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U.K. Mulls Front-line Combat Role for Women Soldiers and Marines

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain will review whether women should be allowed into front-line combat roles, bringing forward a decision due next year.

“Women and ethnic minorities are big areas where we under-recruit,” Hammond told reporters after a lunch in London today. “I don’t think it’s about the number of women who will want to go in, or who indeed will be able to meet the fitness test. It’s about the signal we send that all branches of the military are open regardless of gender.”

Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall will conduct a review into the future role of women and report before the end of the year. Hammond said. The report was due to begin after the U.K. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year and has now been brought forward.

The U.K. has been reluctant to allow women into combat roles over concerns about their physical strength, their psychological ability to deal with the trauma of combat and worries that the high-pressure environment of front-line fighting could lead to an increase in romantic attachments, undermining morale in units overall.

“There is no resistance among the senior military brass to the idea of far more women,” Hammond said. “The challenges are practical ones.”

Hammond, who returned today from a 24-hour visit to British troops in Afghanistan, said he met yesterday with soldiers who were carrying packs weighing 63 kilos (139 pounds) on a patrol to detect improvised explosive devices and that may rule out some women from taking up certain front-line positions.

“We won’t compromise on the fitness we require, so that means some roles will have limited numbers of women,” he said. “It’s about getting away from the principle of gender as definer. Let’s make it fitness or something else.”

The opposition Labour Party welcomed Hammond’s announcement.

“Labour called for the ban on women serving in combat roles to be looked at, with a view to ending it,” defense spokesman Vernon Coaker said in an e-mailed statement. “The Armed Forces should give the same opportunities to women as it does to men and this move will hopefully ensure that becomes the case.”

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