WASHINGTON — Women will be permitted to serve in the most intense and physically hazardous combat positions in the military, including the Navy SEALs, the Army Rangers and the Marine infantry, senior defense officials said Monday.
Leaders of each service are expected to make public at the Pentagon on Tuesday their plans for how they will integrate women into the units without reducing rigorous standards.
Although Leon Panetta announced in January in one of his last decisions as defense secretary that he was lifting the official ban on women in combat, he did not specify which of the hundreds of thousands of front-line combat positions might be open to them.
The plans to be released under Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicate for the first time that the military is prepared to integrate women into the most elite combat units, like the SEALs, who carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
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Those units are among the most physically and psychologically demanding, with a tradition of secret and dangerous missions. The vast majority of men fail to qualify for the positions.
Women make up about 15 percent of the armed forces, and many of them serve in dangerous roles on the front lines. Of the roughly 280,000 women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 100 died in action.
Under the combat exclusion policy, the 1994 Pentagon rule that restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles, women nonetheless served in combat, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, when they were “attached” to combat units. But the bureaucratic sidestep gave them no official credit for the combat experience required to advance in the military.
The change follows revelations of a startling number of sexual assaults in the armed forces. Earlier this year, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the assaults might be linked to the ban on women serving in combat because the disparity between the roles of men and women creates separate classes of personnel — male “warriors” versus the rest of the force.
While the sexual-assault problem is more complicated than that, he said, the disparity has created a psychology that lends itself to disrespect for women.
Under the schedules military leaders delivered to Hagel, the Army will develop standards by July 2015 to allow women to train and potentially serve as Rangers, and qualified women could begin training as Navy SEALS by March 2016 if senior leaders agree.
Military leaders have suggested bringing senior women from the officer and enlisted ranks into special-forces units first to ensure that younger, lower-ranking women have a support system to help them get through the transition.