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The BBC's Defence Correspondent, David Loyn
"It will be hard for soldiers to oppose the change"
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Sunday, 24 December, 2000, 16:58 GMT
Row over frontline women troops
New army unit at Blackdown Barracks at Deepcut in Hampshire
Could women soldiers soon be on the frontline?
The UK Government has come under fire over trials that may result in women soldiers fighting alongside men in frontline combat.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have expressed concern over suggestions that women could serve in the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps for the first time.

A report assessing how women soldiers performed in combat alongside men will be sent to the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, in the New Year.

Military effectiveness must be put first, not political correctness

Shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan-Smith
Lib Dem defence spokesman Menzies Campbell said he had "considerable reservations" about the idea.

He warned that future decisions to deploy British troops could be inhibited by fears about the impact of women soldiers "coming home in body bags".

"People should remember that victory in the Falklands in the end depended on British troops clearing trenches on Mount Tumbledown using their bayonets," he said.

Field trials

The report was based on mixed-sex field trials on Salisbury Plain and in the Welsh Brecon Beacons in the autumn during which women worked alongside men carrying out a range of duties from peacekeeping to intensive combat.

It is part of a three-phase programme designed to test the feasibility of the idea.

According to a report in The Observer newspaper, the two sexes interacted well in almost all situations.

General Sir Charles Guthrie
Reservations: Sir Charles Guthrie
But the Ministry of Defence says a decision on whether women can fight alongside men will not be made until the final part of the study - canvassing the opinion of serving soldiers and their families - has been completed.

Shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan-Smith fears the government's trials are based on reasons of political correctness.

"This is a decision the military should take, not politicians," he said.

"It does seem that the government are partially forcing the military into making this politically correct leap."

Mr Hoon is widely thought to be sympathetic to the idea of frontline women troops, but senior military figures have voiced dissent.

Danger warning

Britain's Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, spoke out against the idea in a high-profile speech last week.

He warned bluntly that the Chiefs of Staff would not do anything which damaged the effectiveness of the armed forces.

"We have to advise what will work when the conditions are tough, dangerous and frightening," he said.

"When the time comes, if the Chiefs of Staff advice upsets those who seek equality as an end in itself, then so be it."

The MoD has confirmed that the field trials did take place but has refused to comment on the results.

Women already serve in the Navy on all ships except submarines and in any job in the Air Force including fighter pilots, providing they pass the same fitness tests as men.

But they are still restricted from joining the Royal Marines or frontline infantry regiments in the Army.

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