Women could soon be allowed to serve in combat roles in the British military it emerged today, after defence secretary Philip Hammond announced he had ordered an urgent review into the rules.
At the moment women are banned from serving in military roles that are "primarily intended and designed with the purpose of requiring individuals on the ground to close with and kill the enemy".
The defence secretary told journalists in Westminster on Thursday afternoon that the review would start immediately and report back by the end of the year. He said that he wanted to "send a message" that the armed forces were fully open to women.
"I think that at a time when the Americans, the Australians, the Canadians, even the French - the Israelis of course for years - have women in their combat arms this is something we have to look at again," he said.
"Not because there are thousands of women desperate to join the combat arms, but because the message that the Army is not fully open to women who can meet the fitness and other requirements - the message that sends to women who might be looking to join other parts of our military. "
Last month General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the armed forces, also said women should be allowed to serve in close-combat roles in order to make the army "look more normal to society".
However not everyone supports the move. Conservative MP Richard Drax, a former soldier, has said women have a role in the armed forces "but not in the infantry".
"War does not respect the niceties of civilian life," he said. "As every infantryman will tell you, he does his duty for fear of letting down his buddy. I would argue that it stands to reason that that buddy should be as physically robust, strong and of the same sex to ensure the integrity of the unit."
Writing on his website, Drax added: "I suspect a woman in the mix would be a serious distraction. No one doubts a woman’s commitment or professionalism but, ultimately, clearing an enemy position with bullet and bayonet should remain a man’s job."
And Hammond stressed, however, that there would be no compromise in the rigorous fitness requirements - highlighting the way that engineers searching for explosive devices in Afghanistan had to carry loads of 63 kilos in a combat zones.
The review was welcomed by shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker. "We should be proud of the role played by women in our armed forces. Many of them already serve on the front line as medics, engineers, intelligence officers, fighter pilots and submariners.
"The armed forces should give the same opportunities to women as it does to men and this move will hopefully ensure that becomes the case."
The United States lifted its ban on women serving in such roles last year. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Sweden also currently allow women to serve in combat roles.