Women who can meet requirements will be allowed into positions such as infantry and clearance diving
In a landmark moment in the history of women in the military, Australia will open up all ranks in the armed forces to servicewomen, allowing them to risk their lives alongside male soldiers and serve on the frontline.
In a move described as “a significant and major cultural change”, the Australian army will remove all gender barriers over the next five years and women will be able to take up roles that previously were considered too dangerous. Australia joins Canada, Israel and New Zealand as the only countries with no restrictions on women serving in front-line capacities, although others such as Denmark, Germany and France allow them to fight on the frontline.
The Australian defence minister, Stephen Smith, stressed that women would not be given preferential treatment in the armed forces, but would have to meet the same stringent physical and psychological criteria required of men.
“This is simply about putting into the frontline those people who are best-placed to do the job, irrespective of your sex,” he said. “In the future, your role in the Defence Force will be determined on your ability, not on the basis of your sex.”
The test for anyone seeking a role in the defence force would be whether any individual had “the right physical, psychological and mental attributes to be able to do that job”, he added.
The changes will be introduced over a five-year period beginning in March to ensure there was “no diminution of standards”, and no quotas will be imposed. “This is a significant and major cultural change,” he said. “That is why we’d rather err on the side of caution in expressing a five-year [implementation] period.”
The defence force was previously exempt from Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act, but with the change in policy women will be able to take up roles previously closed to them, including as mine disposal divers, air force defence guards and in infantry and artillery frontline positions.
At present, women make up 18.5% of the Australian defence force, but only 4.5% of the senior ranks in all three services. Before today’s announcement, 93% of positions were open to women, but 7% excluded women “simply on the basis of sex”, said Smith.
Only 8,000 of Australia’s almost 60,000 troops are female and this latest move will be seen as a further attempt to encourage more women to join the army.
The move could see the rise of women commandos and special forces as no roles will be excluded. “If a woman is capable of doing the entrance programme for the SAS or for commandos then they will be in it,” said Smith.
Australian forces, including women, will still be on hand in multinational operations, he confirmed. Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan as part of the US-led mission there. “We will present our soldiers as potential embeds or potential third-party or third-country deployees on the basis of their capacity and their ability, not on the basis of their sex,” he said. Smith was not able to say whether Australian forces fighting in the Uruzgan province in Afghanistan would include women before the army withdraws in 2014, but he said he knew of an Australian army platoon in which the best shot was a woman.
“Currently she would be prohibited and prevented from being a sniper in Afghanistan,” Smith said. “Why would we take away the chance of the best shot in a platoon playing that role?”
Defence personnel minister Warren Snowdon said senior defence force members in Canada and New Zealand had told him there were no problems with women serving across the board. “There are obviously cultural issues which had to be worked through and that’s what we’re doing,” he told reporters. “But once they were bedded down there have been no significant impediments at all.”
The Australian Defence Association, an influential security thinktank, previously warned that female soldiers could face heavy casualties. Biomechanical differences between the sexes’ differences in muscle distribution, centres of gravity and rate of recovery from physical exertion could make even physically strong women more vulnerable in combat, according to Neil James, the association’s executive director.
“You’ve got to worry about the risk of disproportionate female casualties compared to men and the minister’s announcement really doesn’t indicate that he’s across all that detail,” James said.
Elizabeth Quintana, head of Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) said the move reflected a global opening up of military forces to women. “Just like every area in the society, the military will continue to be more open for women.”
But with punishing hours, dangerous activities and long periods away from home it would still be difficult for many more women to reach the top, she said. “The issue will be if there is a willingness within armed forces to be flexible. It is not a job that is easy to combine with having children and for now you may find that women at a senoir level are often single or do not have children.”