Should women and transgender soldiers have a combat role in the British Army?

British Army female soldier

At a time when the role of women in close combat is still under review Lieutenant General Andrew Gregory, deputy chief of defence staff (personnel and training) acknowledged that transgender soldiers could serve in the British infantry in close combat roles stating that men who became women might still be eligible for such roles.

Lieutenant General Gregory was quoted by LGBT news outlet PinkNews as saying:

“We have (transgender people) serving as I’m sure you know. We do not yet have any … transgender (women) serving in the infantry. We haven’t had to address it because we haven’t had the issue come up. It would be a very interesting test case if it did come up. If somebody, birth gender male, who physically has all the physical strength and durability but had transitioned (to female), they might well be able.”

Gregory’s words are very interesting and obviously well considered. He is repeating the Army’s old “party line” regarding women in combat that women do not have the physical strength of men which makes them unsuitable for a combat role however soldiers who are female by choice may still posses that strength and therefore be eligible for a combat role. This has been something hotly debated on both sides of the argument with feminists and female athletes especially arguing against the Army’s attitude that women are physically inferior. Lieutenant General Gregory’s views also show a certain lack of knowledge regarding the transgender process as he still makes the distinction that the soldier would still have primarily male attributes despite the hormonal replacement therapy required for such a process which in effect feminizes the individual and therefore makes them more in line with female soldiers.

Last December, defence secretary Michael Fallon said that women could, in principle, serve in roles that involve close combat but that a final decision would only be made after sufficient research into whether women could complete required physical tests is carried out. Such tests include carrying heavy loads over long distances the importance of which was reaffirmed by the British Army during the 1982 Falklands War when the loss of heavylift helicopters in combat forced British soldiers and marines to make a superhuman effort to carry all their equipment in to combat. Many men suffered injuries from the sheer weight of their packs as they literally had to carry everything they needed from weapons down to food. There has long been those in the Army’s hierarchy that argue that women could not make a similar undertaking should such a need arise again.

What worries many campaigners is that both Gregory and Fallon’s words are quite stereotyping in nature as both make generalising comments regarding women’s abilities. They point out that both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have had women in combat for quite some time but even this has caused friction with the Army’s views. In 2006 Major James Loden of 3 Para said to British newspapers that during combat operations in Afghanistan;

“A female Harrier pilot ‘couldn’t identify the target’, fired two phosphorus rockets that just missed our own compound so that we thought they were incoming RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and then strafed our perimeter missing the enemy by 200 metres,”

Major Loden made the remarks when listing numerous grievances the Army apparently had with the RAF but what is worrying is that he specifically pointed out the pilot’s gender. He therefore implied (perhaps unintentionally but certainly subconsciously) that the pilot’s gender was a factor in her inability to find the target for he never referred to any male pilots by their gender.

So why does the Army seem so reluctant to allow women to serve on the frontline?

As pointed out by both Fallon and Gregory the main reason is physical abilities but how long will this wash with women who want to fight for their country. In a meritocratic society they argue that rather than say all women aren’t as strong as men there should be a universal test for men and women (by birth or by choice) to determine whether an individual is suitable both physically and psychologically to fight in close combat on the frontlines.

There are other factors that need to be considered also. An increasingly big factor is the response from allied Muslim countries in the fight against Islamic State and other extremist organizations to having British female soldiers or officers. This is something that cannot be ignored as cooperation with such Muslim armed forces is essential and in those situations the Army would have to make some concessions through no fault of its own.

There are those in the Army that believe that women in combat would erode the traditions of the Army. Few Armies have such rich traditions as the British Army and it remains a fundamental part of its existence with new recruits indoctrinated in to their regiment’s traditions and exploits. They also argue that the infantry way of life is an especially close-knit male environment and that female interaction would upset cohesion in these units. However an Army must be fluid in order to advance and remain potent. The nature of soldiering has not only changed from the days of Knights on horseback but is almost unrecognisable from World War II! The fighting spirit remains a vital factor however and Army traditionalists again argue that women lack the killer instinct and competitive spirit of men.

It has to be said that these are worryingly old fashioned positions regarding gender in the 21st century. If an individual regardless of gender, race, religion or even age can meet the necessary requirements both physical and psychological to be in combat then why should they be barred from serving their country?


