Past Time for British Forces to Open Combat Roles to Women

Female officer cadets at the Sovereign's parade at Sandhurst. Photo by Getty Images.
Female officer cadets at the Sovereign's parade at Sandhurst. Photo by Getty Images.

Canada has recently appointed their first female general from the combat arms trade. The UK meanwhile is yet to take the decision to allow women to serve in ground close combat roles, and while a decision is expected in 2016, it is still yet to actually be made. When that decision is finally taken, it will mark an important milestone for the British army, as it continues to adjust to meet both the operational requirements of today and the values and expectations of the society it serves.

There are clear advantages to broadening the recruitment pool, as without a diverse pool of talent from which to draw, the army risks being hampered by how effectively it can engage and operate at all levels. These arguments have clearly been acknowledged and understood by a number of other countries already. Both the US and Indian armies decided this year to remove restrictions to allow women to serve in combat roles. Similar policies are already in place in several countries including Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Estonia, Poland, Eritrea and Sweden. In the UK just 71 per cent of roles in the British army are open to women, a statistic that will now signify a point of difference between the UK and some of its closest allies.

While the armed forces are exempt from the Equality Act 2010 on the basis of combat effectiveness, the operational requirements of conflicts today suggest that this exemption may in fact become its own hindrance to combat effectiveness. The UK military increasingly works as partners in coalition forces, an approach that was articulated specifically in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015. To do this the UK military talks a lot about interoperability, a reference usually made to equipment and aircraft carriers, however it may prove a useful means of framing the army’s requirement to diversify and increase the role of women. NATO, the US, Germany and France, all specifically identified as key allies in the SDSR, all now permit women to fight in combat roles.

At best it could be perceived as inconsistent to recognize the abilities of other nations women to fight in combat roles alongside the British army but not within it, and at worst it could be perceived as an indictment of those female soldiers abilities if the arguments of some of the detractors are to be believed. The British army however needs to be able to credibly and effectively operate as an ally or coalition partner − and that will now inevitably mean being able to communicate, command and follow female counterparts within coalition military structures, in operational environments that are more and more being shaped by women.

As the role of women becomes more pronounced and visible across society then so too will their impact on the battleground.  Just as the battleground has shifted from the remote frontlines of 20th century warfare to a more urban environment, so too has society’s understanding of the potential and capacity of women to engage and influence those frontlines. The requirement for the armed forces to better understand and better adapt its strategy to effectively combat the threats and challenges of this new environment will require them to think differently, plan differently and execute their operations differently. Increased diversity within the forces, of which improved gender parity is a component, will bring a necessary level of nuance and complexity to analysis and understanding of contemporary conflicts that will give them an operational advantage when planning and implementing combat strategy.

It will also allow the army to attract the best and brightest candidates to fill the full range of its positions. Preventing women from reaching their potential within an organization will deter them from applying.  This is reflected in the statistics, with women only constituting 9 per cent of the army’s regular forces, and less than 12 percent of its officers. With a reported 66,860 more women on degree courses than men currently in the UK, the army is exempting itself from a lot of potential talent.

Increasing the number and role of women in the British army is not about political correctness but about staying relevant, both when deployed internationally but also at home. As one of the largest employers in the UK, the British army is an integral component of the country’s identity and as such an exemplar for the UK’s national values and beliefs. It is therefore of even greater significance that the army reflects and upholds the stated core values of the UK government, including equality of opportunity.

Hannah Bryce joined Chatham House as the manager of the International Security Department in September 2013.

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