Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Thursday that he is opening all jobs in combat units to women, a landmark decision that ends a three-year period of research with a number of firsts for female service members and bitter debate at times about how women should be integrated.
The decision opens the military’s most elite units to women who can meet the rigorous requirements for the positions for the first time, including in the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and other Special Operations Units. It also opens the Marine Corps infantry, a battle-hardened force that many service officials had openly advocated keeping closed to female service members.
“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said. “This means that, as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before.”
Carter said that top leaders in the Army, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command all recommended that all jobs be opened to women. The Marine Corps recommended that certain jobs such as machine gunner be kept closed, but the secretary said that the military is a joint force, and his decision will apply to everyone. The top Marine officer who made that recommendation, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September, and did not appear alongside Carter on Thursday.
The secretary’s decision is nearly three years in the making. In January 2013, the defense secretary at the time, Leon Panetta, announced that he was rescinding a longtime ban on women serving directly in ground combat units, but gave the services until this fall to research the issue.
About 220,000 jobs and 10 percent of the military remained closed to women before Tuesday’s announcement, Carter said. Another 110,000 jobs in careers like artillery officer were opened in a series of decisions since 2013.
The issue has at times opened an uncommonly public rift between senior military leaders. In particular, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus took issue with a Marine Corps study that found that the average woman struggled to keep up with men, according to a number of metrics. The study did not track individual performance, drawing fire from Mabus and others in favor of full integration.
As the Marine Corps commandant, Dunford recommended to keep a number of jobs in infantry and reconnaissance units closed.Carter, asked why Dunford was not present for the announcement on Thursday, said that he and the general have talked extensively on the subject, and he “will be with me” as the services proceeds with making related changes.
“He understands what my decision is, and my decision is my decision, and we will implement it accordingly,” Carter said.
In 2013, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared alongside Panetta as the secretary announced he was rescinding the rule keeping women out of ground combat units. Dunford could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
Carter said the important factor in him opening all jobs to women was to give the military access to every American who can add strength to it. Studies carried out by the services since 2013 found that some of the standards the military previously used to determine whether a service member was fit for a job were outdated or didn’t reflect the actual tasks required in combat, he said.
“It’s been evidence-based, and iterative,” Carter said of the review. “I’m confident the Defense Department can implement this successfully, because throughout our history we’ve consistently proven ourselves to be a learning organization.”
Carter cited the military’s 2011 repeal on a policy banning gay service members from serving openly as an example of how gender integration can be completed successfully. The repeal of that “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy raised questions in many corners of the military, but is now widely considered to have been implemented smoothly and not hurt the military’s ability to fight.
Skeptics remain, however. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R.-Texas), chairmen of the Senate and House armed services committees, said in a statement released jointly on Thursday that they intend to “carefully and thoroughly review all relevant documentation related to today’s decision,” including the Marine Corps gender integration study that caused the rift between the service and Mabus.
“We expect the Department to send over its implementation plans as quickly as possible to ensure our Committees have all the information necessary to conduct proper and rigorous oversight,” the statement said. “We also look forward to receiving the Department’s views on any changes to the Selective Service Act that may be required as a result of this decision.”
Other members of Congress applauded Carter’s decision. Rep. Martha McSally (R.-Ariz.), a retired Air Force colonel and A-10 attack jet pilot, said in a statement that the move recognizes that the military is strongest when it prioritizes merit and capability.
“It’s about damn time,” McSally said in the statement. “Women have been fighting and dying for our country since its earliest wars. They have shown they can compete with the best of the best, and succeed. We are a country that looks at people as individuals, not groups. We select the best man for the job, even if it’s a woman.”