WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday.

The changes, set to be announced Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will not happen overnight. The services must now develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions, a senior military official said. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALS and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer. The services will have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

Officials briefed The Associated Press on the changes on condition of anonymity so they could speak ahead of the official announcement.

There long has been opposition to putting women in combat, based on questions of whether they have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion.

But as news of Panetta's expected order got out, members of Congress, including the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., announced their support.

"It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations," Levin said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who will be the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said, however, that he does not believe this will be a broad opening of combat roles for women because there are practical barriers that have to be overcome in order to protect the safety and privacy of all members of the military.

Panetta's move comes in his final weeks as Pentagon chief and just days after President Barack Obama's inaugural speech in which he spoke passionately about equal rights for all. The new order expands the department's action of nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. Panetta's decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.

In addition to questions of strength and performance, there also have been suggestions that the American public would not tolerate large numbers of women being killed in war.

Under the 1994 Pentagon policy, women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines and they often included top command and support staff.

The necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached – but not formally assigned – to battalions. So while a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit, or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured.

And these conflicts, where battlefield lines are blurred and insurgents can lurk around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat.

Still, as recent surveys and experiences have shown, it will not be an easy transition. When the Marine Corps sought women to go through its tough infantry course last year, two volunteered and both failed to complete the course. And there may not be a wide clamoring from women for the more intense, dangerous and difficult jobs – including some infantry and commando positions.

In the Navy, however, women have begun moving into the submarine force, with several officers already beginning to serve.

Jon Soltz, who served two Army tours in Iraq and is the chairman of the veterans group VoteVets.org, said it may be difficult for the military services to carve out exceptions to the new rule. And while he acknowledged that not all women are interested in pursuing some of the gritty combat jobs, "some of them are, and when you're looking for the best of the best you cast a wide net. There are women who can meet these standards, and they have a right to compete."

Two lawsuits were filed last year challenging the Pentagon's ban on women serving in combat, adding pressure on officials to overturn the policy. And the military services have been studying the issue and surveying their forces to determine how it may affect performance and morale.

The Joint Chiefs have been meeting regularly on the matter and they unanimously agreed to send the recommendation to Panetta earlier this month.

A senior military official familiar with the discussions said the chiefs concluded this was an opportunity to maximize women's service in the military. The official said the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps laid out three main principles to guide them as they move through the process:

_ That they were obligated to maintain America's effective fighting force.

_ That they would set up a process that would give all service members, men and women alike, the best chance to succeed.

_That they would preserve military readiness.

Part of the process, the official said, would allow time to get female service members in leadership and officer positions in some of the more difficult job classifications in order to help pave the way for female enlisted troops.

"Not every woman makes a good soldier, but not every man makes a good soldier. So women will compete," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif. "We're not asking that standards be lowered. We're saying that if they can be effective and they can be a good soldier or a good Marine in that particular operation, then give them a shot."

Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 who have been killed, 152 have been women.

The senior military official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.

If the draft were ever reinstated, changing the rules would be a difficult proposition. The Supreme Court has ruled that because the Selective Service Act is aimed at creating a list of men who could be drafted for combat, American women aren't required to register upon turning 18 as all males are.

If combat jobs open to women, Congress would have to decide what to do about that law.

___

AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and AP Broadcast reporter Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.

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  • Hillary Rodham Clinton

    Clinton certainly has the resume to be a strong presidential contender: two terms as the first lady during her husband's popular administration, eight years as a U.S. senator from New York and four as a widely-acclaimed secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Not to mention that she has already mounted a presidential bid once before, during the 2008 Democratic primary. With quite a following among Democrats -- particularly women -- and an expert campaigner as a husband, Clinton is one of the frontrunners for the 2016 nomination. In fact, if the Iowa caucuses were held today, a <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/burns-haberman/2012/11/exclusive-clinton-would-dominate-iowa-caucuses-ppp-149064.html">Public Policy Polling survey</a> found she would win 58 percent of the vote, outstripping the runner-up, Vice President Joe Biden, by a margin of 41 percent. Now the question is <a href="times.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/collins-hillarys-next-move.html?pagewanted=1">whether or not Clinton will decide</a> to throw her hat in the ring in 2016. After her term as secretary of state ends this year, she has declared her intention to take a year off from politics entirely. And after that? Clinton says that she <a href="http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/18/hillary-clinton-repeats-no-2016-cant-stand-whinin-about-life-choices/">does not want to run</a> in 2016, but that hasn't quashed hopes to the contrary. <em>-- Sarah Bufkin</em>

  • Susana Martinez

    Susana Martinez, a Republican, was elected in 2010, becoming the first female governor of New Mexico and first female Hispanic governor in the United States. Her name was also floated as a potential running mate to Mitt Romney in 2012, but she was ultimately passed over for the job. The GOP's poor showing among women and Latinos in this year's presidential election, however, could make Martinez a strong potential choice in 2016. <em>-- Sarafina Wright</em>

