The U.S. Air Force's top official wants to make male-only, direct-combat related jobs open to female airmen by the spring of 2016.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters during a visit to Hawaii on Monday she plans to open up seven jobs for women to include pararescue and tactical air control party.
James said the Air Force is working on establishing gender-neutral standards for the positions and opening them to whoever is qualified.
"That is to say, whatever the standard is, it would be the same for men and women," she said.
Currently, only seven jobs in the Air Force are closed to women to include special tactics officer, pararescue, tactical air control party (TACP), combat rescue officer, combat control team, special operation weather officer and enlisted.
TACPs are a critical job on the battlefield in which airmen are assigned to infantry units to coordinate Air Force fixed-wing aircraft in close-air support against enemy targets.
The move brings the Air Force in line with other services that are developing plans to open direct-combat jobs to women by January 2016.
In January, 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta mandated that the services open all combat jobs by 2016 to women or explain why any must remain closed. The Pentagon lifted its ban on women serving in such roles in 2012, but gave the services time to integrate female troops into male-only front-line positions.
Women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military's 1.3 million active-duty service members, according to Pentagon statistics.
As part of this effort, the U.S. Army announced in September it would consider allowing female candidates to attend Ranger School, a grueling, two-month course that pushes students to their mental and physical limits with realistic combat training.
Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno are expected to make a decision sometime after Jan. 1 on whether to approve the plan.
The Marine Corps in 2012 allowed women to take the Infantry Officer Course, though none has yet passed the physically grueling 13-week program.
The Navy in 2010 allowed female officers to serve on submarines and is in the process of integrating female enlisted personnel into the submarine force, though the service has no plans to integrate the commando course, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S.
James, who became secretary in December 2013, said she also wants to boost the Air Force's retention of women, noting women at mid-career leave the service at twice the rate of their male counterparts.
"So we need to bore down and figure out why that is happening and how we can turn that around," she said.
James stopped in Hawaii as part of an 11-day tour of Air Force bases in the Asia-Pacific region. She's expected to go to Guam, Japan, South Korea and Alaska. It's her first trip to the region since becoming head of the Air Force.
--The Associated Press contributed to this report.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org