The Pentagon’s (perfectly militarized) three-year plan to put women in combat

It will take the Defense Department three years, require massive service-wide studies, hundreds of reports, and probably thousands of individual tests, but between this May and 2016 the U.S. military says it will have women filling many of the 237,000 jobs previously closed to them across the services.

But not every job.

Senior defense and military officials explained that under the new policy signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday, every position and every unit in the military will be studied anew. The default position of the effort is to open the entire ranks equally to women. If a service determines it wants to keep some jobs or units closed from women, the service must request and receive an exemption from the secretary of defense.

President Obama called Panetta on Thursday to express support for the policy change. “This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military,” the president said, in a statement from the White House.

“As commander-in-chief, I am absolutely confident that -- as with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ -- the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world. Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.”   

Panetta said the military will open “as fully as possible” every military position for women from “unnecessary barriers.”

“Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance,” he said. Panetta said his decision was motivated by the principle of equality of opportunity for young people.

“If they can do the job, if they can meet the standards, if they can meet the qualifications that are involved here, there is no reason why they shouldn’t have a chance. That’s just a fundamental believe of mine.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the time was right for the policy change. He recalled being jolted in 2003 as a division commander when he sat in an up-armored Humvee in Iraq about to leave on patrol. Dempsey asked the name of the turret gunner protecting him. “I’m Amanda,” the soldier said.

Dempsey said he hoped the policy change also would eliminate “separate classes” of troops that have contributed to problems of sexual assault and harassement in the ranks.

“When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, I think that disparity beings to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe the more we can treat people equally the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

Now the military begins the work.

“Our expectation is that we’re going to look at every [military occupational specialty]… the assumption is its going to be open. If it shouldn’t be open, it’ll be because we have a really darn good, strong argument as to why not,” said one senior military official who briefed Pentagon reporters.  

Here’s the plan. The services are required to report by May 15 to the defense secretary -- by then, likely former Sen. Chuck Hagel -- their plans to review all positions. The decision to open some jobs to women could come quickly. For other jobs, like tank operators who are required to load two-foot long, 50-pound artillery shells in tight quarters using pure upper body strength, the decision may take a little more study and testing, the officials said.

“We would fully expect this will be done in increments,” said a senior defense official, as the services work their way through the job rolls.

But the military has no intention of bending the rules for women just because of their gender. Not entirely, at least.

Senior defense officials said they already have identified 53,000 positions women are allowed to perform – medics, truck drivers, or logisticians, for example -- but which are closed off to them because the jobs are located within entire units that are off limits to women, such as combat infantry. Those jobs could be among the first to open this year.

But there will be larger studies through the years. The Marines plan to put 800 people through testing this summer to determine which of the 28 Marine Corps jobs closed to women likely could open, including how to evaluate and set viable recruiting standards for those positions.

The Marines like to use the example of troops working inside tanks.

“The physical standards, to us in the Marine Corps, is the primary issue,” said one senior military official speaking for the Corps. “There is one standard, gender-neutral for both sexes, to do any particular task. For females it wouldn’t be at this standard and for males a different standard.”

“We’ve identified 18 physically demanding tasks to be a tanker,” the official explained, “… it’s the same standard, whether you’re a male tanker or, in the future maybe, a female tanker. You have to be able to demonstrate that you can do those tasks.”

But for other requirements, such as the time it takes to complete components of standard physical fitness tests, the official said, there may be wiggle room.

Last year, two female Marines tried their luck at the infantry officer school at Quantico, Va. One washed out on day one, along with several males. The other dropped out after suffering stress fractures. Dempsey said there are no plans for any gender-based changes to the standards of such courses, but senior leaders, including Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, expect women would one day fill the ranks of the military's most elite units, such as the Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force.

"I think we all believe that there will be women or are able to meet those standards," Dempsey said.

Amos, in a statement, said, "The talent pool from which we select our finest war-fighters will consist of all qualified individuals, regardless of gender."

The Marines also will start to determine if women could serve in jobs already open to them that are located within the 19 Marine Corps units closed to women.

“The commandant of the Marine Corps personally talked to the battalion commander and the sergeants-major of each of those 19 battalions,” the official said. “I think that got their attention.”

The military needs until 2016, the official said, to work their way down the ranks, first establishing standard and oversight guidelines for top officers, then on to noncommissioned officers and down to the company level.

The Pentagon is required to give Congress notification of any changes to the exclusion rule, and wait 30 working days before implementing them. But Congress cannot block the change without new legislation. There have been only a few negative reactions to the Pentagon's shift by some conservative members, including incoming ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who complained he was not informed ahead of time, and noted that lawmakers could try to block any Pentagon moves deemed harmful to the military.

"I suspect there will be cases where legislation becomes necessary," he said.

“We did talk to the congressional defense committees both on the House and Senate sides as well as several members of Congress,” said a senior defense official.

Hagel also was informed of the decision on Wednesday. He supports the decision.

UPDATE: This post has been updated from its original verson to include additional information following the Pentagon press briefing with Panetta and Dempsey.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Good/Released