OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: DOD officially ends ban on women in combat

The first 53,000 jobs will likely be combat unit positions previously banned outright to females. The other 183,000 positions are occupations currently off-limits to women, and each of the services is now going to evaluate those positions.

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The Army and Marine Corps will hold physical tests this summer for potential female recruits, to asses whether they are fit for combat duty. 

“If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation,” Panetta said Thursday. 

Connecting the dots: While breaking down the gender barriers inside the Pentagon and the services will make for a stronger U.S. military, it also could undue the dangerous culture that allowed rampant sexual abuse to fester for so long within the armed services, according to the Pentagon's top officer. 

Drawing a clear, bright line between the sexes in the military may have created a pseudo-caste system within the military's ranks, which could have led to an environment where sexual assault or abuse was accepted, or at least tolerated, among top service brass, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday.

"We've had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault. I believe it's because we've had separate classes of military personnel, at some level," Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. 

"But when you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment," he said. 

That environment was put on display on Wednesday when top Air Force officials came before the House Armed Services Committee to testify on the sex abuse scandal that took place at the service's basic training facility at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. 

During the hearing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the systematic sexual abuse of female cadets by male Air Force instructors and the inability of the service to prevent it was "stunning." 

While Dempsey admitted that fixing problem of sexual abuse in the military is "far more complicated" than just allowing women to fight on the front lines, the move — and more importantly the signal it sends to the military — could begin to undo the decades of institutionalized gender bias that had been building up inside the armed forces. 

"I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally," Dempsey said.

Inhofe threatens to block DOD changes: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the new top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, threatened to block some positions from being opened to women, through legislation if he had to.

“I want everyone to know that the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which I am the Ranking Member, will have a period to provide oversight and review,” Inhofe said in a statement. “During that time, if necessary, we will be able to introduce legislation to stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities. I suspect there will be cases where legislation becomes necessary.”

Inhofe added that he was concerned about the change in policy because the policy banning women from ground combat units “has worked so well for so long.”

The statement from Inhofe is the second in as many days from him criticizing the decision, and another instance where he’s showing his muscle as the new top Republican on Armed Services.

Other Republicans, including Inhofe’s predecessor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), were more supportive of lifting the ban Wednesday.

DOD drills into Algeria attack: The Pentagon is waiting to see whether two terror suspects being held overseas hold the key to finding out who perpetrated the deadly attack in Algeria, which ended with three Americans dead. 

Defense Department and U.S. intelligence officials are awaiting word from their Algerian counterparts, who are questioning the gunmen involved in last Wednesday's raid on a BP-owned oil field in western Algeria, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Thursday. 

"We still ... have not been able to look at the specifics of who was involved [and what] took place," Panetta said  "We understand the Algerians are questioning two individuals that they were able to capture during this operation," he said. 

"We're hoping that we'll get better information from them specifically as to who was involved," he added. 

An attempt by Algerian special operations forces to storm the BP facility last week ended with the deaths of three Americans and 34 other hostages. Members of Islamic militant group "Signers in Blood" claimed responsibility for the raid, in which several U.S. citizens, along with 40 foreign nationals, were held hostage during the assault. 

Al Qaeda's West African cell known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), did take credit for the Algerian attack, but DOD and the intelligence community is finding it difficult to make the connection between AQIM, Signers in Blood and other African-based extremists and the BP strike. 

"They work together when it's convenient to them," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said, referring to AQIM, as well as al Qaeda-linked groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, al Shabab in Somalia and various other offshoots operating on the continent. 

"What we have to be alert to is that, as we look at these individual groups or individual countries, we have to acknowledge the connective tissue there," the four-star general added. 


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: 

— Pentagon pieces together details of Algeria attack

— Hagel racks up more support from Dems 

— DOD getting mixed signals on North Korea nuke tests

— U.N. launches probe into armed drone strikes


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