National Geographic News
A female soldier in training near Azoz, Israel.

A female soldier from the Israel Defense Forces' Karakal Battalion during training near the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Photograph by Uriel Sinai, Getty Images

Anna Mulrine

for National Geographic News

Published January 25, 2013

As the Pentagon works to figure out precisely how it will integrate women into military specialties previously closed to them—including infantry and artillery units—top U.S. defense officials are actively studying other militaries around the globe that have already sent women to combat.

The review includes researching the experiences of Australia, Canada, and other nations with whom American troops have worked closely in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a senior Pentagon official. Some countries have had "three to ten years to go through this process, to integrate women" into combat roles, the official said.

There are roughly a dozen nations that have opened "close combat roles" to women. Those roles are defined by a 2010 British Ministry of Defense (MOD) study as those that include "engaging an enemy on the ground ... while being exposed to hostile fire and a high probability of physical contact with the hostile forces personnel."

In many parts of the world, these efforts have moved quickly once they've begun. Though women in Poland were not even accepted at the nation's military academies until 1999, for example, the country passed a law in 2004 requiring women with college nursing or veterinary degrees to register for compulsory service.

Of the dozen or so countries that allow women to be part of combat units, here are those with the fewest restrictions on what women can do:

Australia: Aside from the U.S., this is the country to most recently remove barriers to its front-line units, provided women meet the physical requirements. In 2011, Australia's defense minister announced that the last 7 percent of positions that had been closed to women—including Special Forces, infantry, and artillery—would be opened up to them.

Driven in large part by a string of sex scandals, the move includes a five-year transition plan. At its height, Australia had more troops in Afghanistan than any non-NATO country, and women currently account for roughly 10 percent of all Australia's deployed troops.

Canada: In 1989 Canada opened all combat roles except those involving submarine warfare to women. In  2000, women were given the green light to serve on subs as well. Three years later, the first female was assigned to serve as captain of a Canadian warship, while another woman became the first female deputy commanding officer of a combat arms unit.

Roughly 15 percent of Canadian military forces are now women, while 2 percent of combat troops (99 troops) are female. In 2006, Canada lost its first female soldier—a forward artillery scout—in combat with Taliban forces.

Denmark: Since 1988, Denmark has had a policy of "total inclusion," which came on the heels of 1985 "combat trials" exploring the capabilities of women to fight on the front lines. "Danish research showed that women performed just as well as men in land combat roles," according to the British MOD study. Although all posts are open to women, physical requirements have so far prevented them from joining the country's Special Operations Forces.

France: Women make up nearly one-fifth of the French military and can serve in all posts except on submarines and in the riot-control gendarmerie. Though permitted to serve in the combat infantry, however, most chose not to. As a result, women make up only 1.7 percent of that force.

Germany: In 2001, the country opened German combat units to women, dramatically increasing the recruitment of female soldiers into the ranks. The number of women in the German Armed Forces is now three times as high as in 2001. As of 2009, roughly 800 female soldiers were serving in combat units.

Israel: In 1985 the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) began putting women into combat positions and by 2009 women were serving in artillery units, rescue forces, and in anti-aircraft forces. While women must take part in compulsory military service, they are conscripted for only two years, versus three for men.

A study on the integration of female combatants in the IDF between 2002 and 2005 found that women often exhibit "superior skills" in discipline, motivation, and shooting abilities, yet still face prejudicial treatment stemming from "a perceived threat to the historical male combat identity."

New Zealand: Women have been able to serve in all defense units, including infantry, armor, and artillery units, since the country passed a law to that effect in 2001. A report four years later found that the move helped drive a societal shift that "values women as well as men," but that the integration of women into the combat trades "needed a deliberate and concerted effort." The British MOD report concluded that there has been "variable success in attracting and recruiting women to these areas."

Norway: In 1985, Norway became the first country in NATO to allow women to serve in all combat capacities, including submarines. Norwegian women are also subject to the draft in the event of a national mobilization. "The few women that are attracted by the infantry and cavalry do a great job in the Norwegian Army," says Col. Ingrid Gjerde, an infantry officer in the Norwegian military for 25 years.

"I have to be clear: You have to meet the physical standards, because the job is still the same. It works very well as long as women hold the standards," added Colonel Gjerde, who was the commander of Norwegian forces in Afghanistan in 2012. "It's not a big deal because women who go into these fields know the standards, and it's not that hard for women to train up to the standards if they really want."

23 comments
jerry wilson
jerry wilson

Mother Eve would be proud of these women

Michael Kuske
Michael Kuske

What a slanted article! First, in what world is 8 "roughly a dozen"? Overstating much? Next, of the 8 countries only 1 has seen any real close range-combat with any regularity...Israel. In Israel, as opposed to being truly integrated as this so disingenuously tries to insinuate, nearly all women in combat roles are placed in one single unit (Caracal). This unit is nearly 70% female and their mission is to guard the safest border Israel has to guard...the border with Jordan (a friendly nation). The Israeli military does this because their review of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war -- in which men and women were integrated into the same combat units -- showed it to be a disaster. Rather than continuing their mission, men instead focused on attempting to protect and assist the women, endangering their own lives and jeopardizing the units survival. Unit morale was also negatively impacted as men witnessed the women killed and injured on the battlefield.

I'm a live and let live Libertarian, but I'm also a combat arms vet that is a realist. When appeasing the fragile ego of one person endangers the lives of others...well, that's a line that shouldn't be crossed and this is that line.


