Page last updated at 02:01 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 03:01 UK

Women play their role in warfare

By Martin Bell

Flt Lt Stacey Marple and Martin Bell
Flt Lt Stacey Marple is one of the women serving in Afghanistan

One of the most remarkable but least noticed changes in our society has been the transformed role of women in the armed forces.

They used to be deployed only in support - now they are in combat as well. During my time as an infantryman a long time ago I do not recall seeing a woman soldier from start to finish of my two years' service.

On a recent visit to Kandahar, the largest military base in Afghanistan, I found that women made up one in six of the 2,500-strong British force from all three armed services.

The changes are little known outside the forces, but represent a quiet revolution within them.

Some of them were planned with the folding of the separate women's branches into the regular forces at the beginning of the 1990s. But others are more recent, brought on by over-stretch and operational necessity, especially in Afghanistan.

Women fly the Army Air Corps' Apaches and the RAF's Harrriers. Both of these are attack aircraft.

Their role is to support the ground troops, if necessary, by killing people and blowing things up. Perhaps more surprisingly, women are regularly deployed on the ground alongside the men.

The reason is that on operations in villages and compounds in Helmand and Kandahar, it is necessary for women to be searched by women.

Women are not enlisted in the infantry, armoured regiments and other units whose purpose is to close with and kill the enemy. But that's only the theory.

Heavily armed

At the headquarters of 3 Para, I met Sgt Sai Walutu, a Fijian, and L/Cpl Emma Bradley, who had signed on as clerks but just completed a month on operations.

They joked about their weaponry. L/Cpl Bradley had only a pistol. Sgt Walutu wasn't going to be that lightly armed.

Friday, 17 October, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4
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"I know the guys would be there for me," she said, "but even so...".

With her rifle, pistol, bayonet and two hand grenades and 150 rounds of ammunition, the Fijian was as heavily armed as any of the men.

On one operation she fired warning shots over Taleban positions, aimed high only because of children in the line of fire between them.

When the men come under attack so did the women. Warfare makes no distinctions. That's the new reality.

Another planet

It is the same with casualties. When Cpl Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps was killed - along with three men - in June, there was a great outcry in the press.

The serving soldiers, however, are unanimous on this issue, the death of a woman in action is as much of a tragedy as the death of a man - neither more nor less.

For the women soldiers especially Afghanistan is another planet. When the Afghans see females on patrol, armed and with their faces uncovered, the response ranges between hostility and sheer astonishment. They stop and stare. Sometimes the children spit.

In this crucible of Afghanistan the Army is changing. Women are proving themselves on the battlefield and earning the respect of the men.

"The guys," they say, "are really good at looking after us."

But I wondered which was the more male dominated society - the Taleban or 3 Para.

"Oh, 3 Para," one said with a laugh, before correcting herself. "About the same, but in very different ways".

Absolutely critical

A point has been reached now, not just in Afghanistan but across all three services, where they couldn't operate without their women.

Air Commodore Barbara Cooper, of the RAF, is the most senior woman in any of the three services.

She says that with 5,500 women out of a total RAF man and woman power of 41,000, women are absolutely critical to the services' effectiveness.

An RAF air commodore is the equivalent of brigadier in the Army - what military people call a "one star".

Having talked to women of all ranks across all three services, as well as to the Chief of the Defence Staff and the First Sea Lord about these issues, I can predict with confidence that some one soon is going to break through that glass ceiling with the one star painted on it.

They've earned it. And the promotion is overdue.



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