London, Great Britain—The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is considering lowering the Special Forces entry requirements to give women a better chance at succeeding.
The nature of the SAS and SBS selection process, requiring extreme upper body fitness, amongst others, is thought by some to be discriminating towards women, who naturally have smaller body frames and muscular mass.
The MoD, thus, is considering allowing women to carry lighter loads and have more time to complete the marches. But the MoD is only considering these changes for the initial selection phase.
The SAS and SBS ran a common selection course at Brecon Beacons in Wales. Those who wish to join the ranks of Britain’s elite must first pass the basic army physical test. Thereafter, the physical nightmare begins. Aspirants must complete long ruck-marches, with loads weighing up to 60lbs, through the ankle-twisting Welsh hills.
Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the removal of a ban excluding women from serving in close combat roles by 2019.
“The chief of [the] general staff has recommended that we lift the ban on women in close ground combat, a view that has been supported by the other service chiefs,” had said Cameron in 2016.
“It is vital that our armed forces are world-class and reflect the society we live in. Lifting this ban is a major step. It will ensure the armed forces can make the most of all their talent and increase opportunities for women to serve in the full range of roles.”
Some, however, aren’t convinced. Lowering standards, for men or women, to be fairer and/or more politically correct is hurting unit morale and operational effectiveness.
But others think that the physical standards are just an indication and that other traits are more important.
David Stirling (the father of the SAS) “wanted people that were tough” with traits such as “intelligence, character, camaraderie and an ability to muck in,” said Ben Macintyre, author of SAS: Rogue Heroes.
According to the latest census, 1 in 10 UK servicemembers is a woman; 7,000 of them serve in the Army (9%). The ban was specifically on close-combat duties for women who are already serving combat roles such as submarines and fighter and helicopter pilots.
Initial SAS troopers “weren’t macho figures; they were mentally resilient, tough as blazes. Not the he-men that we associate with the SAS today,” Macintyre added.
Indeed, the right woman in the right role can be of great value to a SOF unit. For example, the lesser known member of the UK SOF, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR). The unit and its predecessors have recruited women for decades. Their surveillance and intelligence gathering operations in Northern Ireland during the Troubles (1968-1998), showed how useful a female operator could be. It should be noted, however, that the SRR’s role is different from the SAS and SBS, which are more oriented towards combat.
But women have also greatly contributed to hearts-and-minds operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they have been able to transcend cultural differences and relate to the local women.
The current SAS/SBS selection process is six months long with a pass rate of around 8%. The Beacons phase is followed by the jungle phase in Belize, speciality training, and SERE.
The SAS and SBS used to have separate selections. But in 2001, a reorganization of the UK SOF combined their selection courses into one. Similarly with Delta Force, the SAS’s American brother, recruits can apply from all branches of the military. Nevertheless, the SAS and SBS tend to draw most of their recruits from the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marine Commandos.