WASHINGTON — Leaders from each service branch and U.S. Special Operations Command laid out roadmaps Tuesday to begin moving female troops toward the front lines of combat, but said the process would proceed deliberately over the course of years and be accompanied by a host of studies.

Among the positions that could eventually open are those in the infantry, in armor units and on attack submarines, as well as in special operations units. The first of the closed combat jobs to become available might be on the Navy Riverine Force’s small craft, which the Navy says it wants to open to women later this year.

But the change will proceed far more slowly throughout most of the force. The integration of women into many of the units remains years in the future, officials told reporters at the Pentagon.

Defense officials said the individual plans have been reviewed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the services are now ready “move out” on implementing them.

In the near future, the plans call primarily for study of institutional and cultural factors of putting women into units closed to them under the 1994 combat exclusion policy, which former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted in January.

In addition, a key step will be the establishment of gender-neutral physical and mental standards for each position, including infantry, artillery, armor and special operations forces.

The Army, which has hundreds of thousands of jobs in combat units closed to women, said in its plan that it would present gender-neutral standards to qualify for those positions during 2015.

“Our approach is integrated, it’s scientific and it’s incremental (with) decisions points all along the way to get to the best soldier in 2020, and also expand these opportunities for women as we move forward,” said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for personnel matters.

The Air Force, which has fewer than 5,000 positions closed to women in special operations, says it is moving toward allowing women in all of them – but because of joint operations, it must do so in consultation with SOCOM and the Army.

Because of the length of time needed to complete studies, as well as to recruit and train, five years will pass before women begin entering pararescue, special operations weather and other currentlyclosed Air Force jobs, an official said.

“We expect that between 1 January and 1 June, 2018, we will be bringing women into these operational units,” said Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, Air Force director of force management policy.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, will begin testing 400 men and 400 women in five “proxy” tests to determine what physical abilities are needed for each occupational specialty, said Col. Jon Aytes, head of the Marine Corps military policy branch. The tests will include lifting tank and artillery shells and climbing walls, Aytes said.

Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, SOCOM director of force management and development, acknowledged concerns about integrating women because of the difficult missions special operators carry out in remote, rugged locations.

“We haven’t made any decisions whatsoever,” he said. “We’re going to spend the next year collecting, analyzing data.”

Panetta and Dempsey forbade lowering of physical standards in order to ease women’s entry into combat units, but the services will have to settle on standards that will apply in many jobs.

After studying each position and its requirements, the services and U.S. Special Operations Command might still propose that women be excluded from some positions, but the exceptions would require approval from the secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs.

Sacolick said servicemembers attached to Special Operations Command would be surveyed soon about the prospect of women serving in their units. A potential lack of physical ability on the part of female servicemembers is lessof a concern to him, he said, than the social, cultural and behavioral challenges of integrating women into the elite units. Sacolick added that it was not the behavior of women that concerned him.

“I’m more concerned with the men, and their reactions to women in their formations,” he said.

Advocates of opening combat roles have pointed out that women have been exposed to combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even participating in intense fighting when assigned as military police or as members of female engagement teams that accompany combat patrols. About 150 women have been killed while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Top military leaders like Dempsey, meanwhile, have admitted that barring women from combat jobs consigns them to a separate class from the male majority in the armed forces, which could contribute to disrespect toward women.

The move to allow women into more combat jobs comes as the military is contending with a growing problem of sexual assault in the ranks. The Pentagon’s own statistics indicate the number of assaults has risen sharply in the last year.

In a memo released Tuesday, Hagel urged military officials to move forward with integrating women into combat units.

“The Department remains committed to removing all gender barriers, whenever possible,” he wrote, “and meeting our missions with the best and most capable personnel.” Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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