US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to lift the military's ban on women serving in combat, a move that could open thousands of frontline warfighting jobs to female service members, a senior US defence official said.
Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, "are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters on Wednesday.
The decision marks yet another sweeping change for the military under President Barack Obama's administration, which led a drive to lift a prohibition on openly gay troops.
The official announcement of the move, which would open up hundreds of thousands of combat posts to women, was expected on Thursday, officials said.
The decision would give the individual military services until 2016 to seek an exemption if they believe any jobs should remain closed to women, a defence official said.
The move was welcomed by US Senator Carl Levin, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said it reflected the "reality of 21st century military operations," and by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban.
"This is an historic step for equality and for recognising the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defence of our nation," said Senator Patty Murray.
The decision overturns a 1994 policy that prevents women from serving in small frontline combat units.
It comes nearly a year after the Pentagon unveiled a policy that opened 14,000 new jobs to women but continued to prohibit them from serving in infantry, armour and special operations units whose main function was to engage in frontline combat.
Asked last year why women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting security details and house-to-house searches were still being formally barred from combat positions, Pentagon officials said the services wanted to see how they performed in the new positions before opening up further.
About two percent of US deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. About 280,000 women have been deployed to the war zones over the past decade, about 12 percent of the US total.
Defence officials noted that 10 years of combat had made it clear that some of the military's gender-based restrictions were obsolete because the battlefields faced by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clear frontlines and no obvious ways to limit exposure to the fighting.
"This policy has become irrelevant given the modern battlespace with its nonlinear boundaries," the Defence Department said in a report to Congress.
More than 200,000 women serve as active duty members of the military, including more than 37,000 officers.