WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army is considering putting female soldiers through Ranger School, an intense weeks-long combat boot camp that would put them on equal footing with male counterparts who have completed the training, the Army's top general said on Wednesday.
The move signals the Army may be edging closer to reversing a longstanding policy of barring women from combat roles. Women currently are not allowed to serve in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function is to engage in front-line combat.
"If we determine that we're going to allow women to go in the infantry and be successful, they are probably at some time going to have to go through Ranger School," Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno told reporters during a Pentagon briefing in Washington.
Odierno said no decision had been made and the Army was collecting data as the service sets "a course forward."
Army Rangers are rapidly deployable troops trained for mountain, desert and swamp terrain and often go after special operations targets.
There has been significant resistance in the United States to women serving in combat. However, since combat experience is a factor in promotions and job advancement in the military, women have had greater difficulty than men in moving up to the top ranks, officials have said.
Given that 90 percent of senior Army infantry officers were trained and qualified as Rangers, according to Odierno, sending women to the prestigious training school would allow them to better compete with their male counterparts.
Odierno also said the Army is considering whether to open up infantry and armor positions to women.
Rules laid out this year by the Pentagon have allowed women to serve as medics and intelligence officers in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, which puts them closer to combat.
More than 200 service women had begun reporting to maneuver battalions and combat teams this week and would continue to serve in them, likely until the fall, Odierno said.
Pentagon rules have attempted to shield women from combat, but the distinction is often lost in a war zone, experts have said.
Nearly 12 percent of U.S. forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were women. They represented about 2 percent of U.S. military deaths in those wars.
Reporting By Lily Kuo; Editing by Bill Trott