We should think again about letting women fight on the front line – and give them career breaks to raise families, says head of the Army
Sir Peter Wall said terms of service should allow soldiers to ‘dip in and out’
Said Army ‘not very good’ at making it easy for women to have families
Review of women in combat due by 2018 – Amy has 7,500 female soldiers
U.S. to lift ban on women in combat and starts in Australia in 2016
The Army should let women soldiers take career breaks to raise families and consider allowing them to fight on the front line, the Chief of the General Staff said yesterday.
The Army’s most senior officer also opened the prospect that the Army may ease its last restrictions on women taking their place in front-line fighting. Women remain excluded from the infantry and from tank crews.
He said he wanted to show women that the army was ‘open’ and an equal opportunities employer.
A review of the role of women in combat is due before 2018, and comes at a time when other Western armies are moving to allow women soldiers into all roles.
Australia will open all units to women at the beginning of 2016, and the US last year removed its official ban on women in combat roles.
On allowing more flexible terms of service Sir Peter said: ‘That would be particularly important for females who want to take a break to have families,’ he said.
‘We’re not very good at making it easy for talented women who want to have a family and sustain a service career. If we were better at that we’d have a better Army.’
Sir Peter remained guarded about the possibility of women in hand-to-hand fighting but said in an interview with the Army’s Soldier magazine: ‘We are in a minority of armies now in that respect.
Troop numbers are to be cut from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020, with the shortfall to be made up by the recruitment of 35,000 reservists. Last week a senior general, Sir Richard Shirreff, described the scheme as ‘a hell of a risk’.
A flexible working contract for women soldiers could both boost recruitment by bringing mothers back into the ranks after a few years raising children, and help maintain a trained reserve of women with families.
Such a reserve force would, however, risk controversy if mothers with young families were called up in a crisis.
The idea comes at a time when mothers of young are routinely expected to work in civilian life and Government policies are bent on providing cheap childcare to encourage them to do so.
Sir Peter Wall, pictured here with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, said: ‘This isn’t just about getting more females into the 30 per cent of roles that are combat trades but getting more of them into the Army’
Sir Peter said: ‘Our engagement with British society is important in making sure the service is supported by the public and well manned.
He added that the withdrawal of British troops from Germany, due for completion next year, will be conducted in a family-friendly manner.
Soldiers, he said, ‘if they are married, rely on more than one income to achieve the lifestyle they want. It’s difficult to do that if you are moving back and forth to Germany on a regular basis.
‘The military covenant will give our families more surety about plugging into local health and education services in British communities and all this adds up to more stability for our personnel.
The Army currently has 7,500 women soldiers, who serve with the artillery and engineers in front-line roles
Sir Peter said of the Army strength reductions: ‘Those were, essentially, economic choices made by the Government. We are not doing this because the threats to British interests around the world are diminishing.
‘We’ve got to be absolutely honest about our capability and the Army 2020 structure delivers most of what we can currently do, albeit with slightly less resilience.’
The Army currently has 7,500 women soldiers, who serve with the artillery and engineers in front-line roles. Women fly as fighter pilots as well as taking more traditional female duties as medics and intelligence officers. In the Royal Navy, the first women who will be allowed to serve as submariners are now in training.
Sir Peter said: ‘We have always said that we will look at the evidence and base our decision on what impact it will have on operational capability.
‘Women need to see they have equal opportunities right throughout the organisation. Allowing them to be combat troops would make us look more normal to society but there will always be people who say the close battle is no place for female soldiers.’
Opponents of women in combat roles make two central objections. The first is that the physical strength of women is insufficient for hand-to-hand fighting of the kind occasionally demanded of infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The second is that in combat male soldiers would be likely to try to protect or help wounded women comrades, distracting them from their main job of trying to kill the enemy.