WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday formally lifted the military's ban on women in combat, saying that not every woman would become a combat soldier but that every woman deserved the chance to try.
They said that the new policy was in many ways an affirmation of what was already occurring on the battlefield, where women have found themselves in combat over the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that it was essential that the military offer fully equal opportunities to both women and men.
"They're fighting and dying together, and the time has come for our policies to reflect that reality," Mr. Panetta said at a packed Pentagon news conference.
General Dempsey, like Mr. Panetta, said that his views had evolved as he came into contact with women in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he first got to Baghdad in 2003 as a division commander, he said, he got into a Humvee for his first trip out of his base.
"I asked the driver, you know, who he was and where he was from, and I slapped the turret gunner on the leg, and I said, 'Who are you?'" General Dempsey recalled. "And she leaned down and said, 'I'm Amanda.' And I said, 'Oh, O.K. So a female turret gunner is protecting a division commander.'"
Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey said they had worked together on lifting the ban for more than a year and had regularly briefed President Obama on developments. They described him as highly supportive of the decision but not intimately involved in the process.
In December, Pentagon officials said, Mr. Panetta and the Joint Chiefs reached a tentative agreement that women should be permitted in combat. Mr. Panetta thought about it over the holidays and returned early this month to receive a letter dated Jan. 9 from General Dempsey strongly recommending the change.
In the most vocal official opposition to the changes, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is set to become the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, warned that some in Congress may seek legislation to limit the combat jobs open to women.
"I want everyone to know that the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which I am the ranking member, will have a period to provide oversight and review," Mr. Inhofe said in a statement. "During that time, if necessary, we will be able to introduce legislation to stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities. I suspect there will be cases where legislation becomes necessary."
Pentagon officials said that the different services would have until May 15 to submit their plans for carrying out the new policy, but that the military wanted to move as quickly as possible to open up combat positions to women. Military officials said that there were more than 200,000 jobs now potentially open to women in specialties like infantry, armor, artillery and elite Special Operations commando units like the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.
If a service determines that a specialty should not be open to women, Pentagon officials said that representatives of the service would have to make the case to the defense secretary by January 2016.
Officials said repeatedly that they would not lower the physical standards for women in rigorous combat jobs like the infantry, but they said they would review standards for all the military specialties in coming months and potentially change them to keep up with, for example, advances in equipment and weaponry. Marine officials also said they might change the initial physical standards that recruits have to meet before they are sent off to boot camp.
At a Pentagon briefing about the changes, reporters asked several times about two women who entered the Marines' brutal Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va., last year as an experiment, since neither at the time would have been allowed to serve in the infantry. One woman dropped out on the first day, and the other withdrew later because of physical ailments, including stress fractures. Many men fail the course as well. Marine officials said they were determined to open up jobs to women as long as they qualified for them.
Pentagon officials and military officers said it remained unclear how many women would apply to join the elite commando and counterterrorism forces, and some of those combat jobs might be among any that are proposed for exclusion. A high percentage of men fail to make the cut for those units, which include the Army Rangers and the Green Berets, and Navy SEAL teams.
Army leaders said an important initiative would be to create a cohort of female officers and noncommissioned officers who could provide leadership in combat units that would be accepting female soldiers for the first time. Policies may have to change to allow those officers to move from one military specialty to another.
The Army has also conducted studies on the psychological, cultural and social aspects of integrating women into units that have long been a male-only domain. Those studies are expected to guide how the ground forces alter their base housing, training and deployment infrastructure.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.