In Depth

Women soldiers 'will be in combat roles by 2016'

Women may soon be fighting on the front line – but is that good for them or the defence of the realm?

A British Army review into the existing ban on female soldiers serving in close combat situations means they could be fighting on the front line beside their male counterparts by the year 2016.

A report released this morning has concluded there would be no "adverse effect" on troop cohesion if women were allowed to join their ranks. It had been feared relationships would form between women and men, disrupting unit dynamics.

The report says more investigation is needed of the "physiological demands" of the role - but defence minister Michael Fallon said he hoped that "subject to some final research over the next year or so" the change would be introduced, the BBC reports.

Fallon told the BBC's Today programme: "Army selection should be done on the basis of ability from now on, not on the basis of gender."

Government ministers have been pushing for the change because it is "difficult to justify a continued ban on combat roles when it has already been abolished by most of Britain's closest military allies, including America, Australia and Canada", explains the Daily Telegraph.

It points out that women have already ended up facing the same dangers as their male counterparts in Afghanistan, where the guerrilla nature of the conflict meant there was no clearly-defined front line.

The Daily Mail quoted Labour MP John Woodcock, who is a member of the defence select committee. Reacting to the report, he said: "This is a challenging but hugely welcome step forward that will help make our armed forces the very best they can be.

"Keeping our country safe is too important to exclude anyone who can play a role – that means giving women the chance to serve on the front line in addition to all the other ways in which they are excelling already in the forces."

However, retired officer Major General Patrick Cordingley - who commanded the Desert Rats during the first Gulf War - told the Mail the change would be a "mistake". He said: "I can understand why politically it is a good thing to be seen to be doing – on the other hand, the practicalities of women in the infantry and armoured corps are considerable and should not be overlooked.

"Being in a fighting unit, you need to concentrate on the enemy, you don't want distractions looking after women, which inevitably you will do. It is a diversion."

Overturning the ban has been under discussion for some time. Writing for The Guardian in May this year, Barbara Ellen raised doubts about the change.

Ellen was concerned that women might struggle to pass the fitness tests required of men - leading either to few being accepted, or to a different fitness test being introduced, which would cause them to be seen as second-class soldiers.

She also worried that women would become more conspicuous targets on the front line, particularly against an enemy with a less gender-equal culture, such as the Taliban.

Ellen wrote: "In countries where even female education is opposed, it seems obvious that female combat personnel would be targeted... they could be more exposed and vulnerable than their male counterparts."​

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