WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

Sen. Carl Levin, (D) Mich., made the following statement regarding Secretary Panetta's expected announcement lifting the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military:

"I support it. It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations."