Army sends women into front line

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The Independent Online
ARMED women soldiers are to be deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland after a historic change in Army regulations, the Independent on Sunday has learned. The change, in October, will mean that Army servicewomen with weapons will serve for the first time alongside men in combat conditions.

The women will drive armoured personnel carriers (APCs) throughout the province - including Belfast and Londonderry - where they will be at risk from rockets and landmines. If ambushed they will be expected to fight back using their SA80 assault rifles and pistols.

The decision to change policy, which was taken last month and is still classified as secret, is a result of the Army's attempts to introduce greater equality of opportunities.

Between 20 and 30 women will be among a squadron of about 270 soldiers from 8 Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps, which begins a tour of duty in Northern Ireland in the autumn. The squadron includes several women officers who will be in command of men and women. They include a woman lieutenant, a woman sergeant and two women corporals.

Next month the squadron starts special Northern Ireland training, which includes how to deal with riots, at a camp near Munster in Germany.

A senior defence source said: 'It's very exciting. This offers the young (woman) private soldier a genuine career path within the Army. For the first time they will be carrying weapons, the same as the men, wearing flak jackets which will have to be specially modified. And that's not a flippant remark - they will have to be designed specifically.

'They will be going into hard areas, with weapons; they will be in the same danger as men.'

The women will be deployed in a variety of support roles alongside men within the transport unit of the corps. This includes driving Saxon and Humber one-ton - known as 'pigs' - APCs and transporting infantry.

The Army's decision is likely to spark off fresh debate on whether women have the aggression and strength to kill and whether they should be put into duties where their lives are at risk. Last year four members of the Army were killed in Northern Ireland. So far two have died this year.

To allow equal opportunities within the transport unit, the Army has specifically altered the regulation that women are not to be deployed in any direct combat role. A senior defence source said: 'The British Army is now an equal opportunities employer. We've been offering females a complete career; it's not right to say we'll give you equal opportunities but you can't go to Northern Ireland.'

The women involved are said to be very excited at the opportunity, but have emphasised that it is only right that they should be treated equally. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the department could not comment on operational matters.

Large numbers of servicewomen already serve in non-combat roles in Northern Ireland, including members of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR), which incorporates the now defunct Ulster Defence Regiment. Unarmed women members of the RIR are used at some checkpoints.

The Government's defence white paper, published last year, said the MoD wanted to extend the role for women in all three armed services. A review is under way in the Army to see whether women should serve in the front line. It currently keeps closed certain employments to women, such as tank crew, artillery gun numbers and infantry rifle company posts.

In 1991 the Navy sent women to combat at sea in the Gulf war. The crews of all surface ships of the RN will include women by 1995. The RAF is allowing women officers to train for fast combat jets though none has yet qualified.

Today there are about 20,000 women, 7 per cent of the total, in the three services. In five years, women are expected to make up 10 per cent of the Army's strength.