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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
AP/Press Association Images

Opinion Women have shown time and time again that they are a more deadly species than the male

Security expert Tom Clonan explains why armies across the world need female soldiers and officers, in all positions.

OVER THE NEXT two years, the Irish Defence Forces will recruit about 1,450 young men and women for general military service.

There are approximately 9,500 soldiers in the Irish armed forces between army, naval service and air corps. However, only about 6% of the strength of our military is female.

This compares poorly with participation rates for women in the international military.

Almost 20% of the US military is comprised of women soldiers.

The French armed forces is approximately 20% female.

The NATO average for women’s participation as soldiers is around 15%.

This places Ireland close to the bottom of the international league table for gender equality within the military.

There are historical and cultural reasons for this within Ireland.

Women were effectively de-barred from the Irish Defence Forces until the early 1980s.

Recruitment during subsequent decades was sporadic and the numbers of women within the Irish military was kept artificially low by discriminatory policies and practices adopted by a cautious and deeply conservative general staff.

Unfortunately, Irish female soldiers experienced unacceptably high levels of discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual violence during this period.

In 2000, as a serving Captain in the Army, I researched and wrote a comprehensive doctoral thesis on the equality culture of the Irish Defence Forces.

It contained stark findings as it applied to equality of opportunity and widespread allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against female soldiers.

This prompted the then-Minister for Defence, Michael Smith TD, to order an independent government enquiry into the status and roles of women in the Irish Defence Forces.

The ‘Study Review Group’ reported in 2003 and the Defence Forces implemented the majority of its recommendations and findings as it applied to both female and male soldiers, sailors and aircrew.

As a consequence, the Irish Defence Forces is now considered to be one of the most equality-friendly workplaces in the international military and considered an exemplar of equality of opportunity and dignity in the workplace for all of its personnel, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

New campaign

It is against this background that Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney directed that women be specifically targeted for enlistment to the Defence Forces during the current recruitment drive.

DFMagazine / YouTube

Women have been enlisted to the international military in ever greater numbers for more than a century. During World War 1, Tsar Nicholas II conscripted thousands of women into the Russian military to engage in brutal trench warfare. Their ferocity in hand-to-hand combat and close-quarter fighting earned female units the term “battalions of death”.

Russian women were conscripted by the Communists to the Red Army during World War 2 in order to fight the German Wehrmacht and Nazi SS military formations.

Up to one million Russian women fought in uniform in desperate circumstances along the Eastern Front.

The gender-integrated units of the Red Army and Air Force eventually defeated the Germans.

Female soldiers participated in the final assault on Berlin – the centre of Hitler’s patriarchal ‘Fatherland’.

During this conflict, hundreds of thousands of women fought as partisans in France, Italy and Yugoslavia. Over 40,000 women were killed in action in the Balkans.

In these bitter conflicts, where mass murder, torture and ethnic cleansing were features of the battlefield, women were especially prized by military commanders for their physical strength, endurance and calmness in the field and their ability to resist torture and ill treatment.

In subsequent conflicts during the Cold War, women time and time again proved their mettle in combat.

Cambodia Cambodian Troops Women Soldiers AP / Press Association Images Original caption from August 1970: A girl soldier totes a Chinese-made machine-gun into combat during an operation across the Mekong River from Phnom Penh in the Prek Tameak area, the scene of heavy fighting between Cambodian troops and Viet Cong/North Vietnamese forces. The girl is one of many who serve in the rapidly expanded army as regular soldiers and medics. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images


In Vietnam, approximately 40% of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) commanders were women. Along with their gender-integrated allies the Viet Cong, they comprehensively defeated an almost exclusively male and technologically superior enemy in the US military.

By 1975, Vietnamese women and men effectively drove the US military out of Vietnamese territory.

The US military itself has incrementally recognised the value of female soldiers.

In Operations Desert Watch and Desert Storm, the US and its allies deployed 43,000 female troops against Saddam Hussein’s elite all-male Republican Guard.

Outperforming all-male units

The women performed well in combat alongside their male peers and after-action reports and detailed research conducted by the US, British and Israeli military demonstrate conclusively that ‘mixed-gender’ units – on land, sea and in the air – consistently outperform all-male units in combat conditions.

In the current Global War on Terror, about a quarter of a million female soldiers in the US military have passed through Shannon Airport on their way to combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Since 2003, 161 American women have been killed in action with over 10,000 wounded in combat operations.

The US Air Force in particular has benefitted from increased participation rates by female pilots and crew.

Combat experience and military aviation research has shown that female pilots are particularly skilled at flying in stressful, high-noise and high-vibration environments whilst simultaneously operating weapons systems and communications systems. 

In short, women are effective at multi-tasking and have shown time and time again that they are indeed a more deadly species than the male.

Army Rangers Women AP / Press Association Images US Army Capt. Kristen Griest, left, stands in formation during an Army Ranger School graduation ceremony AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

In 1916, approximately 300 Irish women fought in the Rising in order to bring about the liberation of the State.

One hundred years later, it is fitting that the Defence Forces are seeking to recruit and harness the full potential of Irish women in our armed forces – both at home and abroad.

Women are absolutely essential to the continued success of both domestic security operations in the Republic to the peace enforcement and peacebuilding missions overseas for which the Irish Defence Forces are renowned.

Young women who join the Irish Defence Forces today will find an equality-friendly workplace which promotes the fullest participation of women and men alike in a life less ordinary – from refugee rescue operations in the Mediterranean to ground operations in the Golan Heights in Syria.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

Related: Irish Defence Forces to recruit 1,450 new staff 

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