US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta [official profile; WP backgrounder] on Thursday announced [transcript] plans to permit women in the US military to serve in front-line combat units. This is a significant change to the Department of Defense (DOD) [official website] 1994 direct ground combat definition and assignment rule that prohibits women from these serving in these roles. Panetta said that in addition to lifting the 1994 ban, he is directing the military "to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service." In explaining the decision, Panetta said:
Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable servicemembers, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs. If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job ... then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.Throughout his remarks, Panetta mentioned a number of times that he coordinated with top generals and the Joint Chiefs of Staff [official website] in implementing this new policy.
The role of women in combat missions has been a serious issue for the DOD. In November four female service members filed suit [JURIST report] against the US Army and the DOD to end the policy which barred women from combat units and related posts, alleging the policy had limited the potential of women's careers and was a violation of the Fifth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In January 2011 a US military panel, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, recommended [JURIST report] that women be allowed to serve on the front lines of combat. Their report said that integration of women into combat forces would have no ill effects and recommended a "time-phased" approach to the implementation of new combat policies that would create additional career options for women that include "direct ground combat." These recent suits to allow women into combat roles come on the heels of another civil rights push in military policy-last year's repeal of the controversial "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy (DADT) [10 USC § 654; JURIST news archive]. Last year Australia became the fourth nation [JURIST report] to permit women to serve in combat roles.