Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made the historic announcement on Thursday that all military combat roles will be open to women, including the most elite and grueling units like the Navy SEALs and the Marine Corps infantry.
Carter said at a press conference announcing the decision that in order for the military to become the "force of the future," it must pull from the "broadest possible pool of talent" — and that includes women, who make up more than half the population.
"No exceptions," but some caveats
Carter said that there will be "no exceptions" — all combat roles will be open to women 30 days from now, "as long as they qualify" and meet the same rigorous physical and training standards as men. Military services have until April 1 to accommodate women in all roles. Women will be able to drive tanks, fire mortars, lead infantry soldiers into combat, and serve as Green Berets.
About 111,000 combat positions have opened up to women since the ban was lifted, Carter said. Women have graduated from the Army Rangers course, and they serve on submarines. But about 10 percent of positions in the military, nearly 220,000, still remain closed to women.
Carter noted that assignments will still be made based on ability, not gender, and that equal opportunity still probably won't mean equal participation. He also said that average physical differences between men and women, while they don't apply to every man and woman, are a reality and may affect recruitment and retention. It's also not clear whether women will be required to sign up for the draft.
No matter what, Carter said, combat effectiveness and readiness will guide implementation.
This decision has been three years in the making
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat on January 24, 2013, but the implementation has been ongoing. Panetta gave all branches of the military three years to study the potential impacts of the change and to request any exceptions from the new rule. Those three years are up, and the results are in.
Carter said that top officials of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Special Operations Forces recommended no exceptions in the mandate allowing women to serve in combat roles. The Marine Corps asked for a partial exemption, but Carter explained why he was denying that request: "We are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force." The Marine Corps had released a study in September indicating that mixed-gender forces were less effective than all-male forces, but Carter said that study was "not definitive." The implementation will consider team dynamics as well as individual capabilities, Carter said.
Despite having combat roles closed to them, women still saw combat even before the ban was lifted. Women have been deployed to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan — technically in a support role to combat units, but seeing combat all the same. Being unable to officially serve in combat roles created a "brass ceiling," since official recognition for combat service is crucial for being promoted into senior military ranks.
Neither Carter nor reporters at the press conference acknowledged the massive problem of military sexual assault, or how that problem will be considered during the implementation of this change.
"Secretary Carter’s decision was the right one for our military and our country," Vania Leveille, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "No individual who wants to serve her or his country should be forbidden from competing for or serving in any military capacity solely because of gender. Instead, every Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine should be judged on individual merit and ability."