The US is still working out the finer points of how to introduce women into frontline combat roles, but it is already looking ahead to a time when women might participate in Special Forces operations.

The Pentagon has announced that military officials are contemplating permitting women to train as Army Rangers and Navy SEALS by 2016.

Military officials cleared the way for women to begin undertaking close combat roles at the beginning of 2013. A 2010 UK Ministry of Defence study defined those roles including "engaging an enemy on the ground … while being exposed to hostile fire and a high probability of physical contact with the hostile forces personnel."

Critics of having women in combat roles often cite potential unequal strength and fitness as a reason women could pose a risk on the battlefield, but officials stress that the physical standards required for entry into special-forces jobs would not be lowered. However, they offer the proviso that services can request exceptions to allowing women to take up specific combat roles.

Women comprise around 14% of US Armed Forces members and have been taking on increasingly combat facing roles, including fighter pilots. Around 20,000 women served in the US military in Afghanistan and 44 have died there since the conflict began in 2001.

The US would not be the first country to admit women into its Special Forces. The British Special Reconnaissance Regiment is the only UK Special Forces unit to recruit women.

South Korea’s 707th Special Mission Battalion has a small number of female Special Forces operatives who are used in counter-terror operations. Always a pioneer of women in the military, Israel has opened the majority of combat positions to women, including Special Forces, since the late 1990s.

In 2011, Australia’s defence minister announced that the last 7% of positions that had been closed to women, including Special Forces, would be opened up to them. In Denmark, all posts are already open to women, but physical requirements have so far prevented them from joining the country’s Special Operations Forces.

Women have an essential role in the Afghan Army’s Special Forces, conducting searches of households where women are put at ease by being questioned by other Afghan women.

The exact mechanisms by which women will be admitted into the US Special Forces have yet to be worked out, but rest assured anyone of either sex who passes the entrance tests will be just as much of a force to be reckoned with.

This article was first published on the Strategic Defence Intelligence website. For more information, please click here.