WOMEN could be serving in frontline combat roles with Britain’s armed forces by 2016.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said he hoped women would be allowed to serve in British Army infantry and armoured units for the first time after the move was recommended by a Government-commissioned report.
But he has ordered an 18-month review of training procedures and the physical demands of fighting to ensure that the change can be made without damaging female soldiers’ health.
Mr Fallon said: “Roles in our Armed Forces should be determined by ability not gender. I hope that, following further work on our training regimes and equipment, we can open up combat roles to women in 2016.
“This is a further sign of our commitment to maximising our talent in a year which has already seen the Royal Navy employ its first female submariners and two women climb to the highest-ever ranks in the RAF.”
Women are currently not allowed to join the ranks of the infantry and Armoured Corps but serve in a variety of combat roles across the forces, including fighter pilots, sailors and most recently, submariners.
Further research will evaluate the physical demands of fighting on the front line and how it may impact women’s health, while training regimes to allow women to integrate will also be explored.
The MoD said the review had ended the view that women joining men in combat roles would have an “adverse effect on cohesion”.
Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, who led the review, said: “I look forward to the prospect of opening ground close combat roles to women, but we have to look at this in a responsible way.
“Our aim must be to maximise the use of talent without compromising our standards or undermining capability.”
But the proposal has met with concern and criticism from some senior military figures.
Major General Patrick Cordingley, a former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade - known as the “Desert Rats”, said: “There is a political imperative. However, I think that it is a mistake from the armed forces.
“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.”
Alison Baskerville, a war photographer who served with the RAF in Iraq and Afghanistan and a reservist photographer with the British Army, said: “It’s interesting that the MoD has probably held this conclusion until next year, and I’m not surprised that they have because they obviously have a few things to test first - especially the physical side.
“But I think it is actually step forward and I hope that in 2016 this is going to be the start of a new era for the British infantry.”
Labour had called for the ban on women in combat roles to be reviewed.
Kevan Jones,, Labour’s Shadow Armed Forces Minister, said: “We should be proud of the role played by women in our armed forces.
“Many of them already serve on the front line as medics, engineers, intelligence officers, fighter pilots and submariners.”