By Jeremy Herb - 01/24/13 07:36 PM EST
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed an order rescinding the ban on women serving in combat units Thursday, setting in motion a three-year plan to open up as many as 237,000 positions to female service members.
The Pentagon leaders said that the policy change will not automatically open every combat position to women, but now the onus will be on the services to make the argument why women should not serve in a particular occupation or unit.
With the 1994 ban on women serving in ground combat units rescinded, the military service chiefs will prepare plans for implementing the new policy that will be submitted to the Defense secretary in May.
The services have until January 2016 to decide what positions might remain closed to women, and senior military officials said they expect that new occupations will be opened to women incrementally.
The White House said Thursday that President Obama supported the decision. Panetta’s potential successor as Defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), also supports the move, according to a senior defense official.
The official said this policy change has been studied for more than a year by the services, and it was unconnected to Panetta’s tenure at the Pentagon nearing an end.
“This was not a snap decision by the secretary,” the official said.
The Army and Marine Corps are planning tests in the coming months to look at physical capabilities of men and women as they examine the physical standards for the occupations.
Military officials emphasized that lifting the ban will not lead to loosening or strengthening for new positions, and all standards will remain gender neutral.
Of the 237,000 positions currently closed to women, 53,000 are closed because of the unit they are part of, even though women are allowed to serve in those occupations. Those jobs are likely to be the first made available to women. The remaining 184,000 are closed based on occupation, and the services will now evaluate those policies.
The officials said no decisions have yet been made about exemptions that would potentially be sought, such as whether women would serve in special operations units like the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers.
Without weighing in on how the policy will shake out, Dempsey said that he and other top military leaders think some women would be able to handle the high physical abilities required.
“I think we all believe there will be women who can meet those standards,” he said. “The burden used to be that we should say, 'Why should a woman serve in particular specialty?' Now it’s 'Why shouldn’t a woman serve?'”
Beyond physical capabilities, Dempsey and Penatta said they were less concerned about issues like privacy, where some Navy submarines, for instance, remain closed to women and don’t have facilities for them.
“We can figure out privacy,” Dempsey said, adding that those types of issues were dealt with during the Desert Storm operation where troops were essentially nomadic in the desert.
Another policy issue that must be resolved is whether lifting the combat ban for women will also require them to register with the Selective Service. The Pentagon is required to report on how changing the ban effects the constitutionality of the Selective Service Act being “males only.”
Senior defense officials said those legal issues still need to be worked out. Panetta said Thursday that would be a future judgment call — though he wasn’t sure who was making it.
“I don’t know who the hell controls Selective Service, if you want to know the truth,” Panetta said at the press briefing to laughter. “Whoever does, they’re going to have to exercise some judgment based on what we just did.”
The Defense Department still has to give Congress 30 days notice before making any changes to the ban, which defense officials said would likely occur around the time that the services submit their plans in May.
While most members of Congress from both parties said they supported the Pentagon’s policy change, the new top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), criticized the Pentagon for an “unacceptable” leak to the press before informing lawmakers.
A senior defense official said the defense committees were briefed on the decision Wednesday.