Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is lifting the military’s official ban on women in combat, which will open up hundreds of thousands of additional front-line jobs to them, senior defense officials said Wednesday.
The groundbreaking decision overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricts women from artillery, armor, infantry and other such combat roles, even though in reality women have frequently found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 20,000 have served. As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 had died.
Defense officials offered few details about Mr. Panetta’s decision but described it as the beginning of a process to allow the branches of the military to put the change into effect. Defense officials said Mr. Panetta had made the decision on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Women have long chafed under the combat restrictions and have increasingly pressured the Pentagon to catch up with the reality on the battlefield. The move comes as Mr. Panetta is about to step down from his post and would leave him with a major legacy after only 18 months in the job.
The decision clearly fits into the broad and ambitious liberal agenda, especially around matters of equal opportunity, that President Obama laid out this week in his Inaugural Address. But while it had to have been approved by him, and does not require action by Congress, it appeared Wednesday that it was in large part driven by the military itself. Some midlevel White House staff members were caught by surprise by the decision, indicating that it had not gone through an extensive review there.
Mr. Panetta’s decision came after he received a Jan. 9 letter from Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stated in strong terms that the armed service chiefs all agreed that “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
A military official said the change would be implemented “as quickly as possible,” although the Pentagon is allowing three years, until January 2016, for final decisions from the services.
Each branch of the military will have to come up with an implementation plan in the next several months, the official said. If a branch of the military decides that a specific job should not be opened to a woman, representatives of that branch will have to ask the defense secretary for an exception.
“To implement these initiatives successfully and without sacrificing our war-fighting capability or the trust of the American people, we will need time to get it right,” General Dempsey wrote.
It will be carried out during what the administration describes as the end of the American combat role in Afghanistan, the nation’s longest war.
A copy of General Dempsey’s letter was provided by a Pentagon official under the condition of anonymity.
The letter noted that this action was meant to ensure that women as well as men “are given the opportunity to succeed.”
It was unclear why the Joint Chiefs acted now after examining the issue for years, although in recent months there has been building pressure from high-profile lawsuits.
In November 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban on behalf of four service women and the Service Women’s Action Network, a group that works for equality in the military. The A.C.L.U. said that one of the plaintiffs, Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot, was shot down, returned fire and was wounded while on the ground in Afghanistan, but could not seek combat leadership positions because the Defense Department did not officially acknowledge her experience as combat.
In the military, serving in combat positions like the infantry remains crucial to career advancement. Women have long said that by not recognizing their real service, the military has unfairly held them back.