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Women in Combat: British Band of Brothers May Soon Be History

Commentary, 9 May 2014
Military Personnel, Europe
The UK’s Defence Secretary has brought forward a review into whether women can serve in combat roles. These roles are the last bastion of legalised military gender discrimination, reform may take some time.

The UK’s Defence Secretary has brought forward a review into whether women can serve in combat roles. These roles are the last bastion of legalised military gender discrimination, reform may take some time.

Women in combat rolesThe Defence Secretary’s announcement that the review into women’s service in ground combat is being brought forward from 2018 heralds yet another potential transformation for British armed forces. Dedicated ground combat roles – those that require troops to deliberately ‘close with and kill the enemy’[1] (for female troops are already on the front line in all manner of other roles) – are the last bastion of legalised military gender discrimination.

EU law requires the Ministry of Defence to report every eight years on the continuing necessity of exclusion, with the next due in 2018. Mandating Chief of the General Staff Sir Peter Wall to now review and report back by the close of 2014 is perhaps the clearest signal that the armed forces of 2020 are being envisaged as being a military wholly transformed from its Twentieth century incarnation.

In 2002, the Secretary of State for Defence’s report acknowledged that women were believed to be physically capable of performing in close combat roles, as well as having the necessary ‘capacity for aggression’, [2] but that it was the impact of gender mixing in small fighting units that was uncertain. Without compelling evidence, the risk of altering the status quo was deemed too great.[3]

The 2010 report followed similar lines, concluding the potential risks to the cohesion of small tactical teams if they were to become mixed gender prohibited any change to be made. Bringing forward the review means that army jobs in the Infantry, Royal Armoured Corps and Household Cavalry cannot take for granted the argument that the ‘band of brothers’ mentality, supposedly what makes them most operationally effective, will endure much longer. However, it is unclear whether in giving the review to Sir Peter the conclusions will only cover army roles. Royal Marine Commandos as well as the RAF Regiment are also male-only units, but it would be difficult to argue for a change in stance on gender in one, but not all, services.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s announcement suggested that social issues such as gender equality were being given consideration in the decision making process. Referencing the ‘macho image’ of the military, he talked of the signal being sent to women and society at large by perpetuating the exclusion of women who may actually meet all other standards for the job. For a modern, volunteer professional body, it is perhaps becoming more pressing for the military to reflect the society that it not only exists to protect, but also draws upon for support and recruits.

Growing research around the notion of social versus task cohesion has made strong arguments that, especially with the professionalisation of military forces, even without the ‘band of brothers’ interpersonal social bonds units can be just as, if not more successful in achieving mission outcomes. To that end, it suggests how the military chooses to train its personnel will make the difference between success and failure of mixed gender units.

Equality of Opportunity

It was made clear that standards for operational effectiveness could and would not be compromised in any way, and nor should they. What should be considered appropriate standards is a separate question. The rapid advancement of technology this century alone, coupled with changes to the conduct of warfare, have to be taken into account when examining what is required of each role. Some basics, such as physical strength, will persist, and Mr Hammond acknowledged the possibility that few, or even no women, may ultimately be able to meet the requirements. However, if an equality dimension is involved, it must surely be here in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. For those, however few, of the mentality and physicality to attain the required standards, a continued exclusion on the grounds of gender belies the maxim of employing the best there is for a job.

Gradual Implementation

Many will say the British policy change stems from their isolated stance on gender, with the US decision to alter its posture on women in combat in 2013, Australia in 2011, or Canada in 1989, the UK appears antiquated in its perspective. Furthermore, the 2010 report stated the UK would continue to monitor the experiences of other nations employing women in ground combat roles.

 The high profile under which the American transition is being conducted can only add to evidence the UK requires in order to make an informed decision. The Americans are recording the arguments, concerns and consequences of women’s physical capabilities and the abilities of male units to adapt, but also appear to be tackling underlying attitudes and mentalities that have made sexual harassment and abuse widespread.

All can contribute to British analysis. Crucially though, these nations instigated a cautious approach towards changing the gender policy. Australia is taking five years to implement its integration of women into combat arms roles; American politicians gave their military leaders three years, until 2016, to review and make the case for any roles that require a continuing exclusion. It is clear that if the UK goes down a similar road, the implementation of the policy should not simply be rushed in. British personnel – both male and female – deserve much more than a quick-fix policy enacted simply to meet a political whim.


[1] Ministry of Defence, Report on the Review of the Exclusion of Women from Ground Close-Combat Roles, November 2010.

[2] 22 May 2002 Cols 363W-364W; Annex D, MoD Report on the Review of the Exclusion of Women from Ground Close-Combat Roles, November 2010.

[3] Ibid.

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