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 World War II, 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 defense ministry said that around 18,000 women currently serve in the U.K.'s armed forces, out of a total of around 188,000 personnel. Scores of women are deployed along front lines, carrying out dangerous tasks such as attack helicopter pilots and medics — but none are involved in infantry missions to track and kill enemy forces.
Since the 1990s, women have been able to serve on ships and as air crew, but are not permitted to work on submarines.
Ainsworth said the new review is legally required under European Union equality laws, but is chiefly an attempt to learn lessons from recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study will interview troops who've served in mixed-gender teams and their commanders to assess the impact on their work.
But he confirmed the study won't consider lifting the ban on women serving aboard submarines.
Some former senior officers believe physiological factors — the fact that female troops typically are not as strong as male counterparts — mean rules should remain in place.
If the ban was lifted "there would be concerns that operational effectiveness, particularly in the infantry, could be and probably would be jeopardized," said Gen. Mike Jackson, a former head of the British army.Reuse content