Defence Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in US ground combat units, removing one of the military's last major gender barriers and opening up more than 230,000 combat jobs to females, senior defence officials said.
The historic decision, which Panetta announced yesterday, means women serving in the army and marines may soon be assigned for the first time to combat roles in infantry, armour and field artillery units.
Although the move raises the likelihood that female troops will suffer far higher casualties in future wars, women's veterans groups applauded the move as long overdue and in line with other sweeping changes in American culture.
President Barack Obama also fully supported the Pentagon's decision, White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday.
"There is going to be some foot-dragging, of course," said Tara Jones, a navy veteran and president of the National Military Women Veterans Association of America, based in San Diego. "People don't like change, and our military is a male-oriented society."
Retired navy rear admiral Veronica "Ronnie" Froman, the first woman to command Navy Region Southwest in San Diego, said she was overjoyed. "This has been what we've been working for a long time," she said. "Women were the last minority in the navy."
But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Centre for Military Readiness, a conservative advocacy group based in Livonia, Michigan, criticised the decision, arguing that women are less capable than men in warfare.
"Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or help fellow soldiers survive in direct ground combat," Donnelly said.
The army and the marines have long resisted putting women in combat units, arguing they lacked the strength and agility to fight and survive in the harshest conditions. But officials said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other service chiefs supported the move to end the ban.
Panetta will direct the chiefs of the army, air force, navy and marines to develop plans for integrating women into combat units by 2016. He will order each branch to provide initial blueprints by this spring, and the services are expected to start implementing the policy fairly quickly.
Each service may seek to keep some positions closed to women, but the goal would be to keep those exceptions to a minimum, senior defence officials said.
The services will be allowed to set physical fitness requirements and other standards for combat jobs, but the standards would be gender-neutral, said the officials.
"The presumption now is that all jobs will be open, instead of the old rule that presumed females would be kept out of ground combat," one said.
Panetta's decision specifically lifts a 1994 Pentagon rule that bars women from serving in jobs that makes them likely to engage in direct ground fighting.
Congress will have a month to review the decision before it takes effect, and in theory could block lifting the rule, though that was unlikely, officials said.
The immediate reaction in Congress was mixed. Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted: "I respect and support" Panetta's decision "to lift the ban on women serving in combat".
But Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, a marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said Panetta needed to explain "how this decision … increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes - which is what this looks like".