Some time ago I wrote an article in Quadrant Online giving my view on women in combat, which I’m against – not primarily on the grounds of fitness (as I concede that there are some females – a few – who might be able to cut the mustard), but more because it further blurs the lines between the roles of men and women in our society. Yes, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that “menfolk do the fightin’ and wimminfolk do the nurturing”. And yes, I acknowledge that many courageous women have given their lives in the service of their country. I just think it should be the exception rather than the rule. As a consequence of that belief, I also believe that woman should not be given high command.
So I was startled to hear on the news last night that Brigadier Susan Coyle had made history by being appointed the first female to command an Australian Army brigade, the 6th Brigade. (In fact it turns out Brigadier Coyle was appointed to this command some time ago. It is also true that she was Deputy Commander of Australian forces in Afghanistan). Command of a Brigade is one of the most coveted jobs in our small Army, one that prepares the holder for high command.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Army is divided into three main groupings. First, we have units which are usually designated battalions or regiments, and usually commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel. They are self-contained entities with a permanent structure. For example, in my day, an Infantry Battalion comprised a headquarters, four rifle companies, a support company and an administration company. These sub-units are permanently assigned, and are integral, to the unit. It would be very similar today.
Above this level we have tactical formations which may be Brigades, Divisions, Corps and Armies. Brigades and Divisions also have defined structures but the units that are placed under their command vary from time to time and in different circumstances. Thus, a Brigade, in my day, would normally have under its command three Infantry Battalions, an Artillery Regiment, a Combat Engineer regiment (or part thereof), cavalry elements, a Signals squadron and logistics elements. It is designed to provide a cohesive fighting force capable of executing planned military operations.
Outside this structure there are other units not normally attached to Brigades but available for deployment wherever needed. For administrative purposes they are usually combined into what are termed Groups. These groups are not intended, nor indeed structured, to deploy, as such, on operations.
So it was with some relief that I discovered the Army’s 6th Brigade is, in fact, the 6th Combat Support Brigade comprising:
- 1st Intelligence Battalion
- 16th Air Land Regiment (anti-aircraft artillery)
- 19th Chief Engineer Works
- 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment
- 6th Engineer Support Regiment
- 7th Signal Regiment (specialist EW)
In my time, this would have been called a Combat Support Group. The cachet and professional standing that accrues to an officer in command of a tactical formation such as a Brigade would not apply to an officer in command of such a group, which is no more than an administrative command. It debases the appointment of Brigade Commander. I have no real objection to this conglomeration being commanded by a woman. I just don’t like the name, which does not reflect its support function. (I should add that the term Brigade is also used in other contexts, such as The Brigade of Guards, in which case it refers to a collection of like units.) So, the appointment of Brigadier Coyle to this position is not particularly noteworthy. Could the fuss being made about a woman in command be the whirring of the gender-equality spin machine? I’m guessing that to be the caase.
Yes, in the grand scheme of things this is no more than a minor deceit.
Still, what can you expect from an Army that bans warlike iconography by combat units or gave us Lt Gen David ‘walk a mile in my high heels’ Morrison?