WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.
The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.
The Pentagon's decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat presents a daunting challenge to top military leaders who now will have to decide which, if any, jobs they believe should be open only to men.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday that more than 230,000 battlefront posts and potentially elite commando jobs are now open to women. And it will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of the more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force.
The historic change, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes after generations of limits on women's military service, and it will not happen overnight.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says letting women serve in combat roles will strengthen the military's ability to win wars.
Panetta says the military is more capable and more powerful when it is open to, quote, "all of the diverse strengths of the American people."
Panetta spoke Thursday at a Pentagon ceremony in remembrance of Martin Luther King, just hours before a news conference at which he plans to announce an end to the traditional exclusion of women from combat roles in the U.S. military.
President Barack Obama says allowing women to serve in combat marks another step toward the country's founding ideals of fairness and equality.
Obama says in a written statement he expressed strong support for the decision to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who lifted the combat ban Thursday.
Obama says he is confident the decision -- coupled with the recent repeal of the ban on gays in the military -- will strengthen the U.S. military.
The president says, quote, "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. "