By Carlo Muñoz - 06/17/13 09:13 PM EDT
The Pentagon is planning to open the ranks of the Navy SEALs, the Army's elite Ranger units and other specialized combat outfits to female soldiers for the first time, according to reports.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel could officially announce plans to expand access to those units as soon as Tuesday, according to the AP.
Hagel's pending announcement builds upon former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta's decision in January to end the military's long-standing ban on women in combat.
The time lines set by the Department of Defense (DOD) to open Ranger and SEAL units up to female soldiers and sailors are still being reviewed by senior military leaders.
Navy officials will open up the service's Riverine Forces to eligible female candidates beginning next month, the Pentagon plan states.
Women sailors who fit the service criteria will be able to enroll in the Riverine Combat Skills course, a rigorous 33-day program designed to teach "basic expeditionary combat training necessary to ... perform high risk operations when assigned to Navy Riverine Force Organizations," according to a service website.
Next up will be the Army, whose leaders plan to open up the service's Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., to female candidates beginning in 2015.
The service's vaunted Ranger regiments specialize in small-unit combat tactics, airborne assault operations and are seen as the main entryway into Army Special Forces.
Service leaders expect to have new training and qualification requirements for female Ranger candidates by July 2015, the AP reports.
A year later, according to the Pentagon's plans, women sailors will be able to participate in the Navy's Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training program at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center in Coronado, Calif.
BUD/S is seen as one of the most intense training programs in the U.S. military, with roughly 70 percent of SEAL candidates failing to complete the program.
SEAL teams are responsible for some of the most sensitive counterterrorism and combat operations conducted by American armed forces.
Members of the Navy's Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six, conducted the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that ended with the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
While allowing female soldiers and sailors the opportunity to join Ranger or SEAL teams is a major milestone for the Pentagon, female soldiers have already begun to play a key role in U.S. special operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
All-women units, known as Female Engagement Teams, already work alongside American regular and special forces units to train and equip U.S.-backed local militias in Afghanistan.
Female soldiers and officers have also risen through the intelligence and personnel fields within Special Operations Command and the command's service components.
But with special operations forces set to grow, in both size and operational tempo, the opportunities for women within the command to take part in operations worldwide will only increase.
Those opportunities will likely fall under "indirect action" missions, such as long-term training and advising efforts with foreign militaries, rather than direct combat-type operations, like the bin Laden raid.