The U.S. Army's top officer said he expects between 70 and 80 women to apply to become the first-ever female students at Ranger School.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno cited the figures on Wednesday during an interview at Atlantic Media's Defense One conference in Washington, D.C.

When asked how many women will apply to the historically all-male combat training course, Odierno said, "We're still waiting to see. By December-January, we'll know the number of women who have asked to actually participate in Ranger School. I expect it will be somewhere around 70 or 80."

Like the other military services, the Army must open all combat jobs to women by 2016 or seek a waiver and explain why any must remain closed. The Pentagon last year lifted its ban on women serving in such roles, but gave the services time to integrate female troops into male-only front-line positions.

The Army recently picked 31 women -- 11 officers and 20 noncommissioned officers -- to undergo training to become observers and advisers for the course, most of which takes place at Fort Benning, Georgia. The punishing two-month ordeal is designed to train future infantry leaders. More than three dozen women had applied for the positions.

The so-called observer-advisers underwent a week of modified training last week to give them a sense of what the program is like so they can work alongside male instructors and help observe the female students selected for the first-ever co-ed class, known as the Ranger Course Assessment, tentatively scheduled for this spring.

"Their performance and professionalism over the course of the week was extraordinary," Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, said of the women, according to a release posted on Fort Benning's Facebook page. "This group did very well for what was a very physically challenging week for any soldier."

Women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military's 1.3 million active-duty service members, according to Pentagon statistics. As of August, there were almost 71,000 female soldiers in the Army's active component, which is the largest of any branch and totals some 510,000 soldiers.

While the vast majority of jobs in the Army are open to women of various ranks – enlisted, officer and warrant officer – less than 10 percent of infantry, special operations and security forces positions in the service are open to female enlisted personnel, and less than half of tactical operations positions are open to female officers, according to a 2012 report to Congress.

Service officials hinted that the number of women actually interested in applying for combat assignments will be relatively small.

NATO countries that have opened infantry jobs and similar positions to women report that only about 1 percent of potential female recruits apply for the jobs, Col. Linda Sheimo, who works for the Army's human resources policy directorate, has said. What's more, if the U.S. military fully integrates women into all jobs, the services' various recruiting offices will vie to recruit that small subset of the population, she said.

"Unfortunately, all of us will be competing for those same women," Sheimo said.

Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, among others, are expected to make a decision sometime after Jan. 1 on whether to approve the plan to allow female soldiers to enroll in Ranger School.

On Wednesday, Odierno said the service plans to finish by spring or summer assessments to determine the feasibility of opening engineering, artillery, armor and infantry jobs to women.

"It's going very well," he said. "We still have some final assessments to do. For me, it's about talent management. We need to take the best, no matter who you are, if you're qualified. We're not going to lower the standards. If you can meet the standard, we should give them the capability to service."

Any would-be female student who has the support of her chain of command can apply to Ranger School by Dec. 1. Women selected for the highly competitive slots will be identified in January, Sheimo said. The Army has published online detailed information about the application process.

The Ranger Course Assessment will be open to all women in the grades E-4 through O-4 whose end term of service, or ETS, is no earlier than Oct. 1, 2016, according to All-Army Activities, or Alaract, notices about the proposal.

Similar to the current process, earning a Ranger tab will not automatically move a soldier into the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army's special operations unit.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@monster.com