Still, as recent surveys and experiences have shown, it will not be an easy transition. When the Marine Corps sought women to go through its tough infantry course last year, two volunteered and both failed to complete the course. And there may not be a wide clamoring from women for the more intense, dangerous and difficult jobs -- including some infantry and commando positions.
In the Navy, however, women have begun moving into the submarine force, with several officers already beginning to serve.
Two lawsuits were filed last year challenging the Pentagon's ban on women serving in combat, adding pressure on officials to overturn the policy. And the military services have been studying the issue and surveying their forces to determine how it may affect performance and morale.
The Joint Chiefs have been meeting regularly on the matter and they unanimously agreed to send the recommendation to Panetta earlier this month.
A senior military official familiar with the discussions said the chiefs concluded this was an opportunity to maximize women's service in the military. The official said the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps laid out three main principles to guide them as they move through the process:
* That they were obligated to maintain America's effective fighting force.
* That they would set up a process that would give all service members, men and women alike, the best chance to succeed.
* That they would preserve military readiness.
Part of the process, the official said, would allow time to get female service members in leadership and officer positions in some of the more difficult job classifications in order to help pave the way for female enlisted troops.
Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 who have been killed, 152 have been women.
The senior military official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.
Changing the rules for a potential future draft would be a difficult proposition. The Supreme Court has ruled that because the Selective Service Act is aimed at creating a list of men who could be drafted for combat -- and women are not in combat jobs -- American women aren't required to register upon turning 18 as all males are.
If combat jobs open to women, Congress would have to decide what to do about that law.