LONDON – Britain’s female soldiers could soon battle enemy forces in face-to-face combat, if a ban on women serving in the most dangerous warfare roles is lifted for the first time.
In keeping with a wider overhaul of equality laws in Britain, military officials are considering whether to allow female troops to be deployed with previously all-male units on perilous missions behind enemy lines.
Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth said a new study will decide whether to lift a long-standing ban on female soldiers, sailors and air force personnel taking part in close quarter combat.
The review comes amid an examination of gender equality across British society, including moves to expose pay gaps between men and women and to encourage affirmative action.
Britain last reviewed the role of female troops in 2002, when officials concluded that women were less able to carry heavy loads, more prone to injury and had a lower capacity for aggression than men. It said single-gender units also were likely to bond better and work more effectively.
But Brig. Richard Nugee said experience of wars in recent years meant those assumptions needed to be tested again.
“The real point is that we now have practical experience of women in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we want to see, genuinely want to see, what effect that will have on our military,” he told the BBC. “This is a very open-minded review. We have no conclusions yet.”
Only Israel and the former Soviet Union have deployed women as combat troops in modern history, though Israel hasn’t sent women into front line fighting since 1948.
The United States doesn’t allow women to serve in infantry or special forces units.
British women played a prominent role in the Second World War, joining auxiliary units of the regular armed forces and serving as officers with the clandestine Special Operations Executive, members of which were deployed behind enemy lines to disrupt or gather intelligence on the enemy.
Britain’s Defence Ministry said that around 18,000 women currently serve in the country’s armed forces, out of a total of around 188,000 personnel.