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Rethinking Women in Ground Close Combat

In 2016 the UK Government broke from centuries of martial tradition by opening all branches of the military to women; a decision of either ground-breaking progress that marks a seminal change in national attitude towards gender, or one of note-worthy naivety made in a time of unprecedented peace.  The arguments in favour are clear.  From a point of principle, the United Kingdom cannot and should not discriminate on the grounds of gender; and from a point of practice, doubling the recruitment pool for all branches will allow the British military greater access to talent and increase diversity of thought, thereby advancing military effectiveness.  Yet there are a number of blind spots that the discussion to date has failed to address.  Chief of which: how will this decision affect the UK’s ability to defend the nation by waging a war of national survival?

This article considers the effect of this decision within a Great Power conflict (GPC) scenario and across two areas of focus: how it may affect the UK’s ability to win a GPC, and what the impact on society may be.  From here it analyses why this decision was made, before posing a suggested way forward through a risk-based planning approach.  It concludes that the UK Government has failed to address the negative effect on the UK’s ability to wage war and that this oversight should be rectified by reassessing the decision through an objective risk-based wargame.

The United Kingdom is a liberal democracy.  It is arguably the birthplace of political Liberalism and as such every man and woman should be treated as equals; this essay shall not argue against this in principle.  Yet every policy decision must pass two orders of judgement: it must be both sound in principle and practice.  Only if these two tests are passed can it then be brought into being, and this essay shall argue that within a GPC scenario it is too soon to pass the latter.

This paper assumes a few points: GPC is considered a state-on-state war of national survival in which the UK is forced to mobilise as a nation.  Conscription is enacted with no restrictions on gender or physical fitness standards.  This is in keeping with the precedent set with World War II (no physical fitness standards) and the driving principle behind the women in ground close combat (WGCC) programme (men and women should be treated equally).  The fighting force is assumed to be 50% male and 50% female, confronted with a 100% male opponent (the ‘most dangerous’ situation).  This scenario, while hypothetical, has been used consciously to narrow the discussion and look specifically at the effect of WGCC on the UK’s ability to wage state-on-state war. 

The Effect on Military Capability

Warfare has been an inherently physical endeavour.  While its character may evolve and shift, its nature is constant and defined as ‘an act of violence to compel our enemy to do our will’.  Nowhere is this more evident than within the tactical engagements of a war of national survival.  Eyewitness accounts from the frontlines of the wars of the 20th century describe a Hobbesian nightmare of ‘continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.  The detail of these accounts varies, but the majority culminate with one simple idea: one or two soldiers breaking into an enemy position and killing their adversary at close quarters.  It is this base act on which the tide of war will shift and ultimately, all strategic thinking and tactical activity must focus on setting up for success the private soldier charged with this deed. 

Considering this violent and visceral nature of war the physical capabilities of an army’s soldiers may be considered a decisive aspect to its chances of victory.  The difference between genders is stark.  A 2012 study into strength difference between male and female college students concluded that women have on average 60% less chest strength than men, and 51% less arm strength; in a similar vein a 2000 study showing that men had 40% more skeletal muscle mass in the upper body than women.  However, more significantly is a 2007 study that shows ‘90% of females produced less [grip strength] force than 95% of males’.  Grip strength is often used to predict physical ability (particularly in combat sports) as it is not only important in itself but is a strong indicator of all round upper-body strength.  This could show (all else being equal) a female would need to be in the top 10% for female upper-body strength and pitted against a male within the bottom 5% to be given fair chance of beating him in hand-to-hand combat; the statistical chance of this occurring is 0.5% (e.g. 1/10 (chances of the female being in top 10%) x 1/20 (chances of male being in bottom 5%) = 1/200 (or 0.5%). Therefore, within this GPC scenario, the male half of the UK’s force has a 50% chance of beating a randomly selected male opponent in hand-to-hand combat, while the female half has 0.5%.  Following this logic, consider the scenario of a 2000 strong UK force engaging in battle with a 2000 strong male-only peer opponent.  Hypothetically, if the battle is reduced to a series of hand-to-hand engagements, it is expected that 500 of the 1000 males within the UK force should triumph, whereas only 5 of the 1000 females should.  Therefore 505 of the UK’s 2000 troops would succeed in their respective one-on-one engagements (25.25%). 

Warfare is more than just a series of one-on-one engagements.  Mass, firepower, technology, individual skills of the soldiers, and the tactical prowess of the commander will all have significant effect on the outcome of the battle and may be enough to negate the downsides of a mixed force.  Yet these advantages will also be available to the enemy and so should be considered mutually exclusive.  In a true peer-on-peer conflict it would be hubris for one side to assume their technology and tactics as superior to their adversary, and so differences in the physical ability of individual soldiers may become a deciding factor.  Ultimately, it is on the shoulders of the lead section commander within the lead battalion where this problem lies.  It is they who will decide which of their eight soldiers is to break into the next enemy position: four of whom will have (all else being equal) a 50% chance of survival, and four of whom will have 0.5%.  It is with issues such as these that the UK Government must grapple before cementing the decision to open all branches of the military to women.  It is one thing to do so with peace time volunteer force, but the debate must include the precedent being set for times of war. 

