ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The decision to open front-line battlefield positions to women has opened thousands of new job opportunities for female midshipmen.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Thursday lifted a ban on female service members in combat roles. In light of Panetta’s decision, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus made it possible for women to serve on Virginia-class submarines.
Navy officials said Mabus’ decision will put four women, four nuclear-trained officers and two female Supply Corps Officers on some of the nuclear-powered fast attack submarines in fiscal 2015.
Panetta’s announcement could open about 8,500 positions previously closed to women in Special Warfare, the Coastal Riverine Force and the Marine Corps’ ground combat element.
Women won’t immediately be thrust into ground combat roles. A Navy official said the Navy, like other parts of the military, is still in the “early stages of studying (the move) and finding out how to move forward.”
John Nagl, Minerva research professor in the Naval Academy’s History Department, said more women could end up applying to the academy. But any increase of women in the newly opened positions could be offset by a decrease in military forces overseas.
“I don’t think we’re going to see lots and lots of women serving as Marine infantry,” Nagl said. “What I do think we’re going to see is a broader recognition of the role women have played. Over the long term, I think we’re seeing a more capable military as a result of the inclusion of women.”
A Naval Academy spokesman said it was too early to comment on any policy changes in Annapolis.
Qualifications will not be lowered for women, Panetta said. But women will get a chance at some front-line positions as early as this year.
“Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles,” Panetta said. “The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”
Panetta’s move overturns a 1994 ban on women being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
His decision gives the military until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions, like the Navy SEALS, must remain closed to women.
Panetta argued women, who make up 15 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces, have increasingly found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said he realized something had changed when he arrived in Baghdad in 2003, hopped in a Humvee, slapped a turret gunner on the leg, and asked ‘Who are you?’
“She said ‘I’m Amanda,’” Panetta said. “Women are serving in combat and have been.”
He said not everyone is qualified to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to the opportunity.
Navy officials said 54,500 women are currently on active duty, making up around 16 percent of the active force.
Thursday’s repeal of the direct combat rule could open up approximately 5,000 positions in the Marine Corps ground combat element and 3,000 positions in Special Warfare, including with the SEALS, that were closed to women.
It also would open up 480 positions in the Coastal Riverine Force, the Navymaritime expedition security force established after the Riverine Force and Maritime Expeditionary Force merged last year.
But a Navy official said women would not move into these positions until the department conducts a “thorough assessment of what it would take to incorporate women into these billets.”