Michael Kuske
Michael Kuske

What a slanted article! First, in what world is 8 "roughly a dozen"? Overstating much? Next, of the 8 countries only 1 has seen any real close range-combat with any regularity...Israel. In Israel, as opposed to being truly integrated as this so disingenuously tries to insinuate, nearly all women in combat roles are placed in one single unit (Caracal). This unit is nearly 70% female and their mission is to guard the safest border Israel has to guard...the border with Jordan (a friendly nation). The Israeli military does this because their review of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war -- in which men and women were integrated into the same combat units -- showed it to be a disaster. Rather than continuing their mission, men instead focused on attempting to protect and assist the women, endangering their own lives and jeopardizing the units survival. Unit morale was also negatively impacted as men witnessed the women killed and injured on the battlefield.

I'm a live and let live Libertarian, but I'm also a combat arms vet that is a realist. When appeasing the fragile ego of one person endangers the lives of others...well, that's a line that shouldn't be crossed and this is that line.


Sue Ellen L.
Sue Ellen L.

Actually, women prefer not to be raped at all, by fellow or enemy soldiers.  Thank you, Aj.

John C.
John C.

Sure, if they don't mind being gang raped by the Taliban after capture, enjoy equality.

Wang Xiao Pang
Wang Xiao Pang

I don't think it a good idea to allow woman to serve in combat. Because they are  delicate, and they make the world beautiful. Combat, which is full of blood, should and must be a war of all men.

Ben Azzara
Ben Azzara

No mention of Russia? They've had women in combat since their Revolution.

Aj Carter
Aj Carter

@John C.Actually, in the American military it's more likely they would be sexually assaulted or raped by their male colleagues. But I guess you have a point in that it's somehow more acceptable and less degrading than receiving similar treatment from members of Taliban, right?

Rachel M.
Rachel M.

F*** you. Delicate my a**. I can do more then half the so called men I know. I've slept out in negative temperatures in a shelter that I made. I can shoot and gut a deer. That's bloody! I can get punched in the face and stand back up. I run about six miles every day. I do push-ups and sit-ups. So don't even try to stereotype women into all being delicate you arrogant a**h***!

Jaqueline Kuma
Jaqueline Kuma

@Wang Xiao Pang Delicate? Give me a break. I know women who've given birth to six kids. It takes incredible strength to go through that even once, let alone six times. There's nothing delicate about the struggle to push a baby out. And blood? Nobody knows blood like women. Besides their own blood every month, don't you think nurses, doctors, EMT's and police officers see blood pretty much every day? If a woman can meet the physical requirements for combat--and many won't--she should have the same opportunities as the men.

Wang Xiao Pang
Wang Xiao Pang

@Ben Azzara But it was said that, since World War Two, women in Russia were called up into the war just to serve as a nurse, a secratary, a telephone operator and so on, to do some auxiliary work. Even now, in Russia, it is considered immoral to call up women into any war because they may be raped in the camp most of the time .

Laura Downing-Derringer
Laura Downing-Derringer

@Jaqueline Kuma @Wang Xiao Pang 
Childbirth has nothing to do with war. A recent poll of US women showed that the majority are AGAINST women being allowed to fight in combat.  So we are against this and do not see it as " empowering" .

Harold Tucker
Harold Tucker

@Jaqueline Kuma @Wang Xiao Pang

I take great offense about the delicate remarks about women. I am a 27 year retired/disabled combat veteran. My disabilities came from a mortar explosion. This was in Iraq 2005. I was a platoon sergeant SFC in a combat arms brigade. In Iraq there was no distinction about whether it was a man or woman going on patrol or convoy protection. Add to that I am a retired police officer/firefighter and paramedic. For nearly 30 years I worked for, beside and commanded women as well as men. During that time I observed several that I would have thrown out of the unit. Most of those were men. Only a small fraction of the women couldn't or wouldn't do the mission. I do believe the separate physical fitness standards should be intrigated into one standard. I've watched women drag and carry wounded men out of harms way. I seen them wounded and dead. It hurt to see that. But not because of gender but for who they were. Members of the United States Armed Forces.

Do some looking back through USA history. You'll find women fought in every war this nation was in. They were not all combat designated but fought they did. Women have died heroes in our history of combat. Women pilots were killed flying combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One female A-10 pilot on a mission in 2003, Baghdad, got her plane hit critically . She finished the mission and flew that half of a jet back to her base. When asked if she wanted to eject or try to land, she chose to land. Between her professional abilities and determination she landed that flying piece of hunk a junk. That A-10 Thunderbolt II (warthog) is a tough bird but so was thst LADY flying it. In a port in Yemen a US Navy COMBAT ship was attacked by terrorists. Go on board that ship today and you will find a plaque inscribed with the names of those who were killed. You'll find several names of women alongside the names of male shipmates.

I have never had any problem with women serving in combat in any combat position, including SEALs, Green Berets, Marine Force Recon or Air Force Spec Ops. In any typical BUDS class, the beginning of becoming a SEAL, approximately 80 start and typically 20 graduate and earn the Trident. Most rang the bell because they let their mind tell them they couldn't do it. BUDS is highly physical but it's more mental and heart. Give female sailors the right to earn the Trident or ring the bell.

Jaqueline Kuma
Jaqueline Kuma

@Wang Xiao Pang @Ben Azzara Yes, because some men treat women like dirt. Instead of not letting the women take on combat roles, how about we expect men to behave with honor and integrity toward their colleagues? Or is that too hard?

Laura Downing-Derringer
Laura Downing-Derringer

@Harold Tucker @Jaqueline Kuma @Wang Xiao Pang 
I don't believe women should serve in combat roles.  I don't believe real men should be fine with women fighting in combat.

To each their own I suppose, but I am not alone. A recent poll of US women showed that the majority of US women are AGAINST women fighting in combat, so we are against this.

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