The US Defence Department has ended its historic ban on women serving in direct combat roles.
The groundbreaking decision opens the way for hundreds of thousands of military jobs for female troops in the biggest move yet toward equal opportunity in the armed services. Endorsing the move, US President Barack Obama said allowing women to serve in combat marks another step toward the United States' founding ideals of fairness and equality.
He said: "Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger, with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love."
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made the decision to rescind a rule that limits women's service on the recommendation of the military's joint chiefs of staff.
"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," Mr Panetta said yesterday in a statement. "The department's goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."
"This change is a huge step toward maximising their potential and honouring the tremendous sacrifices that our military women have made throughout history," said Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat who served in the Iraq war.
The change won't be immediate. Ending the US ban will open as many as 200,000 positions to women by January 2016, the date set for final implementation, according to a defence official who asked not to be identified
Women, who make up about 15pc of the military's 1.4 million active-duty personnel, have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle blur in an age of terrorism and unconventional warfare. Women also fly combat aircraft, including helicopters and carrier-based navy fighters, and the navy has begun assigning women to duty on submarines.
More than 280,000 women have deployed over the past decade in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Pentagon. At least 144 female troops have been killed in those wars, out of more than 6,600 US dead, and more than 860 women have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.
"This is a tremendous victory for equality and justice in our military," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain who now serves as executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, a nonpartisan civil-rights group led by female veterans.
The move is drawing criticism as well. Elaine Donnelly, president of the Centre for Military Readiness, said the decision could lead to more injuries for female soldiers and lowered standards for male troops.
"For the same reason that professional football does not seek diversity on the gridiron, this is not a good idea," Ms Donnelly said.