  • Elizabeth Warren

    Warren, a favorite of many liberals and a fierce advocate of financial reform, beat out Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in their 2012 contest, putting a Democrat back in the seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy. Warren first made a name for herself on the political scene after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tapped her to chair the congressional panel tasked with overseeing the distribution of the stimulus funds. A bankruptcy law expert and professor at Harvard Law School, Warren pushed for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and later led the effort to set up the new agency. After Republicans made it clear that they would never confirm Warren as the new CFPB head, the president passed her over in favor of Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. In 2011, Warren declared her intention to challenge Brown for his seat. She proved to be one of the most magnetic Senate candidates, raising $39 million for her campaign and giving a primetime speech at the Democratic National Convention. Although immensely popular with Democrats, Warren <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/elizabeth-warren-2016/">has denied</a> that she would consider a presidential run in 2016. <em>-- Sarah Bufkin</em>

  • Kelly Ayotte

    As one of Mitt Romney's top surrogates during the 2012 presidential campaign, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) gained national exposure, regularly appearing on cable TV and the Sunday show circuit. Before her successful Senate election in 2010, she served as New Hampshire's attorney general. A strong conservative <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/2chambers/wp/2012/11/14/no-love-for-susan-rice-from-john-mccain-lindsey-graham-and-kelly-ayotte/">quickly building her profile in the Senate</a>, Ayotte could answer the call to help Republicans win back the support of women. <em>-- Sarafina Wright</em>

  • Kirsten Gillibrand

    A progressive Democratic senator from New York, Gillibrand recently <a href="http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121113/WORLD/121119739/1003">won reelection</a> with 72 percent of the vote in 2012, the highest margin of any senator in the state's history. After serving as special counsel to Andrew Cuomo during his tenure as the secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration, the former attorney worked on Hillary Clinton's successful campaign for Senate in 2000. She <a href="http://nymag.com/news/politics/57197/">credits Clinton</a> with inspiring her to get into politics, and in 2006, Gillibrand won a House seat in the district that included her hometown of Albany, N.Y. Two years later, when her former mentor left to become the secretary of state, Gov. David Paterson appointed Gillibrand to fill Clinton's former Senate seat. Gillibrand <a href="http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/politics/2010/12/983717/what-dont-ask-dont-tell-did-kirsten-gillibrand">lobbied successfully</a> for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and led a campaign to get more women elected to Congress. <em>-- Sarah Bufkin</em>

  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers

    As the <a href="http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2019683952_congress15.html">highest-ranking Republican woman</a> in the House of Representatives, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) is considered a rising star in the party. She was first elected in 2004 and currently serves as the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. She is also a member of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus comprised of some of the most conservative GOP members of the House. After the 2012 election, she argued that the Republican Party does not necessarily need to be more moderate, but that it needed to embrace more "modern" positions. <em>-- Ian Gray</em>

  • Kamala Harris

    Kamala Harris, the 48-year-old Democratic attorney general of California, is the first African-American and first Indian-American to serve California in this capacity. She served as a co-chair for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign and received a high-profile speaking role at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte over the summer. Harris is perhaps best known for her successful efforts to secure a $26 billion mortgage settlement from the nation's biggest banks on behalf of homeowners in early 2012. <em>-- Sarafina Wright</em>

  • Condoleezza Rice

    The first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state would certainly be a trailblazer if she ran for president and became the first female commander-in-chief. A Republican, Rice is an accomplished pianist, holds a Ph.D in political science and has served as provost of Stanford University. She served as President George W. Bush's first national security adviser before moving to the State Department. Though she has never run for elected office, she was a popular choice to be Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, due to her foreign policy credentials and ability to bridge the GOP's gap with women and non-white voters. <em><strong>Correction:</strong> An earlier version of this text misstated that Rice was the first African-American secretary of state. She was the first African-American woman to serve in that position.</em> <em>-- Daniel Lippman</em>

  • Amy Klobuchar

    Klobuchar, a member of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, has been a U.S. senator from Minnesota since 2007, most recently cruising to reelection in November. She is currently serving on the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, among others. A graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago Law School, she served as the Hennepin County attorney from 1999 to 2007. She is pro-choice and supported President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. <em>-- Daniel Lippman</em>

  • Nikki Haley

    The current Republican governor of South Carolina, Haley won her first term in 2010 after serving for five years as a member of the state house. She is only the second Indian-American to serve as governor. Endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, Haley takes a hard line on immigration and is ardently anti-tax. Many have touted her as one of the new post-racial faces of the Republican Party in the South, and she would certainly appeal to the GOP's right-wing elements. Haley was a visible surrogate for Mitt Romney during the 2012 election and was even included on his short list for vice president, but she has not indicated one way or the other if she would put herself in the running for the GOP nomination in 2016. <em>-- Sarah Bufkin</em>

  • Maggie Hassan

    Maggie Hassan, the Democratic governor-elect of New Hampshire, will become only the second woman to have held the state's highest office when she is sworn in next year. Hassan was endorsed by former President Bill Clinton over the summer and has been praised as a strong fundraiser, having broken the record for the most money raised by a first-time gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire. <em>-- Ian Gray</em>

