The U.S. Armed Forces will no longer ban women from serving in front-line combat roles, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

"As secretary of defense, I know that opening more opportunities to our most qualified men and women in uniform strengthens our ability to fight and to win the nation's wars," he said at the Pentagon's official observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The decision to end the 20-year-old prohibition opens more than 230,000 posts to women.

"Every person in today's military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die for our nation's defense," Panetta said. "Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out their assigned missions. Everyone deserves that chance."

President Barack Obama fully supports the policy change, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

Panetta, who plans to step down once the Senate confirms his successor, set a deadline of January 2016 for the service chiefs to submit arguments for keeping some positions off-limits to women.

Several female service members filed lawsuits last year challenging the ban on women in combat units and the Pentagon had already begun to relax the restrictions prior to this week's announcement.

Women make up 205,000 of the 1.4 million people currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. EFE