The U.S. Air Force will soon begin evaluating physical standards as the service moves toward opening direct-combat jobs in special operations to women.

Air Force leaders are considering opening six career fields currently closed to women ranging from para-rescue jumper to combat controller.

About 99 percent of the positions within the Air Force are already inclusive of women, according to an Air Force press release. The current study is working to open the last 1 percent, which amounts to a little more than 4,300 special operations positions.

The testing is slated to take place at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas and include about 200 male and female volunteers.

"The Air Force is using a scientific approach to directly tie and validate standards to mission requirements," said Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of Military Force Management Policy. "This testing and evaluation phase will develop the final physical test components that best predict operational success for these specific career fields."

The effort is a result of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's January 2013 directive that all services open combat-arms roles to women that so far have been reserved for men. The services have until 2016 to make this happen.

The Air Force announced the test the same week that 19 female soldiers entered the first co-ed class of Army Ranger School. Sixteen of those females made it beyond the first-day pre-requisite physical requirements.

"This effort marks the most stringent process yet by which we are developing occupationally specific physical standards, scientifically measured against operational requirements to match mission needs," Kelly said. "All the services and United States Special Operations Command are working with various scientific and research agencies to review occupational standards to ensure they are specific and current, operationally relevant and are gender neutral."

"This is not about raising or lowering occupational standards," Kelly added. "The key is to ensure we have set the right standards for the occupation based on mission requirements."

The Air Force is considering opening up the following career fields to women:

  1. Special tactics officer – These are commissioned officers that specialize in controlling combat search and rescue/personnel recovery operations as well as employing battlefield trauma care and fire support air assets for special operations and tactical weather observations and forecasting.
  2. Special operations weather personnel -- Enlisted airmen who work to accurately assess meteorological conditions in hostile and denied territory. They gather data on oceans, rivers, snow, and terrain, advise during mission planning, and tailor meteorological reports for specific missions to support global special operations. They use ground and unmanned aerial sensors to collect data, and deploy by land, see, or air as the mission necessitates.
  3. Combat controllers --  Enlisted personnel tasked with the mission to deploy, undetected, into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields, while simultaneously conducting missions such as air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action and special reconnaissance.
  4. Combat rescue officer – Commissioned officers that deploy as team member, team leader, or mission commander on personnel recovery operations.
  5. Para-rescue jumper – Enlisted personnel trained to parachute, scuba dive, rock climb or even snowmobile into hostile territory to help downed and wounded airmen.
  6. Tactical air control party specialists – Enlisted personnel that embed with Army and Marine units to call-in air strikes on enemy targets.

"Ultimately, the initiative to eliminate any remaining gender-based assignment restrictions will improve our readiness and the Air Force's ability to recruit and retain the most effective and qualified force," said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com