Fallon backing women on front line
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has said he hopes women will be allowed to serve in British Army infantry and armoured units for the first time.
Following a Government-commissioned report's recommendation that close combat roles should be opened to women, Mr Fallon has ordered an 18-month review of training procedures and the physical demands of fighting to ensure that the change can be made without damaging female soldiers' health.
He denied that this would mean "weakening" the training of frontline troops to make allowances for women's physiques.
Mr Fallon said: "Roles in our Armed Forces should be determined by ability not gender. I hope that, following further work on our training regimes and equipment, we can open up combat roles to women in 2016.
"This is a further sign of our commitment to maximising our talent in a year which has already seen the Royal Navy employ its first female submariners and two women climb to the highest-ever ranks in the RAF."
Women are currently not allowed to join the ranks of the infantry and Armoured Corps but serve in a variety of combat roles across the forces, including fighter pilots, sailors and most recently, submariners.
Further research will evaluate the physical demands of fighting on the front line and how it may impact women's health, while training regimes to allow women to integrate will also be explored.
The MoD said the review had ended the view that women joining men in combat roles would have an "adverse effect on cohesion".
Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, who led the review, said: "I look forward to the prospect of opening ground close combat roles to women, but we have to look at this in a responsible way.
"Our aim must be to maximise the use of talent without compromising our standards or undermining capability."
But the proposal has met with concern and criticism from some senior military figures.
Major General Patrick Cordingley, a former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade - known as the "Desert Rats", said the move would be a "mistake".
He told the Daily Mail: "There is a political imperative. However, I think that it is a mistake from the armed forces.
"I can understand why politically it is a good thing to be seen to be doing - on the other hand, the practicalities of women in the infantry and armoured corps are considerable and should not be overlooked."
And Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander in Afghanistan, has previously said women lack the "killer instinct" necessary to fight in close combat.
He said: "Inclusion of women in the infantry is certain to result in a lowering of physical standards despite the inevitable denials that this will happen.
"This would damage the fighting capabilities of the armed forces. It would be harmful to the cohesion of the army because of the nature of the role."
Mr Fallon told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The review makes clear that there's no question mark over the cohesion of the unit, the overall effectiveness of the unit. Women can fight just as effectively as men. But we do need to make sure that the physical training regimes we have at the moment, which are designed for men, can be improved so that we can doubly check that they are just as effective for women."
Asked whether this would involve weakening the training programmes, he replied: "Not weakening at all. I think we can improve the way we conduct physical training, we can look again at some of the equipment they have to carry."
Mr Fallon pointed out that women were already accepted into police firearms units, and that female firefighters had to conduct arduous tasks including carrying heavy hoses.
And he added: "I hope to lift the ban, subject to some final research over the next year or so into the long-term effect on women of the training regimes. We have to make sure they are right. We have a duty of care to all our personnel, men and women and we have to make sure the infrastructure behind the training doesn't damage the women, who might be expected to carry very large equipment in close combat at close quarters.
"I think Army selection should be done on the basis of ability from now on, and not on the basis of gender.
"There are women involved in the armed services today. I met women submariners yesterday at Faslane, there are women flying fighter-bombers, Tornados, at the moment over Iraq.
"I don't think it's right now that we should exclude women from considering any role they want to apply for.
"Of course we accept that there are physiological differences. Women are on average slightly shorter, slightly smaller. That's why we've got to make sure that the physical training and the tests involved, don't discriminate against women, but equally don't damage the operational effectiveness of any unit."
Kevan Jones MP, Labour's shadow armed forces minister, said: "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.
"Labour had called for the ban on women serving in combat roles to be examined with a view to it being ended, and any moves towards that are welcome."
Former Army officer Ashley Merry said she did not welcome the move.
"Women are already on the front line doing a very real job very effectively," she said.
"I don't welcome this news that they are going to be considered for combat roles in the infantry, because in reality there's very few posts that are not open to women and women have moved so far in the armed forces."
She added: "I don't see why we are having to go this extra step because for the numbers involved I think it's really counter-productive when there are more important things that the Ministry of Defence and commanders should be concentrating on.
"At the moment we are living in such dangerous times. This is not the time to be experimenting with something new to be politically correct. If it's not broken why try and fix it? "
Colonel Mike Dewar - a military historian who served in Cyprus, Borneo and Northern Ireland - told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "Upper body strength in 99.9% of women does make it virtually impossible for them to pass the stringent physical tests which the infantry require.
"The battle fitness test requires you to pick up another man, with his rifle and equipment, and carry him in a fireman's lift 200 metres.
"If I happened to be next to a female in the battlefield, with a different frame to myself and weighing half as much as me, she would be totally incapable - and it's not her fault of course - of picking me up and carrying me 200 metres."
He added: "I think it's politically driven, and I happen to have spoken with something like seven or eight senior generals in the army recently, currently serving, and they think it is complete and utter and total madness."
Alison Baskerville, a war photographer who served with the RAF in Iraq and Afghanistan and a reservist photographer with the British Army, said: "It's interesting that the MoD has probably held this conclusion until next year, and I'm not surprised that they have because they obviously have a few things to test first - especially the physical side.
"But I think it is actually step forward and I hope that in 2016 this is going to be the start of a new era for the British infantry."
She added: "It really doesn't become about gender when people get into their roles.
"When they're in a firefight, if the platoon commander is screaming at them, whether they are a man or a woman, the soldiers will react."
But Ms Baskerville, who is writing a book about women in the armed forces, said "you will probably only get one woman who wants to join the infantry".