According to the Associated Press, the move was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Smaller exemptions to the rule were passed in 2012, but the new decision opens up 238,000 positions where women were formerly banned.
Women have been traditionally barred from serving in ground combat units, such as infantry, artillery, armor or as special operations commandos. However, women have been serving in combat roles for years as well, as recent conflicts have blurred the lines of combat and non-combat duties. While the ACLU last year sued the Pentagon for the right for women to take up positions on the front line, and the Marines recently began allowing women to serve as officers, the timing of Panetta’s announcement comes as a surprise.
Some Republicans have opposed putting women in combat because of alleged physical inferiority to men. However, a survey of several NATO allies with women in front line roles in Afghanistan indicated that, far from causing problems, female officers actually performed better in intelligence-gathering roles than their male counterparts.
Military chiefs must report their initial implementation plans by May 15, and can request special exceptions until January 2016 for any positions they feel cannot be open to women.