A MAJOR reversal of US military policy on women in combat roles, formally announced yesterday by outgoing secretary of defence Leon Panetta, raises the prospect of the first female members of elite special forces teams fighting on the front line.
American civil rights groups welcomed the development as a significant step for equality in the five military branches of the US armed forces, which have 1.4 million serving members, 15 per cent of whom are women.
“The boots on the ground have spoken,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former captain in the marines. “If women feel they can advance and achieve in our military, we are more likely to attract the best and brightest. This announcement is a major win in the movement for equality and another step towards ending sex-discrimination in the military.”
Although women have been attached to front-line US units in recent conflicts, filling roles such as military police, medical staff and intelligence officers, they were prohibited from combat roles by a 1994 joint chiefs of staff ruling.
But Pentagon chiefs have come under pressure in recent years, particularly through a lawsuit filed by four women veterans and the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to have the Combat Exclusion Policy overturned.
Women have played an active role in US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and often find themselves under fire, effectively placing them in combat. According to Mr Panetta, 152 US servicewomen have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, with hundreds more wounded.
Washington senator Patty Murray, chairman of the Senate veterans affairs committee and supporter of women’s rights in the military, said: “In recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with fellow male service members.
“From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honourably and bravely.”
Announcing the change yesterday, Mr Panetta said he wanted to: “Remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform.”
He said: “Every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity. Women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending the nation. They have become an integral part of our ability to fulfil our mission.”
Despite the policy change, which Mr Panetta said was effective immediately, it could still be months or years before women find themselves among the elite forces teams.
Each branch of the US military, the army, navy, air force, coastguard and marines corps, must examine its positions currently not open to women and report back to the defence secretary with an initial timetable for change by 15 May.
In addition to this “assessment phase”, the services have until January 2016, the date Mr Panetta has set as a target for full integration, to seek special exemptions.
Analysts say the policy change, requested by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a letter to Mr Panetta, could open up about 230,000 combat roles currently closed to servicewomen.
Women were allowed to fly combat missions in the 1991 Gulf War, permitted to serve aboard warships from 1993 and submarines from 2009, and were permitted to become attached to front-line units in non-combat roles from last year.
Jennifer Hunt, a US Army Reserves staff sergeant injured by an improved explosive device during service in Iraq, and one of the four plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit arguing that combat ban was out of date and unfair, said she was “cautiously optimistic”.
“Women have been demonstrating for the past 11 years during these conflicts that they are able and willing to execute the missions that are put before them. Military soldiers come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds and everyone manages to complete their missions no matter what their physical capabilities are.”
But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Centre for Military Readiness, fears the move will have an adverse effect. “Little has been said about the consequences of imposing on infantry battalions higher non-deployability rates, due to pregnancy and worsening complications of sexual misconduct ranging from assault to fraternisation,” she said.
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The move to allow women to fill military combat roles places the United States among a handful of countries who permit female combatants.
In Israel, women make up about 70 per cent of the Caracal Battalion, a unit named after the wild desert cat whose males and females look alike.
The highly trained unit of the Israeli Defence Forces was founded in 2000, when Israel lifted its own ban on women in front-line positions, but did not see its first active engagement until September 2012, when a male soldier was killed during a shooting incident on the Egyptian border.
According to the IDF, a female soldier killed one of the three gunmen shot dead during the episode.
Recent sexual equality legislation in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden has removed barriers to women achieving the same positions as servicemen. The New Zealand Special Air Service, however, reports that no females have yet passed the gruelling selection tests.
In Canada, females are permitted to take on all military roles including close combat. The policy was adopted in 1989 following a decision by the Canadian Human Rights Commission Tribunal that females should be fully integrated into all roles except service on submarines – a restriction later lifted.
In May 2006, Captain Nichola Goddard became the first woman in Canadian history to be killed while serving in a direct combat role, against the Taleban in Afghanistan.
In the United Kingdom, where women make up about 9 per cent of the armed forces, they are allowed to serve in all positions except those in units whose primary role is to “close with and kill the enemy”.
The separate Women’s Royal Navy (Wrens) and the Women’s Royal Army Corps were disbanded in the early 1990s in favour of integration and equality.
In 2011, the MoD decided that women should be allowed to serve on Royal Navy submarines.
The first women officers will begin serving on Vanguard-class nuclear subs in late 2013.
They will be followed by female ratings in 2015, when women should also begin serving on the new Astute-class subs.
Historically, Russia, and formerly the Soviet Union, have seen the greatest number of women combatants. More than one million served in the Second World War and its air force formed three units comprising only of female pilots to conduct raids over Germany.
Most famous was Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko, a Soviet sniper during the Second World War. Credited with 309 kills, Pavlichenko is regarded as the most successful female sniper in history. She is followed by Libo Rugo who killed 242 enemies.