3 responses to “Should women and transgender soldiers have a combat role in the British Army?

  1. Women technically aren’t banned from combat – they just don’t have a place in Ground Close Combat (GCC) roles – that’s defined by the MoD as the infantry, armour/cavalry and the “direct action” SF regiments; SAS and SBS where the primary duty is to ‘close with and kill the enemy in close quarters’. Combat aviation and artillery doesn’t fall under this umbrella, hence women are allowed to be Army/RN/RAF pilots and join the Royal Artillery, women are also allowed to be combat engineers, front line medics and join the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) which is part of the UKSF.

    IMO, women aren’t suitable front GCC roles, especially the infantry and special ops, because these jobs are very physically demanding. Women in the forces, even the fittest, struggle a lot with ‘tabbing’, or ‘yomping’ as it’s called in Royal Marine parlence – that is marching long distances, potentially tens of miles, carrying heavy loads, like in the famous Royal Marines ‘yomp’ during the Falklands War where they had to carry 85lbs and march 56 miles in 3 days to fight the Argentines in Port Stanley. Between modern body armour, comms, weapons + ammo, the bergen, etc the modern combat loads are even heavier. British soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have reportedly been carrying around 45kgs (100lbs) of gear, American soldiers likewise. This is very physically demanding for even men in their prime, it will destroy the bodies of women, as this female combat engineer, Capt. Kate Petronio, in the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Afghanistan learned to her cost

    The US is running their experience with it now, and it really hasn’t gone well either.

    The USMC Infantry Training Battalion course at SOI East, which is the basic infantry course for US Marines joining the infantry (equivalent to ITC Catterick in the British Army) has a general 98% success rate for males, but they put 350 women through it, 66% of those women failed. That’s hardly neither inspiring nor sustainable if we are serious about allowing women in the infantry. It’s a waste of taxpayers money if over half of female candidates can’t pass a basic infantry course.
    Women have failed to get past phase 1 in the U.S. Army Ranger School, 29 women attempted the USMC Infantry Officers’ Course, not only did all 29 fail, but only 4 could manage to make it past day 1, 75% of male candidates pass this course.

    That’s partially why the comparison with other countries, such as Canada or Norway, where women are permitted to join the infantry isn’t realistic – they don’t carry anywhere near the same combat loads as Brit or American soldiers do, the Canadians don’t have the same standards I’m reliably informed as a Canadian I knew left the Canadian Army to join the Royal Marines to do some “real soldiering”, not to mention the Canadians haven’t been in active combat since Korea, their role in Afghanistan was in Kandahar peacekeeping, not combat operations. Contrary to popular belief, the Israelis don’t allow women in their GCC roles, they have an “infantry” bn that is 70% female but it is used to police the same Egyptian-Israel border, the Israelis used women in combat in the Israel-Arab war of 1948 and it was a huge failure, as was the Soviets’ experience in WW2 as women got butchered in close quarters against the Germans and experienced much higher rates of PTSD.

    Another thing is, since the Falklands war in 1982, we haven’t actually fought in a conventional war. People forget that both Iraq (aside from the initial surge) and Afghanistan were fairly medium scale COIN conflicts against an enemy who for the most part are third world, untrained Islamic guerillas, that lack any sort of real air or artillery capability, who don’t occupy the fighting space. If we’re to be honest most of what the British were doing was glorified policing and avoiding casualties – we weren’t really there to destroy the enemy, and if we were we didn’t use enough troops, helicopters, etc to anyway (read ‘Losing Small Wars’ by Frank Ledwidge). But there was no “digging in” etc required. This has dulled both politicians and public perception of what to expect from future warfare – where there’s roles for women in combat, talking to Muslim women for “information” on the front lines – but the risk of a real ‘conventional’ war (against a capable state enemy, trying to seize ground and fighting to control the fighting space, etc in other words) has never gone away, and if we ever do get into one again, the casualty rates will be astronomical if high standards aren’t kept, which I suspect will happen if we allow women in GCC roles.

    I think women’s roles in HM Armed Forces are fine as it is.

    Liked by 1 person

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