In the spring of 2014, Tora, a 20-year-old living in Norway, received a letter from the armed forces inviting her to try out for Jegertroppen, or the Hunter Troop, a new Special Forces unit and the world’s first all-female military training program. Tora, who had recently graduated from high school and had, out of interest in a military career, visited an armed forces open day, did not hesitate to apply. “I had been waiting for the armed forces to come up with a tougher specialty for girls,” she explained.

Norway, along with Israel, opened combat positions to women in 1985, but only 10 percent of its soldiers are female. Before 1985, women served only in support functions such as medics and engineers. For special operations, the number of female members is still zero: the country’s Special Forces is open to women, but few had applied and none had passed the admissions test. The lack of women has limited the Special Forces’ effectiveness in international operations. “In Afghanistan, one of our big challenges was that we would enter houses and not be able to speak to the women,” explained Captain Ole Vidar Krogsaeter, an officer with Norway’s Special Forces Operations. “In urban warfare, you have to be able to interact with women as well. Adding female soldiers was an operational need.”

Courtesy Norwegian Special Forces Command (FSK)
Courtesy Norwegian Special Forces Command (FSK)

Technological advances in weaponry are partly to blame for the low participation rate among women. “Soldiers carry more weight now than during the Vietnam War, primarily because their protective gear is heavier,” Colonel Linda Sheimo, the chief of the U.S. Army Command Policy Division and the former chair of the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives, told me. In Afghanistan, for example, U.S. infantry soldiers typically carry 70 to 100 pounds of gear and equipment, much of which is lifesaving body armor. A decade ago, the U.S. Marine Corps, after noticing the large number of pelvic fractures suffered by women in its officer candidate school, calculated that the average female officer cadet was being asked to carry 58 percent of her body weight, compared with 40 percent for the average male cadet. And a study released by the Marine Corps last year reported that when negotiating over walls, “male Marines threw their packs to the top of the wall, whereas female Marines required regular assistance in getting their packs to the top.”

It’s no surprise, then, that of the women who join the military in Norway and other countries whose armed forces are now fully gender-integrated, so few are combat troops. For its part, Jegertroppen has pushed for a different admissions process for female candidates. Of the 317 women who applied for Jegertroppen’s initial class, only 88 (including Tora) passed the admissions test. After the exam, its members endured a grueling 10-month-long training in urban combat, counterterrorism operations, survival skills, and operations behind enemy lines.

Although the Special Forces Command has made some concessions—Jegertroppen members carry 60-pound backpacks instead of the 88-pound ones male Special Forces carry—the women face physical demands similar to those required of male Special Forces soldiers. For example, Tora and her Jegertroppen teammates had to operate for days without a meal. “We learned that we were capable of more than we thought,” Tora said. “It was really exciting to have to survive without food.”

Only 13 trainees made it to the end of Jegertroppen’s yearlong course, with most of them having failed or left voluntarily. But the high dropout rate is not unusual. According to the armed forces, the male Special Forces units have a similar attrition rate.

So far, Jegertroppen’s soldiers have excelled individually and as a team. “They work extremely systematically and conscientiously, and as a result they often get things done faster than male soldiers,” said Reichelt. “If that’s related to nature or nurture is hard to tell, but it’s the outcome.”

Tora agreed. “Everyone contributed. When I hit the wall, the others helped, and I did the same for them.”

Colonel Frode Kristoffersen, commander of the Special Forces, pointed out that Jegertroppen’s soldiers excelled in particular areas. They displayed superior shooting and observational skills, for example. Jegertroppen, initially a one-year pilot program, is likely to be extended for another three years.

Courtesy Norwegian Special Forces Command (FSK)

Low female participation rates in the military are common throughout the developed world. As in Norway, female soldiers and officers account for only around 10 to 15 percent of troops worldwide. Part of that has to do with the fact that in many countries, women are (or were until recently) barred from taking combat roles. Sweden and Canada, for example, opened all military positions to women in 1989 (although Canada kept submarine warfare all male for another 11 years). Germany and New Zealand followed suit in 2001. This year, the United Kingdom will lift all remaining restrictions on female soldiers. So will the United States, a move announced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter last December. But Carter acknowledged that removing barriers isn’t enough to increase the proportion of women in the U.S. Armed Forces, which is currently at 15 percent. “Thus far, we've only seen small numbers of women qualify to meet our high physical standards,” he said. “Going forward, we shouldn't be surprised if these small numbers are also reflected in areas like recruitment, voluntary assignment, retention.” According to a 2010 survey by the U.K. Ministry of Defence, 3.8 percent of Canadian combat troops are women; in France, the figure is only 1.7 percent. In Norway, a 2014 report by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the armed forces’ science and technology body found that 13 percent of female soldiers between 20 and 24 left the military, while less than eight percent of their male contemporaries did. This makes Jegertroppen’s attrition rate seem all the more groundbreaking.

But as conflicts change, the physical differences between men and women should matter less, and in fact, female participation will be more important. “Especially in a counterinsurgency setting, we need female soldiers because they can interact with women,” explained Kristoffersen. In Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces soldiers borrowed women from regular forces to form a “cultural support team” to interact with women. Several cultural support team members report that some Special Forces units sidelined them, while others allowed them to participate in combat. But even in the latter case, unlike in Jegertroppen, they were not full-fledged special operations soldiers. Meanwhile, Sweden formed an all-female military observer team to interact with the female population. The Swedish team consisted of only three members, who lacked a clear mandate or operational experience. Not surprisingly, the team was quietly shelved.

A number of countries have also tried to increase female troop rates by dispatching their military staff to trainings provided by the Nordic Center for Gender in Military Operations outside Stockholm, an organization that provides expertise and training on gender-related military issues to a number of international groups, including NATO. In 2008, the Dutch Ministry of Defense approved the use of a military “gender checklist” to understand the gender-related aspects of an operation and whether using female soldiers would lead to a better outcome.

Courtesy Norwegian Special Forces Command (FSK)

In spite of these efforts, female troop rates have remained low. That is why some nations are looking to Norway, which is a pioneer when it comes to testing military practices. Sweden is now considering conscription for women as well as men, and U.S. Secretary of the Army John McHugh has said that with all armed forces positions open to women, women should also have to register for the draft. Other countries’ armed forces have already contacted Kristoffersen about Jegertroppen, including commanders at the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida.

To be sure, only time will tell whether Jegertroppen’s relative recruiting and training success with all-female units will translate to mixed-gender combat. “There’s a risk of all-female units being considered second-rate, but if Jegertroppen gets a large number of applicants, it’s a sign that combat units’ tasks are not the main reason keeping women away,” said Robert Egnell, a Swedish military scholar currently based at Georgetown University. So far, the applicants for Jegertroppen’s second class scored higher on average than the first, and there are now 15 of them in training.

The female soldiers of Jegertroppen may soon get the chance to prove themselves on the ground. Norway’s Special Forces are still in Afghanistan, staying on as military trainers. As graduates of Jegertroppen, Tora and her fellow operatives could be deployed at any minute. For her part, Tora now serves as Jegertroppen’s first female instructor. Her goal is simple. “I want the new girls to beat us, the first class, in every area,” she said.

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  • ELISABETH BRAW is a London-based journalist who writes for The Economist, Foreign Policy, and other publications. She also writes the Transatlantic Connection blog for World Affairs Journal.
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