By Carlo Munoz - 06/18/13 11:07 PM EDT
Women will have the chance to join the Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and other specialized combat outfits beginning in 2016 under plans approved Tuesday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Female candidates will also be able to join front-line Army and Marine Corps infantry units as part of the department’s decision.
Tuesday’s announcement builds on former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta’s decision in January to end the military’s long-standing ban on women in combat.
“This is just the next logical step,” said Juliet Beyler, director of the Defense Department’s Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management.
President Obama embraced Panetta’s plan, and said earlier this year he would not hesitate to order women into combat.
Female soldiers have already played a key role in U.S. special operations.
All-women units known as Female Engagement Teams 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.
“Individuals should be judged based on their capabilities, not their gender,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement Tuesday. “For years, women have proven that if given the chance they are just as capable as men.”
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), a longtime advocate for women in combat, called the move a “long-overdue step” to bring equality into the armed forces — particularly within the cloistered culture of special operations forces.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also expressed their support for the move on Tuesday.
“I’m all for it,” Levin told reporters. “My only question [is] ... why it’s not going to happen until 2014 and 2015.”
Hagel on Tuesday approved plans submitted by each of the military services to integrate women into special operations combat roles. The plans were initially submitted to the Department of Defense leadership last May.
All “gender-neutral” training and operations standards for infantry, special operations and other combat units are due to the Pentagon no later than September 2015, Beyler told reporters Tuesday.
Those training and operations standards will put physical and combat fitness requirements for men and women candidates on equal footing.
The programs are likely to test the military’s effort of integrating women and men into combat rules.
The Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training program at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center in Coronado, Calif., is seen as one of the most intense training programs in the U.S. military. Roughly 70 percent of SEAL candidates fail to complete the program.
The Army’s Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., is just as grueling, and is seen as the main entryway into Army special forces.
While there was bipartisan praise for Hagel’s move on Capitol Hill, Sacolick said special operations team members “have some serious concerns” about admitting women into their ranks.
He said the worries are not on whether there are women who will meet the physical training standards, but on the “cultural and social ... aspects” of bringing female soldiers, sailors and marines into SEAL, Ranger and special forces teams.
Special operations teams are responsible for some of the most sensitive counterterrorism and combat operations conducted by U.S. armed forces.
The teams almost exclusively focus on small-unit combat in hostile and austere battle zones, making personal relationships and dynamics among team members critical to a unit’s survival.
That kind of specialized combat “requires a unique assessment” of physical and psychological readiness that is unusual among rank-and-file military personnel, Sacolick said.
Special Operations Command will spend the next year “collecting and analyzing data” from special forces team leaders and members on the social and cultural effects of integrating women into elite combat units, the two-star general said.
“We are not predisposed to any course of action [but] we need to know how they feel at the team level ... they have got to embrace it,” he said.