From Friday, the RAF Regiment – the air force’s ground fighting force for protecting air bases – will start accepting applications from women wanting to join the unit.
The historic move comes after the RAF Regiment, which sustained casualties in Afghanistan, confirmed that having reviewed its work practices it would be ready to accept women recruits ahead of its original 2018 schedule.
It means the RAF has become the first Armed Forces branch to admit women to all roles – ahead of the Army and the Royal Navy, which will start accepting female recruits for the Infantry and Royal Marines by the end of 2018.
The acceptance of women into ground close combat roles comes after David Cameron, then the Prime Minister, announced last year that the British military would overturn hundreds of years of tradition and let women serve “where the primary role is to close with and kill the enemy”.
This decision has attracted criticism from some former officers. As the RAF Regiment prepared to accept its first female applicants, Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, confirmed he remained “vehemently” opposed to allowing women into the Infantry.
He has previously written in The Telegraph that “the price for this social engineering experiment will be paid in blood”.
He said: “This extremely dangerous ... foolish move will reduce the capability of the Infantry, undermine our national defences and put lives in danger.
“The people who have demanded this change – politicians desperate to be seen as ‘progressive’, feminist zealots and ideologues hell-bent on equality of opportunity without exception – would never dream of volunteering.
“I have not heard a single serving or retired infantryman say that admitting women is the right thing to do – unless their wives or senior officers are listening.”
He added: “It has been my privilege to command many women and I have the utmost admiration for the contribution they make.
“But the tactics and equipment, and the demands placed upon the Infantry, are in their essentials unchanged in 100 years. Infantry soldiers must still be able to march for miles over harsh terrain in searing heat, bent under the weight of 100 pounds of combat equipment, and then fight face-to-face with a ruthless, tough and determined enemy.
“The continued need for extreme standards of physical fitness was reinforced time and again during the campaign in Helmand.
“The Army’s own research shows that women are twice as likely as men to suffer musculoskeletal injuries during military training.
“Through no fault of their own, women will often become the weak link in an Infantry team.”
However, former Army major Judith Webb defended the RAF Regiment’s move, and said women were “well capable” of combat roles.
She told the BBC: “We want to promote diversity and get the best people, and if we have got women who want to do it, who are capable of doing it, then of course they should be able to do it.”
The decision to allow women into ground close combat roles came after a review overseen by Sir Nick Carter, chief of the General Staff.
It stated that “few women would be able to achieve the pre-employment standards for ground close combat roles”.
The Army’s research had suggested that fewer than 5 per cent of its 7,000 women would pass its current infantry fitness test, and in 2014 the RAF Regiment had estimated it might accept about ten women a year.
It also accepted that female Army recruits were twice as likely to suffer musculoskeletal damage in training as men, and that the risks of such injuries were likely to increase during the more arduous Infantry training and on operations.
But the review also suggested a series of “mitigation strategies” that included improvements to injury prevention and physical training, and setting “robust” physical standards for all combat roles, for both men and women, by the end of 2018.
Senior officers also pointed out that women had already found themselves in combat situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the nature of the conflict effectively put them on the frontline even in non-combat jobs.
An earlier review, published in 2014, had already overturned the long-held belief that mixing men and women in close combat roles would adversely affect the togetherness of a unit.
Sir Nick Carter welcomed the lifting of the close combat ban, saying: “By allowing women to serve in all roles, we will truly help to maximise the talent available to the army and make the Armed Forces a modern employer.”
When Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon announced in July that the RAF Regiment planned to start recruiting women from September, he called it “a defining moment for the RAF”.
“A diverse force is a more operationally effective force,” he said. “I’m delighted that individuals who are capable of meeting the standards for the regiment will be given the opportunity to serve, regardless of their gender.”
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, added: “We want the best and most talented individuals to join the Air Force, regardless of their gender, race, or background.”
Women accepted into the RAF Regiment will not be the first females in the British Armed Forces to serve in ground close combat roles, because earlier this year the Royal Armoured Corps – part of the Army – started admitting women to such jobs.
The first female officer was commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment in April.
Women have also been flying in the RAF fast jet combat units since the 1990s.
Sally Cox, the first woman to pass through the RAF’s fast-jet flying training system, later told The Independent: “I was a trained killer. Transitioning from that to motherhood was a stretch.
“I got out [of the RAF] in enough time to recover. Another few years and I would have either not had children, or struggled to bond effectively with them.”
She warned: “I believe we set up our willing young men and women in the armed services for a lifetime of emotional disability that impacts any families they become part of, all in the name of loyalty to the Crown.
“They don’t make the decision to kill. It is made for them. They just follow instructions and suffer the consequences.”
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