By Phil Stewart and David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Thursday lifted a longtime ban on women serving in front-line combat positions, taking a historic step toward gender equality in the U.S. military after 11 years of war in which women were increasingly present on the battlefield.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order at a Pentagon news conference rescinding the rule that prevented women from serving in direct combat jobs.
"They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality," Panetta said, noting that 152 women in uniform had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism," he said.
The move topples another social barrier in the U.S. armed forces, two years after the Pentagon scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
The decision to open up the additional jobs to women came as Panetta prepares to leave the Pentagon after about 18 months in office. Senate confirmation hearings for former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee to succeed Panetta, are scheduled for next week.
Obama expressed strong support for the new policy, as did civilian and military leaders from the different services.
"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," Obama said, calling the decision a "historic step."
Major Mary Hegar, a helicopter pilot with the California Air National Guard who joined an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit to open combat jobs to women, said the decision was "a huge leap forward." But with each of the services deciding how to implement the changes, "there are going to be roadblocks in the future," she said.
Some officials and organizations voiced caution. Senator Jim Inhofe, incoming top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was "concerned about the potential impacts" of the new policy and suspected in some cases Congress might have to intervene to "stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities."
The decision to lift the ban came with important caveats, and sweeping change will not happen overnight for women, nearly 300,000 of whom have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
The move could open some 237,000 positions to women and expand opportunities for career advancement. But acceptance into the newly opened jobs is not assured and will be based on gender-neutral performance standards.
"Let me be clear. We are not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job," Panetta said. "If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation."
"There are no guarantees of success," he added. "Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance."
A senior defense official said Panetta's goal "is to open everything" to women. Service chiefs will have to ask for exceptions if they want to keep some positions closed, and any exception would have to be approved by the defense secretary.
Most service jobs are already open to women. The Army, for example, has 497 occupational specialties and all but 20, about 96 percent, are currently open to women, Army officials said.
The Army specialties currently closed to women represent a large number of jobs - about 120,000 - so only about 75 percent of Army jobs are open to women, they said.
The Pentagon last year opened 14,000 jobs to women by enabling them to take positions as medics, intelligence officers and military police at the battalion level, which previously was considered too close to combat. But they continued to be barred from infantry, armored and special operations units whose main function was to engage in front-line combat.
Based on the experience of opening up new positions to women over the past year, the officials said they did not expect a large number of women would seek front-line combat jobs.
"But there are women that want to do this, and I think they should have the chance," said General Robert Cone, the head of Army training and doctrine.
Panetta made the decision to lift the ban after the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded it was time to integrate women "to the maximum extent possible," according to a statement.
Gender-neutral performance standards will be developed for all the new jobs opening to women, officials said. But whether that means the physical requirements become more or less rigorous remains to be seen, they added, cautioning that they would depend on the actual demands of the position.
An example of a physically demanding job that may be out of reach of women without significant upper body strength could be in front-line tanks, where soldiers need to lift and load heavy ammunition in confined spaces using mainly their arms.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new policy would take effect gradually. The service chiefs have until May 15 to offer plans to implement the new policy by January 1, 2016.
"The secretary understands with a change of this magnitude it does take some time," the official said.
For many women service members, the move is belated acknowledgement of the realities of the past decade of war, in which there were often no clearly defined front lines. Of those who served, 152 have been killed, including 84 in hostile action, and nearly 1,000 have been wounded.
The 36-year-old Hegar, who was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross for action in Afghanistan, said she viewed the debate over women in combat as being out of sync with reality. The issue is job equality, she said.
"Women are in combat. Thousands of women are in combat," Hegar said. "It's about giving them the correct job title. (If)you have a woman shoulder to shoulder with someone, doing the same exact job, and her job title is different because legally she can't be engaging in ground combat, who do you think is going to get promoted faster?"
Women serve in combat roles for the armed forces of a few developed nations, including Canada and Israel, but officials say demand from women for such jobs in NATO nations is very low. In 2010, Britain decided after a review that it would not change rules excluding women from infantry or combat teams.
The United States is drawing down its some 66,000 remaining forces from Afghanistan through the end of 2014, when only a small residual force is expected to remain. It is possible that some women may see themselves in new combat roles before that withdrawal is complete.
"I don't think we can exclude that possibility," one senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by Peter Cooney)