The U.S. public solidly backs the decision to allow women to serve in combat units, but is unsure whether the change is major or minor, according to a poll released on Tuesday.
According to the survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Washington Post, 66% said they support allowing women in the military to serve in ground units that engage in close combat, compared with 26% who said they oppose the changed policy announced last week by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. The breakdown is about the same from a Washington Post/ABC poll two years ago.
But the public split evenly at 47% between those who thought the policy was a major or minor change, according to the survey.
The poll was conducted among 1,005 adults between Thursday and Sunday -- after Panetta announced the new policy. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Panetta said Wednesday that the military would end the ban, a move that had been expected in part because of the growing number of women who have already served in combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new policy opens up thousands of front-line positions for women and likely increases their opportunities for advancement.
Opponents say allowing women to have a greater combat role could hurt military effectiveness. But 49% of those surveyed rejected that idea, saying the change would not make much of a difference in military effectiveness.
Of those who said it would have an impact on effectiveness, 29% said it would improve it while 15% said it would decrease it.
The was no real difference between men's and women's responses, but there was a difference by age. Older Americans were less supportive of the change than younger ones. Among those 65 and older, 52% said they support the change while 36% said they were opposed. Of those younger than 50, 72% said they supported allowing women to serve in combat roles.
The policy change was supported across the political spectrum, though it varied by political party. About 76% of Democrats and 65% of independents said they support allowing women to serve in combat units. A smaller majority of Republicans -- 55% -- said they favored the change.