  • Mary Fallin

    A former lieutenant governor, member of Congress and current governor of Oklahoma, Republican Mary Fallin would bring solid conservative credentials to the GOP ticket. She won her gubernatorial race easily in 2010 and will reach her term limit if she runs and wins in 2014. A Fallin candidacy in 2016, however, would run the risk of bringing about comparisons to Sarah Palin's in 2008 -- as a deeply religious, female governor of a sparsely populated and reliably conservative state. She even received Palin's endorsement in 2010. <em>-- Ian Gray</em>

  • Jennifer Granholm

    Granholm, the feisty former Democratic governor of Michigan, is now the host of The War Room television show on Current TV. Born in Canada, she became the first female governor of her state in 2003 and served until 2011, championing the critically important auto sector during a period of intense challenges. She <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/jennifer-granholm-speech-democratic-convention_n_1863181.html">reminded voters of her passionate nature</a> at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where she delivered an animated address. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School, Granholm served as her state's attorney general before being elected governor. She has three children. While Granholm would currently be barred from running due to the Constitution's requirement that presidential candidates be natural-born, there have long been arguments about amending the language to allow for naturalized citizens to run as well. <em>This post has been updated with additional information about Granholm's birthplace and constitutional restrictions</em> <em>-- Daniel Lippman</em>

  • Sarah Palin

    The former Republican governor of Alaska, Palin shot to fame after she was picked as Arizona Sen. John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in 2008. Since then, she's become a Fox News contributor and a hero to many conservatives and Tea Party members. She also wrote the best-seller "Going Rogue: An American Life" in 2009 and has dabbled in reality television. Though she still has star-power in some circles, Democrats and many independents remain skeptical about Palin’s policy chops. <em>-- Daniel Lippman</em>

  • Michelle Obama

    Despite her astronomical public approval rating, Michelle Obama would be something of a surprise candidate in 2016, considering her husband's current role. You might expect to see the first lady as a surrogate for the future Democratic nominee though. Her popularity and skills as a campaigner will likely be called upon by whomever gets the nod. <em>-- Sarafina Wright</em>

  • Lisa Murkowski

    In 2010, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski became the first successful write-in candidate for U.S. Senate since South Carolina's Strom Thurmond in 1954. She was first appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, after having previously served in the Alaska House of Representatives. Her candidacy in 2016 would likely face headwinds from the GOP base, due to her relatively moderate positions on abortion and stem cell research. Additionally, she was one of just five Republicans to support the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed in 2009. <em>-- Sarafina Wright</em>

  • Christine Gregoire

    Gregoire, formerly the Democratic governor of the state of Washington, is the second female to serve in that position. A lawyer, Gregoire was elected attorney general of her state in 1992 before being elected governor in 2004 in a razor-tight race against Republican Dino Rossi. She was reelected in 2008 and also served as the chairwoman of the National Governors Association for the 2010-11 term. One of her top accomplishments as governor included a plan to raise revenue to fund new transportation improvements to fix roads in Washington. She is a supporter of gay marriage, which was passed in her state in 2012. <em>-- Daniel Lippman</em> <em>This slide was first published before the 2012 elections and has been updated to reflect that Gregoire left office in January 2013.</em>

  • Michele Bachmann

    The Republican Tea Party favorite from Minnesota has already attempted a run at the White House and failed to clear the hurdles of the GOP primary, but she could be up to give it another go. Bachmann is an outspoken conservative who stands with the right-wing segment of the party. She opposes tax increases, big-government spending, the Affordable Care Act, environmental regulation and gay rights. The four-term congresswoman is an <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/michele-bachmann-others-raise-millions-for-political-campaigns-with-money-blurts/2011/06/16/AGROkubH_story.html">adroit fundraiser</a>, employing a strategy that allows her to make controversial statements on public platforms and then reap the funding windfall. In 2008, she brought in nearly $1 million after accusing President Barack Obama of having anti-American views. But the Minnesotan barely clung on to her seat in the 2012 election, eeking out a win by just over 4,000 votes -- which calls into question her ability to attract the majority of the GOP electorate and independent voters four years from now. <em>-- Sarah Bufkin</em>

  • Kristi Noem

    First elected in 2010 during the Tea Party wave, Republican Kristi Noem was chosen to represent the freshman class as a liaison to the House GOP leadership. Noem was then reelected in 2012 as South Dakota's sole representative in the House, easily defeating Democratic challenger Matt Varilek. Though she <a href="http://www.ksfy.com/story/20068525/noem-explains-decision-not-to-pursue-leadership-team">turned down a run for reelection</a> in her leadership role, she remains a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee and has been a vocal critic of President Barack Obama. Noem would likely play up her family's farming and ranching business in a 2016 run, as well as her tenure on the Agriculture Committee, to shore up support in midwestern states. <em>-- Ian Gray</em>

  • Pam Bondi

    As Florida's Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi was a leader in the failed effort to overturn President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. At the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Bondi drew attention for her assertion that Obama has a "total disregard for our individual liberty." Given her status as a female public figure serving in a swing state, who has worked to achieve one of the GOP's core goals (repealing Obamacare), expect to hear Bondi's name more in the years to come. <em>-- Ian Gray</em>