WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States military officially dropped its ban on women serving in ground combat on Thursday after a policy review by top commanders, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said.
"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 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."
The decision followed an "extensive review" by the chiefs of all the armed services, "who unanimously concluded that now is the time to move forward with the full intent to integrate women into occupational fields to the maximum extent possible", he said.
Under the decision, the armed services will have until January 2016 to carry out the changes.
A defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP the issue did not produce acrimonious debate among the joint chiefs, and that top commanders were more focused on
setting out a deliberate process that would ensure tough standards were upheld for combat jobs, including physical strength requirements.
US commanders began taking a second look at the ban in 2010 to reflect the changing reality on the battlefield, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had put women in harm's way.
Women make up about 14.5 per cent of the active duty US military, or about 204,000 service members, according to the Pentagon. Advocates for changing the policy have long argued that denying female troops a chance at ground combat jobs and awards effectively blocks them from attaining top jobs as commanders.