Fighting the paradox of adaptability: The integration of more women in Special Operation Forces

  • Études

By Stéphane Bellamy

Stéphane Bellamy is a former French and NATO SOF Officer. His research monitored by Cardiff Metropolitan University focuses on women’s integration into NATO SOF.



Considering the changing operational environment as the nature of the threats, the human-centric type of conflicts[1] and the enemy’s diversity require nowadays more women to access specific parts of the enemy or adversary population men cannot. Integrating more women into Special Operation Forces (SOF) does not seek « perfect » gender equality (i.e., 50-50) in nature which makes no sense from an operational perspective. However, it will contribute ultimately to women’s empowerment and better gender balance. This changing environment will also inform the definition and specific skills and profiles required from a SOF Operator in the near future (2030-2035)[2], based on SOF’s three core missions: Direct Actions (DA), Strategic Reconnaissance (SR), and Military Assistance (MA) as defined in NATO doctrine publications.

History often forgets that women have played a significant role in Special Forces Operations. They were a vital part of the very first Special Operations forces precisely because they were women and could thus fulfil specific functions within the SOF role. Secondly, based on an overview of both NATO and non-NATO countries, integrating more women in the Special Forces is imperative in order to face the new operational challenges. Changes in social norms, mindset, equipment, and structures now make this integration possible, desirable and even necessary much more than in the past. Despite numerous challenges, a real integration policy can be designed, adapted, and transposed in countries that will experience the need to increase the gender diversity of their Special Forces to face the new challenges of contemporary conflicts.



The question of women in the armed forces is a vast and complex one and has been studied for several decades[3]. However, practices have evolved considerably since the end of the Second World War. At a time when many professions hitherto reserved for men have opened their doors to women, and when most military functions and roles over the world are open to women, the employment of women as soldiers and particularly as “Special” soldiers remains a sensitive issue. Naysayers see the integration of women into the Special Forces as further disrupting the last bastion of absolute masculinity. However, the contribution of women to SOF mission effectiveness with Female Engagement Teams (FET) and Cultural Support Teams (CST) has already proven its worth in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, FETs were not a new concept within the U.S. Armed Forces. The Marines Corps created an all-female unit called the Lioness in Iraq in early 2000 to search Iraqi women, as men were prohibited from interacting with Iraqi women due to religious or cultural norms. In Afghanistan, Admiral Kilcullen introduced in 2006 the baselines for women’s use in Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN):

‘Co-opting neutral or friendly women, through targeted social and economic programs, builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine the insurgents. You need your own female counterinsurgents, including interagency people, to do this effectively. Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilising the population ‘(Kilcullen cited in Keravuori, 2014). FETs were well received even by Afghan men who felt more secure when engaging U.S. women, seen as helpers than U.S. men seen as fighters, and consequently more dangerous. American Women were seen as a third gender (Keravuori, 2014, Rohwerder, 2015, Turnley 2019)[4], ‘a group who does not fall under the same assumptions or restrictions of either Afghan women or American men.

Despite this encouraging return on experience, progress remains hard to see. Is it the fear of change, the inevitable fading of a social model based on male domination and traditional masculinities, or is it real operational obstacles that prevent, or at least seriously hamper, the integration of more women into the Special Forces?

Since 2000, NATO has made significant progress in addressing the question of gender and promoting gender mainstreaming through its commitment to and implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325[5]. Today, based on NATO’s influence over its members, there are dedicated structures that address gender diversity and challenges in nearly all countries and military units in particular, from « reporting » processes[6] to the highest levels in the Ministry of the Armed Forces’ hierarchy. Nevertheless, challenges remain. Inappropriate behaviours have not disappeared, and disparities and inequalities persist. Unfortunately, as a recent military report demonstrated[7] the level of sexual harassment and violence against women remains very high. The subject of gender equality, peripheral to other defence issues, is no less important and deserves attention. Moreover, it is a national responsibility to develop such policies to comply with the United Nations Resolutions agreed by most Nations.

