- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

LONDON The British military announced this week that women will not be allowed to serve on front lines because commanders believe it might stop soldiers from following orders in the heat of battle.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said he was not prepared to risk the effectiveness of front-line infantry and armored corps combat teams when no one knew what effect allowing women to serve with them would have.
His decision came after a two-year study on what might happen if the ban were lifted.
Officials said women might not react the same as men in the heat of battle. Their presence might make the men act differently, either by defending women who were shouted at by commanders or by refusing to leave them if so ordered.
There could also be problems with attitudes toward the opposite sex, which could reduce the effectiveness of a fighting group, officials said.
The decision was welcomed by Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the Defense Staff, who said that allowing women into front-line combat roles would be an "irresponsible experiment."
The Equal Opportunities Commission said women should not automatically be excluded from the front line if they were in shape and wanted to be there.
In the British military, women can fly combat aircraft, serve on warships (but not submarines) and perform 70 percent of Army roles, including working with field engineers and artillery, where some women serve on the front line as forward observers.
But they are barred from units that must "close with the enemy," which includes the special forces, the infantry, the Royal Marine commandos, the Royal Air Force Regiment and the Royal Armored Corps.
The study found that most women performed significantly worse than men in key physical tests.
Mr. Hoon said the key issue was whether including women in close combat teams could adversely affect combat effectiveness.
The study acknowledged that this was not at all clear but said infantry and armored corps units operate primarily in small units as fire teams or tank crews.
The soldiers were subjected to intense discipline designed to make them ready to follow any order, even if it meant the likelihood of death, immediately and without question. It was not clear whether introducing women would affect this discipline.
"The maintenance of cohesion among the team members is seen as a vital component in sustaining combat effectiveness," the study said.
"The small size of the basic unit in ground combat, coupled with the unrelenting mental and physical pressure extending over days or weeks, sets them apart from other military roles. Even small failures in a high-intensity, close combat environment can lead to loss of life or the failure of the team to meet its objectives."
Adm. Boyce said the armed forces wanted to be a "more inclusive employer" but that the decision was taken for key reasons of operational effectiveness.
Capt. Erica Bridge, one of a number of women serving with the Royal Artillery, said: "I think it's the right decision. We don't know from experience how it would work because we've never had to try it in a battle, and a battle is not the place to start that sort of social experiment. If it all went wrong, there would be nothing you could do about it."

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