The decision reflects a reality driven home by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battle lines were blurred and women were propelled into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers who were sometimes attached, but not formally assigned, to battalions. So even though a woman could not serve officially as a battalion infantryman going out on patrol, she could fly a helicopter supporting the unit or be part of a team supplying medical aid if troops were injured.
Under details the military laid out Tuesday, women could start training as Army Rangers by mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs a year later. U.S. Special Operations Command is coordinating the studies of what commando jobs could be opened to women, what exceptions might be requested and when the transition would take place.
The proposals could mean that women are still excluded from some jobs if research and testing find that women could not be successful. But the services would have to defend such decisions to top Pentagon leaders.
The military services have mapped out a schedule that includes reviewing and possibly changing the physical and mental requirements for certain infantry, armor, commando and other front-line positions across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Under the plans there would be one common requirements for men and women for each post, and it would be based on specific tasks troops need to do in order to perform those jobs. Officials say standards will not be lowered in order to bring women into certain posts.
The order former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed prohibits physical standards from being lowered simply to allow women to qualify for jobs closer to the battlefront. But the services are methodically reviewing and revising the standards for many jobs, including strength and stamina, in order to set minimum requirements for troops to meet regardless of their sex.
Of the more than 6,700 U.S. service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 150 have been women.
The change also follows startling reports of sexual assaults in the armed forces. Dempsey says the sexual assaults might be linked to the longstanding ban on women serving in combat because the disparity between the roles of men and women creates separate classes of personnel - male "warriors" versus the rest of the force.
While the sexual assault problem is more complicated than that, he said, the disparity has created a psychology that lends itself to disrespect for women.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.