A high-profile Northern Irish war veteran has denounced moves to let women occupy front line fighting role with the Armed Forces.
Doug Beattie, a decorated ex-captain with the Royal Irish Regiment, reeled off a list of reasons why he feels the proposed deployment of females to close combat roles is wrong.
It followed news on Friday that women could be in such posts by 2016.
Defence Minister Michael Fallon had announced “the decision, in principle, that there shouldn’t be any bar on serving in the Armed Forces on the basis of gender”.
It is not a move which has gone down well with Mr Beattie, whose record includes deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Northern Ireland.
The 49-year-old UUP man said yesterday that women are already deployed to combat zones, and serve “with great distinction”.
However, the current announcement is about allowing females to serve directly alongside men in “ground close combat roles”.
The MoD describes these as “those roles that are primarily intended and designed with the purpose of requiring individuals on the ground, to close with and kill the enemy”.
“I would liken it to this,” said Mr Beattie. “Could you imagine Ireland’s international rugby team being a mixed team of men and women?
“The answer is no, you couldn’t. And the reason you couldn’t is quite simple – women’s physical make-up is not the same.
“Their strength levels are not the same. And prolonged bouts of what you see on the rugby pitch would affect them in later life physically more than it would do a male – I’m talking about childbirth and things like that.”
He said male soldiers need to be able to travel 24 miles over two days, in three-hour bursts of 12 miles, while carrying up to 55lb (roughly 25kg).
While some women may be able to accomplish that, Mr Beattie said they would not be able to last out over prolonged deployments.
But it is not just the physiological differences.
Mr Beattie – whose 33-year military career saw him earn the Military Cross – asked: “Do we really want to see women on the front line fighting, bayonetting, grenading, shooting, stabbing, killing with their bare hands – when we view women as the life-givers of society?”
He gave a concerete example of the capture of RIR soldiers in 2000 in Sierra Leone.
The captives were threatened with rape, he said, adding that males have “a way of switching off to that” and are able not to react.
But if a woman had been among such a group, the men would feel a natural obligation to come to her defence, “and, in protecting her, there is a chance that they may not have got out alive”.
Fundamentally, he concluded, men and women are simply different – but “now we’re trying to blur those boundaries for equality”.
He added: “And I am all for equality – but we’re just blurring the boundaries of a role where there is absolutely no need.”
No definite decision has been taken yet on allowing women into ground close-combat roles.
Rather, the MoD said on Friday that a newly-published report by the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nicholas Carter, has “ended the long-held view that mixed close ground combat units would have an adverse effect on cohesion between troops”.
Instead of lifting the exclusion immediately, it calls for more research into the physical demands women face in combat roles.
This is set to conclude in 2016, and then a decision will be taken.
Other former officers decried the move too.
One of them – former Army officer Ashley Merry – said: “It’s really counter-productive when there are more important things the MoD and commanders should be concentrating on.”