Big news out of the Pentagon today, where senior officials tell the Associated Press that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is removing the military's ban on women serving in combat. The groundbreaking decision, in the words of the AP, opens up "hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war." The decision gives the military three years to seek special exceptions if they want any specific positions to remain closed to women.
USA Today quickly confirmed the story and adds this nugget:
The official said the services will develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year. Assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALS and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer.
A official announcement is expected sometime tomorrow. The move comes roughly a year after the Pentagon unveiled a new policy that opened up 14,000 more posts for women in the military. That change eased restrictions on women serving in combat zones, but continued to keep females off the front lines of battle. Three months later, two female soldiers filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the U.S. military's restrictions on women in combat, claiming it violated their constitutional rights.
The women, both Army reservists, argued that the no-combat rule based "solely on the basis of sex" violated their right to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment and "restricts their current and future earnings, their potential for promotion and advancement, and their future retirement benefits."
The new policy highlights a long-standing debate on whether women should be put in combat. Those opposed to it (see: Santorum, Rick) question whether women have the necessary stamina and strength, and whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion. There have also been concerns that the American public would not tolerate high numbers of women returning home from war in body bags.
Back in 2005, Slate's Daniel Engber explained some of the history behind the existing laws:
In 1992, Congress repealed existing laws on the role of women in the military. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin then eased administrative restrictions by issuing 1994's "Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule." Before the mid-1990s, women in the Army could only serve in positions that carried almost no risk of combat, like those based at military headquarters. But under Aspin's directive, women could fill any position in the military except those directly involved in ground combat on the front lines. Pentagon rules also prohibit women from taking jobs that "collocate routinely" (i.e., tend to move around) with direct combat units.
In the Army, women can not be assigned to ground combat units at the battalion level or below. (Each level corresponds to a nested unit of increasing size: Squads, platoons, companies, and battalions can participate in direct combat, while brigades, divisions, and corps tend to be more removed.) But the "collocation" provision has proven more open to interpretation, and women have often served in support roles that carry significant risk.
You can read the full "Explainer" here, which also dives into why our recent wars have made the definitions of "direct ground combat" and "collocation" less clear. Women make up roughly 14 percent of the U.S. military's 1.4 million active personnel.
The post was updated at 4:00 p.m. with more information as it became available, and additional analysis.