The Army, by far the largest fighting force, currently excludes women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles. A senior defense official said the Pentagon expects to open “many positions” to women this year; senior commanders will have until January 2016 to ask for exceptions.
“The onus is going to be on them to justify why a woman can’t serve in a particular role,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plan before the official announcement.
The decision comes after a decade of counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women demonstrated heroism on battlefields with no front lines. It dovetails with another seismic policy change in the military that has been implemented relatively smoothly: the repeal of the ban on openly gay service members.
Lawmakers and female veterans applauded Wednesday’s news, saying the ban on women in combat roles is obsolete.
“This is monumental,” said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which has advocated for the full inclusion of women. “Every time equality is recognized and meritocracy is enforced, it helps everyone, and it will help professionalize the force.”
Critics of opening combat positions to women have argued for years that integration during deployments could create a distracting, sexually charged atmosphere in the force and that women are unable to perform some of the more physically demanding jobs.
Advocates and experts say women are unlikely to flock to those positions, such as roles in light infantry and tank units and Special Forces — although some may. More substantively, they say, lifting the ban will go a long way toward changing the culture of a male-dominated institution in which women have long complained about discrimination and a high incidence of sexual assault.
Changes long sought
Lawmakers and advocates have long pressed the Pentagon to create a more inclusive force, yielding incremental changes. The American Civil Liberties Union recently sued the Pentagon over its policy, calling it discriminatory.
Last year, military officials opened numerous job categories to women after a study concluded that the Defense Department was ready for greater inclusion in combat units. That made it easier for women to be assigned, for example, to combat brigades as radio operators. It also gave commanders a sense of how a broader integration process could work, said an Army general who played a key role in last year’s effort to open new positions for women.