The Effect on Society

The recent wars of choice into which the UK has ventured, while violent in their own right, pale in comparison to wars of national survival.  The on-going conflict in Afghanistan, for example, has resulted in about 460 UK deaths; whereas the British Army suffered about 20,000 deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  This fact is important as these recent conflicts set the scene in which the subject decision was made.  Undoubtedly, many female soldiers have committed immense acts of bravery in recent decades, and these acts have, in part, been used to justify opening all military branches to women.  Yet what is being witnessed here is not objective rationale for a policy decision, but recency bias.  The UK military has assumed that these recent, and relatively benign, conflicts are indicative of how future wars will be fought.  However, bitter experience has shown that brutal war comes when least expected.  The ‘war to end all wars’ was soon followed by the bloodiest war in history, and the triumph of liberal democracy over communist tyranny in the Cold War was recently overshadowed by a vicious Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.  A nation’s military is ultimately there to defend the realm, not conduct foreign skirmishes in distant lands.  It is the brutality of the former which should set the scene in which policy decisions are made, not the relative tameness of the later. 

The UK lost about 2% of its population during World War I.  Within a modern-day GPC scenario, this translates to around 1.3M people (of which 650,000 female).  Here materialises yet another blind spot that the UK Government has failed to address: how will society react to losing that much of its female population in an overseas conflict? The UK Government must be clear with the precedent being set with this decision.  That is, if required, 18-year-old females will be taken away from their family, against their will, and sent to fight in a conflict in which they have significantly less chance of surviving that their brothers-in-arms.  It is one thing for a nation’s daughters and sisters to be tragically killed as civilians, but it is yet another to pursue a policy which actively recruits females and chooses to send them to war.  The UK Government should not wait until the next war of national survival before tackling this issue; this discussion should happen now.  History has shown that societies can just about cope with sending their sons off to die at war; it is yet to be proved that they can stomach the same with their daughters. 

There are other less palatable discussions also to be had.  Rape, for example, has been used as a weapon of war for centuries and the victims are overwhelmingly women.  If this is accepted as a consistent reality of war, and recent examples such as Imperial Japan’s use of comfort women or ISIS’ trade in Yazidi sex slaves support this, then the question must be posed: is it morally justified to actively deploy women into a theatre of war where their risk of rape is overwhelmingly greater than at home or of their male comrades? The answer is not yet known because, as with the effect of female death rates on society, the question has not yet been considered.  This is not evidence to conclude that the decision to enact the WGCC programme is wrong and should not be supported, but it does show that the debate has failed to address these particularly difficult issues; issues that should have been dealt with prior to the decision being made.

Why Has This Decision Been Made?

This article has identified several blind spots which the UK Government has so far failed to consider.  This oversight cannot be down to a simple lack of time, thought or resource; the WGCC programme was well furnished with both people and funding, and so other forces may be at play. 

There is a moment in time when ideas become ideology.  That is when the original notion becomes socially, politically, or even legally unacceptable to question.  Ideas are good, they pose questions, suggest answers, and drive organisations forward.  Ideologies, however, tend to be detrimental.  They are steeped in politics, fuelled with subjective emotion rather than objective fact, and cannot be challenged.  This is the essence behind Chilcot’s ‘challenge culture’.  This being a culture in which anyone and everyone should be allowed to challenge perceived wisdom without fear of attack or ridicule, with the ultimate end of driving diversity of thought and helping to break groupthink. 

A possible theory is that an ideological approach to gender equality has produced a system of groupthink within both military and political leadership, and as such has led to a WGCC ‘at all costs’ mode of thinking.  Proving this theory positive is beyond the scope and capacity of this essay, but the UK military may prove it negative by employing a risk-based approach to planning.

Next Steps

For many years the UK military has advocated for a risk-based approach to planning in which prior to any decision being made the associated risks are identified, mitigation measures are proposed, and then a military commander or minister accepts or rejects the decision based on the risk at hand.  Risks are identified through a combination of wargaming, red-teaming, and sound military judgement.  Once identified they can either be tolerated if deemed acceptably low, treated through some mitigation measures, or rejected outright if the risk deemed too high.  Key to this approach is the idea of the risk owner.  This is an individual who accepts personal responsibility for the risk and its management.  This mode of thinking promotes the objective identification and management of risks while also holds an empowered individual accountable.  It is with this method the question of whether women should be allowed to fight on the front line should be tackled. 

The British military should take a pause on the WGCC programme and allow its reassessment.  If this is the right decision (and it may well be) then deeper analysis should not be feared; the effects of this decision will be felt well beyond current lifetimes and so must not be taken lightly.  This reassessment should be based on a wargame, and the scenario be one of a true war of national survival where 50% of the conscription pool are women.  This could be a re-run of the Burma campaign of 1941-45 with 50% of Slim’s 14th Army being female, or a contemporary analysis of the war in eastern Ukraine.  This wargame should be weeks in length and include contributions from military theorists, historians, psychologists, anthropologists, health professionals, members of the public, and any other interested parties.  The primary purpose of this wargame is to identify risks, and as many as possible.  Once identified further discussions will determine the likelihood and impact of each risk, and possible mitigation measures.  The final stage will be for these risks to be published and accepted by a suitably empowered general or minister who will take personal responsibility for this decision.  Employing this procedure will provide both objectivity and accountability, thereby demonstrating that the British military still maintains a rational and objective approach to decision making at the highest level.


The decision to open all branches of the military to women has failed to consider the effects on the UK’s ability to wage a war of national survival; chiefly on military capability and how mass female mobilisation may affect society as a whole.  The proposed solution is for the British military to pause the WGCC programme and allow its reassessment by conducting a comprehensive wargame that seeks to identify risks across a multitude of areas.  The risks should then be assessed, mitigated, and ultimately owned by a suitable empowered general or minister.  By adopting this approach, the British military will prove to itself and the wider public that it still maintains an objective approach to decision making and is not yet subject to the impulses of political ideologies.

Richard C.

The author is an infantry officer with 10 years’ experience in the field Army, MOD and PJHQ.

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