Army poised to put women in front line

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Defence Correspondent

The Army is considering sending women into the front line with its tank and infantry units - the only regiments from which they are still largely excluded, it was disclosed yesterday.

MPs have said they want a full parliamentary debate before a final decision. Women already serve on Navy warships and as jet pilots in the Royal Air Force, but a decision on their wider employment in the Army could also lead to their being allowed to serve in the Royal Marines' commando units.

Women currently make up 7 per cent of the British armed forces and the Ministry of Defence is reviewing the jobs they are allowed to do with the aim of widening employment opportunities.

A report on manning and recruitment by the all-party Commons Defence Committee, published yesterday, welcomed the review, which is due to report in the summer. But it recommended that "the complex legal and social issues" should be debated before any decision is finally taken to deploy women in the armoured regiments and infantry "in contact battle".

The wider employment of women would help the Army meet its extensive commitments at a time when it is short of 2,500 infantrymen. At present, 47 percent of the posts in the Army are open to women. Women already serve in other fighting arms, including the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Logistic Corps.

They also serve on board all the Navy's surface warships, which are ready to go to war at any time. The only obstacle to women serving on submarines is the lack of privacy, but the provision of suitable facilities will be considered as part of the design of the next generation of submarines in about three years' time.

Women can now serve as aircrew in all three services. The RAF has 12 qualified female pilots; the Army three women flying Lynx and Gazelle heli- copters.

The main obstacle to employing women in front-line tank and infantry roles has been perceptions of their physical strength. The Army has commissioned a study by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) in order to develop a series of tests designed to determine whether individual women would be able to carry heavy loads over long distances - one of the essential elements of front-line combat. The first trials with the new tests on 214 men and 106 women were completed on 15 December last year.

A new high-level military command will take charge of the planning and execution of military operations involving all three services from next week, the Secretary of State for Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, announced yesterday.

Later this year it will also take command of the new Joint Rapid Deployment Force, which will include the 3rd Commando Brigade, based on the Royal Marines and the 5th Airborne Brigade, supported by the SAS, the Special Boat Service, an armoured battle group and sea and air forces.

It was also announced that the SAS will move from its present base in Hereford to a nearby site. The old base at Stirling Lines is too small and 22 SAS Regiment is to move to the former RAF station at Credenhill in the next three years.