To my parents’ dismay, as a young girl I dressed in army fatigues, sported a crew cut, used to line my cuddly toys up at either end of the lounge and send them into battle. My favourite game was to traverse blocks purely by climbing over fences, cutting through people’s gardens, sneaking through their open back doors and slipping out the front, unnoticed. My mother and father despaired, entirely nonplussed by my army obsession.
When I went to University, it felt like a natural progression to join the Army Reserve. I spent two years as an officer trainee, won my unit’s award as best woman officer cadet and was selected to go to Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, to be commissioned as an officer. When I came out, I was given command of my own troop in the Royal Engineers and served in the Army Reserve for five years. I look back on those years with a huge sense of achievement, pride and affection.
I am in absolutely no doubt as to the value of women in our Armed Forces. Women currently occupy many roles classified as ‘non-combat’, such as the Royal Engineers, which are routinely right in the heart of the action and these women have been a huge asset, serving with expertise, valour and distinction and gaining enormous respect from their male colleagues.
But until now they have not been able to join combat units – those with the primary aim of killing the enemy. That includes the infantry battalions and the armoured regiments. And, even as a military woman myself, I have real concerns about the government’s decision to open up these ground combat roles to women.
Fighting as an infantryman is the toughest job in the army. Most men are not mentally or physically tough enough for this role, and far less women will be. A review by the Ministry of Defence into whether women should serve in infantry and tank regiments estimated that, on current levels of recruitment, only around seven women a year would pass through training to qualify for infantry units, about fourteen would qualify for the Royal Armoured Corps and just six for the Royal Marines.
Women are physically different from men. It is a biological fact that the average women has a third less upper body strength than the average man and when it the comes to hand to hand combat, a fight to the death one-on-one, a woman against a man, that woman will be at a physical disadvantage. Women are also twice as likely to get injured as men. It stands to reason that women will be put in greater danger than their male colleagues purely because of their biology. Concerns have also been expressed by senior military figures that male soldiers would feel the need to ‘look after’ their female colleagues, thereby reducing their fighting effectiveness and in turn, putting them more at risk.
Is our society really ready to see our daughters gang raped, tortured and decapitated live on the Internet by ISIS fighters, because that is exactly what will happen if a female front line soldier is captured in Syria if a decision is made to send in ground troops to fight Islamic State. A captured female soldier would be gold dust for their global radicalisation campaign.
I also think a blanket approach to opening up all ground combat roles to women is too ‘cookie-cutter’. Apart from the prospect of live capture which I believe our society will struggle to stomach when it happens, I see less reason why women couldn’t serve in front line armoured regiments which are not quite as physically demanding as the infantry. I would suggest a more sensible approach would be to initially open up armoured regiments to women and monitor that for a few years before making any decisions about the infantry.
There is clearly a political imperative to proceed and a perceived need by the government to be seen to be politically correct, but the role of the Army is to be an effective fighting force and any decision that potentially compromises that effectiveness in these very challenging global times would be a erroneous one.
Kate Medina is the author of Fire Damage (Harper Collins, 2016) and White Crocodile (Faber and Faber, 2015)