WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's announcement Tuesday that the service branches and U.S. Special Operations command are moving ahead with plans to put women into combat positions sparked a range of reactions from supporters and opponents.
Among the jobs that could eventually open are those in the infantry, in armor units and on attack submarines, as well as in special operations units.
The idea of female special operators struck retired Army officer and former Republican politician Allen West the wrong way.
"The objective is obvious: destroy the last bastions of American warrior culture all for the advancement of a misguided vision of fairness and equality," he wrote in a Facebook post. "There is no equality in close combat. The goal is simple: you physically overpower the enemy and kill them."
But Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., called the announcement a "milestone" and said the changing nature of war fighting means women can succeed as special operators.
"We must allow every member of the armed services to compete for vital special operations positions in order to achieve the high standards our military needs to be successful," she said in an emailed statement.
Meanwhile, a group that supports expanding combat roles for women appeared underwhelmed by the Defense Department's plans, which kick off with years of deliberation and planning. In a Twitter posting, the Service Women's Action Network labeled Tuesday's announcement a "plan to announce a plan."
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January lifted a 1994 policy banning women from thousands of combat and combat-related roles. By January 2016, all units must be open to women, although the Pentagon has put in place procedures to allow the services to seek exceptions that must be approved by the defense secretary.
The plan presented by the Army, which has hundreds of thousands of jobs in combat units closed to women, calls for the announcement of gender-neutral qualification standards during 2015.
"Our approach is integrated, it's scientific and it's incremental (with) decisions points all along the way," said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for personnel.
The Air Force plans to open all of nearly 5,000 special operator positions closed to women, but has to do so in conjunction with SOCOM and the Army, said Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, Air Force director of force management policy. After that, the need to recruit and train means five years will pass before women can move into those jobs, she said.
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.
Sacolick said Special Operations Command troops would be surveyed soon about the prospect of integrating women into combat units. A potential lack of physical ability on the part of female fighters is less of a concern to him, he said, than the social, cultural and behavioral challenges of integration. 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.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said women have earned the right to compete for any military assignment.
"Women are already fighting and dying for our country shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform on the frontlines, but without the formal recognition that is essential for them to advance and obtain the benefits they have earned," she said. "Officially recognizing women in combat will strengthen our country both morally and militarily."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said national security requires both that opportunities for women grow, and that the Pentagon ensures standards aren't lowered to achieve that end.
"Ensuring that America's military remains the most effective and admired fighting force in the world requires that expanding the role of women in combat be accomplished while maintaining established qualification standards that have served the U.S. military, and the American people, well," he said.