U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday that he is lifting barriers to women in all military occupations, without exception.
The decision means women will now be able to drive tanks, lead infantry soldiers into combat and become members of special forces such as Army Delta units and Navy SEALs that have until now been exclusively staffed by men.
Carter directed all military services to open all occupations to women within 30 days, the waiting period required by law, and to provide their plans for integration by that date.
“To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country's talents and skills,” Carter said at a press conference Thursday. “We have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our standards.”
The defense secretary couched his announcement as part of a long-term evolution within the U.S. military, from opening military academies to women in 1975 to allowing women to fly fighter jets in 1993.
Carter addressed the tension between the rights of the individual versus the need for the military to perform at its best. He was adamant that mission effectiveness is of primary importance, and that jobs will only be open to people who can meet the standards for each occupation.
He also cautioned that full integration of women into the armed forces would not mean an even distribution of men and women across all fields.
“For a variety of reasons, equal opportunity will likely not mean equal participation by men and women in all specialties," he said. "There must be no quotas or perception thereof.”
Carter noted that the Marine Corps has expressed reservations about allowing women into every position in its forces, asking "for a partial exception in some areas such as infantry, machine gunner, fire support, reconnaissance."
But he said his decision would cover the entire U.S. military. “We are a joint force,” he said.
He said that the Marine Corps' concerns would be addressed through a careful implementation of the change.
Though Carter's announcement is historic, the policy change has been in the works for more than two years. In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a directive that all positions be opened to qualified women by Jan. 1, 2016.
Until now, nearly 220,000 positions have remained closed to women, Carter said.
It is unclear how Carter’s decision will affect selective service, or conscription into the armed forces. Carter said that it might have some effect, but that this question is currently a matter of legal dispute and in the process of litigation.
Thursday’s announcement comes in a year in which several major decisions have come down that affect women in the military.
The Air Force announced in July that it would double the length of its deferment for assessing the fitness of new mothers from six months to a year after they give birth, and that it would also extend deployment deferment for new mothers from six months to one year.
In August, the Navy tripled its maternity leave from six weeks to 18 weeks.
In September, the Army decided to open its elite Ranger school to all genders. Two women — Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver — in August became the first women to graduate from Ranger school. Carter's announcement Thursday means that positions in the Rangers force will now be open to these women.
“The military has long prided itself on being a meritocracy,” Carter said. “That’s why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known. And it’s one other way we will strive to ensure the force of the future remains so, long into the future.”