WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military is ending its policy of excluding women from combat and will "expeditiously" open front-line units to female troops, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday.
Women already are on the front lines overseas despite an official ban on combat, "and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.
"The fact is, they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission, and for more than a decade of war they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism," Panetta said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the decision would be implemented "over time and with careful analysis." But he said the service chiefs were unanimous in their support for the move.
Officials told CNN on Wednesday that not every position will open all at once. Once the policy is changed, the Department of Defense will enter what is being called an "assessment phase," in which each branch of service will examine all its jobs and units not currently integrated and then produce a timetable for integrating them.
The Army and Marine Corps, especially, will be examining physical standards and gender-neutral accommodations within combat units. Every 90 days, the service chiefs will have to report on their progress.
The move is one of the last significant policy decisions made by Panetta, who is expected to leave in mid-February. It is not clear where former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the nominated replacement, stands, but officials say he has been apprised of Panetta's coming announcement.
"It will take a while to work out the mechanics in some cases. We expect some jobs to open quickly, by the end of this year. Others, like special operations forces and infantry, may take longer," a senior defense official explained. Panetta is setting the goal of January 2016 for all assessments to be complete and women to be integrated as much as possible.
And the Pentagon has left itself some wiggle room that may ultimately lead to some jobs being designated as closed to women. A senior defense official said if, after the assessment, a branch finds that "a specific job or unit should not be open, they can go back to the secretary and ask for an exemption to the policy, to designate the job or unit as closed."
The official said the goal remains to open as many jobs as possible. "We should open all specialties to the maximum extent possible to women. We know they can do it."
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