Women in combat: Will US military ruling change the role of UK female soldiers?

David Cameron meets female British soldiers at an operating base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, last summer (PA) (PA)

In January, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted a ban on women serving in combat, leading military experts to consider whether a similar move could be made on this side of the Atlantic.

Another sweeping change for the US military under Barack Obama saw 'the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women', after the President also ended a prohibition on openly gay troops.

The ruling could see women assume combat roles in the US army as early as this year - but will a similar landmark decision follow in the UK?

As it stands in Britain, female soldiers are still prevented from entering into situations where they could 'engage and potentially kill the enemy'.

Under European Union equality rules, the issue of women's role in combat has to be reviewed every eight years.

The last review, in 2010, maintained a ban on women taking part in close combat, with Andrew Robathan, the Defence Minister, saying 'there was no evidence to show that a change in current policy would be beneficial or risk free'.

The review stated: "The consequences of opening up these small tactical teams in close-combat roles to women are unknown.

"Other nations have very mixed experiences."

Ministers said that while the skill and courage of female soldiers could not be questioned, group 'cohesion' could be compromised in intense battle situations.

Although the US military may be more forward thinking, their decision is unlikely to impact on the Forces on these shores.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson previously told Yahoo! in January there were 'no immediate plans' for a similar review to the one made in America.

The MoD confirmed today the same stance applies.

They said in a statement: "The vast majority of roles in the Armed Forces are open to women and hundreds of servicewomen are currently serving their country with distinction in Afghanistan.

"They are fundamental to the operational effectiveness of the UK’s Armed Forces, bringing talent and skills across the board.

"The MOD comprehensive review into the exclusion of women from ground close-combat roles concluded that there should be no changes to the existing policy.

"There are no plans for a further immediate review."

The ban on women in close-combat roles has not prevented some being killed in Afghanistan, as they are still at risk from roadside bombs and other threats away from the frontline.

Corporal Sarah Bryant was the first UK female soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. The 26-year-old was serving with the Army Intelligence Corps in 2008 when she was killed in an explosion in southern Afghanistan.

Females now account for nine per cent of personnel across the three armed forces, and the figure is rising.

Allowing women into close combat situations would be a much bigger step - one which the UK seems far less likely to take than America.

Research carried out a decade ago raised concerns about the ability of women in intense, hostile situations.

A 2002 review revealed that just one per cent of trained female soldiers had the physical fitness required to work on the frontline.

The study also found that women 'required more provocation and were more likely to fear consequences of aggressive behaviour', according to the Daily Telegraph.

There are some - women among them - who do not believe female soldiers should be put on the frontline at all.

Major Judith Webb, the first woman to lead an all-male field force in the Army, warned that 'standards would deteriorate further' if Britain followed America's lead.

Major Webb, who left the Army in 1986, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that women should not be given roles where they would be expected to 'close with and kill the enemy at close quarters'.

She also said she was 'horrified' that changes had been made to the UK Army recruitment process and that standards had been 'watered down' so more women could join and boost equality targets.

She said: "I don’t think we should have women in infantry roles.

"By opening it up to women, are women shooting themselves in the foot? Because they are not going to be able to meet those standards."