LONDON: British Defence secretary Philip Hammond signalled that women will be eligible to serve in combat roles in the British army for the first time.
The British military has long resisted having women on the frontline, with one survey three years ago dismissing the move on the grounds that women would be a distraction to male soldiers.
But Hammond announced that he had ordered a review, noting that the Americans, French, Australians, Canadians and Israelis have women in combat roles.
Speaking at a parliamentary press lunch, Hammond said he had been planning to leave the review until the end of the year, after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but decided to bring it forward after concluding that the lack of women in combat roles sent the wrong signal about gender in the armed forces.
The speeding up of the review combined with Hammond’s positive tone suggests that it is almost certain that the ban on women in combat units will be lifted.
He told reporters that it may turn out that women might not have the physical strength for combat duties. He had just returned from Afghanistan where troops on patrol searching for hidden explosive devices regularly carried 63kg loads. The point, Hammond said, was that the criteria for combat should be physical fitness, not gender.
The US ended its ban on women serving in combat roles in the marines and army in January. Hammond said his review would look at whether women could serve in the infantry and the armoured corps. There was no resistance on the part of senior military staff, with the only concern over physical fitness.
“I think that at a time when the Americans, the Australians, the Canadians, even the French — the Israelis of course for years — have women in their combat arms this is something we have to look at again,” he said.
“Not because there are thousands of women desperate to join the combat arms, but because the message that the Army is not fully open to women who can meet the fitness and other requirements — the message that sends to women who might be looking to join other parts of our military.”
Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker welcomed the review. “We should be proud of the role played by women in our armed forces. Many of them already serve on the front line as medics, engineers, intelligence officers, fighter pilots and submariners,” Coaker said.
“The armed forces should give the same opportunities to women as it does to men and this move will hopefully ensure that becomes the case.”
In a separate move, Hammond for the first time said that Scottish independence would mean the removal of the Trident base at Faslane on the Clyde as well as the Coulport base in Argyll. He put an estimate on this for the first time, saying it would cost billions of pounds. His comment is a departure from the normal British government line that there is no contingency planning for Scottish independence because the government claims it does not anticipate such a move.
Hammond said that the shift from Faslane and Coulport would take a decade, in contrast to the Scottish government which said it could be completed by 2015. Asked about the discrepancy, Hammond said timing would be a matter for negotiation.