Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has officially removed the longstanding military ban on women in combat.
Along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Panetta is expected to formally announce the change on Thursday, Pentagon officials said. The military has been debating whether to let women fight on the front lines for years, though many women already serve in these positions, including piloting warplanes and serving on ships in combat areas. Almost 290,000 women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since the beginning of both wars.
Panetta quietly opened 14,500 combat positions to women last year, and had vowed to lift the remaining exclusions from a 1994 ban on women in combat before his tenure with the Pentagon ended.
Advocates have long said that banning women from elite combat roles was not only discriminatory, but also prevented women from reaching more prestigious military ranks and receiving promotions.
The decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women. Some may open as soon as this year, while others, such as special operations forces like Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer.
The military has until January 2016 to seek "special exceptions" if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.