Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - Pentagon chief Leon Panetta has lifted the military's ban on women serving in combat, a move that will allow women into hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs, a senior Defense official said Wednesday.
The move, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule banning women from such roles, said a Pentagon official speaking on anonymity because the decision has not been announced publicly.
Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women. It comes after more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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.
The official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15. The announcement on Panetta's decision is not expected until Thursday, so the official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Panetta's move expands the Pentagon's action nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. This decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.
In recent years the necessities of war propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached - but not formally assigned - to units on the front lines.
Women comprise 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel.
Contributing: Associated Press