards for the Army Ranger school will be reviewed and validated before women can begin participating.
The Navy announced Thursday it would integrate women in fast-attack submarines, in addition to guided-missile attack and ballistic missile submarines.
Newly commissioned female officers already have been selected for assignment upon completion of training and will report for duty in 2015. Opportunities will be expanded in Navy river forces and positions that support Marine infantry operations, Navy officials said.
The Air Force is working to integrate women into seven career fields, all in special operations.
Officials rejected the notion that the move was a "snap decision" by Mr. Panetta, who is expected to step down and be replaced by former Sen. Chuck Hagel.
"I've been working closely with Gen. Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have been working for well over a year to examine how can we expand the opportunities for women in the armed services," Mr. Panetta said Thursday. "Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism."
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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