A female Marine does pull-ups as part of the combat endurance test in Quantico, Va. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The military will not need to lower its physical standards as it opens direct combat jobs to women, senior military officials said Thursday.
However, an Army general said the standards will be reviewed for some positions.
The new order, signed Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will open as many as 237,000 new jobs to women. Women comprise about 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel.
Military officials who briefed reporters on background said occupations such as infantry and artillery have exacting physical requirements and appropriate standards will be maintained. The officials declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
The military has different physical standards based on age and sex for the Army and Marines. In either service, the standards for both sexes would be the same for those trying to get into the infantry and other combat arms specialties.
"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," Panetta said.
"I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job - if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve," he said.
That does not mean the standards may not change. Army Gen. Robert Cone said the physical standards will be studied and set and be the same for men and women.
Cone said surveys of soldiers indicate they are willing to give women a chance in their fields, provided standards are not lowered. "We assure them we don't think that will be the case," Cone said.
The military services have several years to fully implement the order, but the plan will be executed incrementally so new jobs will open as the services make them available. Any jobs that the services want to remain off-limits to women will require the Defense secretary's approval.
President Obama said allowing women to serve in combat marks another step toward the country's founding ideals of fairness and equality. He said the decision will strengthen the U.S. military.
"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," he said.
Family Research Council Executive Vice President Jerry Boykin, a retired Army lieutenant general, said the Pentagon order is "another social experiment" that will burden military commanders unnecessarily.
"While much is made of new 'high-tech' forms of warfare, we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that ground combat still requires levels of sheer physical strength, speed and endurance that are relatively rare among women," Boykin said.
Pentagon policy restricting women from serving in combat on the ground was modified in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service. Women cannot be assigned below the brigade level - a unit of about 3,500 troops - to fight on the ground.
Effectively, that has barred women from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers and special-operations units of battalion size.
The services will have until January 2016 to implement the changes, Panetta said. The move comes as Panetta prepares to leave office. Obama has nominated Republican former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to take his place.
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Read the original story: Women, men must meet same combat standards in military