WASHINGTON (TIP): The Pentagon has lifted its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order Thursday, January 24, striking down the two-decade-old rule excluding women from combat positions in the military. The new policy recognizes that in modern warfare, everyone in a combat zone is on the front lines, Mr. Panetta said. “There is no distinction that’s made between the sacrifices of men and women in uniform,” Mr. Panetta said. “They serve, they’re wounded and they die right next to each other.
The time has come to recognize that reality.” Mr. Panetta’s efforts to integrate women and gays into the U.S. military are likely to go down as his lasting contributions as Pentagon chief. One of his first acts was to formally allow gays to serve openly, and one of his final acts is rescinding the blanket ban on women in combat.
Still, the full effect of Thursday’s announcement won’t be known for years. Military services must wrangle over which combat specialties will continue to exclude women.
There are now 184,000 combat-arms positions from which women are barred, and 53,000 specialty positions in combat units-like front-line supply specialists or combat medics-that women may not hold. Military officers expressed doubts about the usefulness of the integration in units with stringent physical standards that only a handful of women are able to meet. “If the only women that can qualify are Olympic-class athletes, then maybe that will be a specialty that remains closed to women,” said a defense official. The military services have until May 15 to devise plans for integrating women into jobs that exclude them. The plans must be completed by January 2016. Military officers predicted artillery units and combat engineering units likely will be the first to admit women. But other combat arms specialties could remain closed to women for longer periods, officials said.
In the wake of the announcement, some defense and military officials expressed doubt that women would ever be able to serve in great numbers in infantry units, and said elite specialoperations units likely would remain closed. Although other officials said that Air Force special-operations positions-like controllers who call in airstrikes-may more quickly open to women. To make the integration successful, women first would be placed in leadership roles, officials said. Then, lower-ranking enlisted women could be brought in. One military officer said that integrating women into many combat arms specialties likely will take more than four years.
Under current standards, even women in top physical condition have difficulty with the physical requirements of Army and Marine infantry training courses. The biggest obstacle for many women is the weight that trainees must carry while hiking long distances. Even if a woman has sufficient strength, the weight of large infantry loads can cause stress fractures and torn ligaments for someone who is physically lighter than the average male. To work around that, military service officials are trying to lighten the load that soldiers and Marines must carry by making body armor, radios and weaponry lighter. Officials emphasized that standards wouldn’t be lowered.
But if the military over time can reduce the weight of infantry equipment, more women will be able to join the ranks of maledominated combat arms units, officers said. Mr. Panetta said opening new opportunities to women would improve the military. “By opening up more opportunities for people to serve in uniform, we are making our military stronger, and we are making America stronger,” he said.