On the other hand, the lack of attention leads to a lack of policy and guidance at the proper level, often leaving subordinate levels alone in the face of their concerns or even their problems and ways of dealing with them. Finally, this polite ignorance does not allow for « optimisation » of the resources at our disposal, nor does it allow for responsive adaptation to the challenges that arise in the context of evolving threats and conflicts.

As a paradox, the Special Forces who have built their reputation specifically on their ability to respond to challenges, to adapt to threats, and to be flexible in their organisation, have shown little progress in this area despite some successful attempts. This deficit is particularly noticeable in the “Great Western nations” that have world-class level Special Forces. The change comes from elsewhere: Norway, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, and others. These countries have understood the need to integrate more diversity, including women, into the profiles and workforce they need to carry out their missions in more complex conflict forms. Norway with the “Jeggertroppen” (a unique only-women SOF unit) are the spearhead regarding women’s integration into SOF. Belgium developed a Deep Development Capability, a mixed unit dedicated to battlefield information shaping as well. Spain has a very interesting equality policy within the Spanish society which will percolate into the military community at some point including the Spanish SOF. Denmark is thinking about integrating more women into her SOF too.



Interestingly, the global fight against terrorism has highlighted, sometimes tragically, women’s role and their valuable and complementary contribution to this struggle. The Female Engagement Team’s (FET) « proven concept »[8] is no longer challenged. Women have proven their added value in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and many other places that are still secret by providing unique skills or gaining access to hidden parts of the operational environment (e.g., Afghan or Iraqi female structures). However, they are considered more as ‘enablers[9]’ than ‘real’ Special Force operators. They provided what could be called female-only attributes. As a paradox, finally, many male Special Forces operators admit there is a real benefit in integrating women into the Special Forces structures thanks to what they can bring to the mission in terms of performance (the achievements of the tasks) and to the teams in terms of behaviour. Here again, however, there is no policy dedicated to integrating greater diversity into NATO except on the civilian side[10]. However, NATO Armed Forces, including Special Forces, not only have a place for women but need women because they are women.


[1] Operating in the Human Domain (2015), USSOCOM Concept

[2] Several SOCOM have issued their vision for 2030-2035 as USSOCOM or the French SOCOM.

[3] See the NATO Introductory Resource Guide – Women, Peace and Human Security, 2019, NATO Graphics & Printing in which hundreds of different documents and studies about women in the military are presented.

[4] Lopez Keravuori, R. (2014). The Instrumentalization of Feminity in U.S. Military Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan. Dissertation Submitted for the Master of Studies in Diplomatic Studies. University of Oxford. St Cross College ; Rohwerder, B. (2015). Lessons from Female Engagement Teams. Helpdesk Research Report.; Turnley, J.G. (2019) Funhouse Mirrors: Reflections of Females in Special Operations Forces, Special Operations Journal, 5:1, 25-41, DOI: 10.1080/23296151.2019.1581429

[5] NATO is committed to the implementation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and Related Resolutions 1820(2008), 1888(2008), 1889(2009), 1960(2010), 2106(2013), 2122(2013), 2242 (2015), 2272 (2016), 2467 (2017), 2493 (2018).

[6] In France, the Themis cell was created in 2014 in order to fight any form of sexual violence and discrimination within the French Ministry of Armed Forces. Any Defence civilian or military employee belonging to the Defence Ministry, including units and entities, may seize it in total confidentiality

[7] Dave P. – NYT (2019) -‘This Is Unacceptable.’ Military Reports a Surge of Sexual Assaults in the Ranks –

[8] Based on the U.S.’ population-focused strategy in Afghanistan, specialized teams tasked with engaging local communities were set up. One of them is the FET, developed from a Marine Corps initiative in 2009 to achieve Afghan females’ access. More specifically, this part of the population was an untouchable segment due to cultural issues.

[9]While contributing directly to the mission, enablers are in a supporting role (e.g. Intelligence analysis of the target). Operators are defined as those who are in contact on the ground.

[10] Improving Diversity in NATO (2013), 2013-2014 NEDP project. European School of Management.


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