Women’s Royal Air Force Recruitment Posters

When the Royal Air Force was formed on April 1st 1918 the new service inherited the female air elements of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) survived until 1920 by which time the level of disarmament meant that the trades the women undertook were now replaced by the surplus of men who had become available.

Women were called back to serve in the RAF as war loomed once again in 1939 in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The WAAF served throughout World War II and briefly beyond until 1949 when the service was renamed back to the Women’s Royal Air Force on February 1st 1949. It was the passing of the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act in 1948 that created the opportunity for a permanent peacetime role for women in the Armed Forces, in recognition of their invaluable wartime contribution. Around 80% of RAF trades in 1949 were open to members of the WRAF and this would rise over time.

On April 1st 1994, in recognition of the increasing number of roles women undertook in the RAF, the WRAF was disbanded and its members formally merged with the full-time RAF. In the 21st century, there are no boundaries on gender in the RAF with female aircrew having served in combat over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

 

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NEWS: Women will be on the frontlines by the end of 2016

Female British soldier

After years of campaigning for equality in the British armed forces, female service personnel will soon be allowed on the frontlines with their male colleagues as the last barriers of sexual segregation are brought down. The decision comes in the wake of a review of the current defence policy regarding female personnel which dictates that women are limited to 80% of jobs in the armed forces with direct combat roles limited to men only.

At present the following elements of the armed forces do not allow women;

  • Royal Marines
  • Royal Armoured Corps
  • Royal Air Force Regiment

Other units do allow women but mostly in a supporting role.

 
It is important to note that women have been in combat with British forces already with female RAF pilots carrying out ground attack missions in Afghanistan and female sailors aboard warships in the Persian Gulf. Research is currently being carried out into exploring the physiological demands of combat on women building on previous research which said women were able to cope with the rigours of close combat. This research will help the armed forces adapt to having women in roles that were once men-only.

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?