IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Defense chief Panetta to clear women for combat roles

Female soldiers from the US 1st Cavalry are pictured on patrol in Baghdad's al-Jihad quarter in this March 21, 2004, file photograph.
Female soldiers from the US 1st Cavalry are pictured on patrol in Baghdad's al-Jihad quarter in this March 21, 2004, file photograph.Karim Sahib / AFP - Getty Images file

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to clear the way for women to serve in many combat positions in the U.S. armed forces, a senior defense official told NBC News on Wednesday afternoon.

The Pentagon chief will announce on Thursday that he is eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion — the Department of Defense policy that excluded women from assignment to units below the brigade level if the unit would be engaged in direct combat.

This will allow women to be assigned to select positions in ground combat units at the battalion level.

"I support it. It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in anticipation of the announcement. 

"We are moving in the direction of women as infantry soldiers," one senior defense official said. Panetta's decision mandates that the studies and reviews on women as infantry soldiers must be completed by October 2015 — women soldiers will not be assigned to infantry any sooner than that, the official explained.

This announcement will open approximately 237,000 individual jobs to women across service branches, including 5,000 positions for female Marines in ground combat elements.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the decision "historic."

"In fact, it's important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male servicemembers," said Murray, who heads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

In November, a group of women in the military and the non-profit American Civil Liberties Union sued the Pentagon over the policy of excluding women from combat roles. Their complaint argued that they were already serving in combat roles, but not getting recognized for it.

Panetta's decision will give the military branches until the beginning of 2016 to seek exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to females, defense sources told The Associated Press. The move came at the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the sources said.

Panetta is expected to leave his position as Defense Secretary in February.

NBC News correspondent Kelly O'Donnell and NBC staff writer Kari Huus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related: Women in the infantry? Forget about it, says female Marine officer