Labour Will Let Women Soldiers Go into the Line of Fire; DEFENCE SECRETARY'S EQUALITY ULTIMATUM TO MILITARY CHIEFS

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Byline: SONIA PURNELL

WOMEN soldiers are to be allowed to fight alongside men in dangerous combat roles.

Defence Secretary George Robertson has decidedthe way should be open for them to serve in dangerous infantry assignments and even in tanks during battle.

Six months ago, he announced that women would be permitted to serve on the front line but stopped short of propelling them into combat. His latest proposal to modernise the Armed Forces is bound to be controversial.

Virtually no other professional army in the Western world has gone as far towards sweeping away the age-old prejudice against allowing women into the line of fire.

Senior military figures were horrified at the prospect last night. General Sir Napier Crookenden, who served in the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War, said: 'I would be opposed to any plan to end the restrictions on where women serve.

'I do not believe that the middle of a battle zone or close combat is the right place for a woman.' Mr Robertson's first step for equality, opening up the front line to women in non-combat roles, increased the number of Army jobs open to them by nearly 50 per cent. Since then, the number of female recruits has risen.

At that time, he announced a study into whether women should be allowed into combat roles. He will announce the results shortly - and his view is that they should, unless defence chiefs can come up with overwhelming reasons why not.

Mr Robertson will declare that he has given the top brass an ultimatum: They must prove that women soldiers are not as good as men, or accept them immediately.

A senior Whitehall source said: 'The burden of proof is firmly on the defence chiefs to provide compelling evidence that women can't do the job, or we shall assume they can.

'Obviously we will take what they say very seriously but Ministers are very keen for the services to be open fully to women.' Mr Robertson has decided that Britain should follow the example of America, where almost 50,000 combat-related jobs are open to women. But he appears to be going further - the U.S. still protects women from being pushed into the most dangerous roles. His proposal would mean British women soldiers, provided they had passed stringent physical tests, would be facing the enemy directly for the first time. The move could be in place by the turn of the century.

Mr Robertson believes it is essential to portray the Armed Forces as an up-to-date, equal opportunities employer. …