Australia yesterday opened frontline combat roles to women for the first time in its history under a new policy allowing all military positions to be filled on merit rather than gender.
Defense Minister Stephen Smith said the changes, approved by the Cabinet on Monday night, would give women access to the 7 percent of military roles currently restricted to men.
Only three of Australia’s military partners allow women on the front line — New Zealand, Canada and Israel, Smith said.
The new policy will be phased in over five years to ensure that female combatants had the necessary training and preparation, he added, describing it as a major cultural and operational shift.
“From this day forward ... no combat roles, no frontline role will be excluded from an Australian on the basis of his or her sex, it will be open to anyone to apply on the basis of merit,” Smith said.
“This is a significant and major cultural change,” he added.
However, opponents of the move condemned it as a “political gimmick and a distraction.”
Women account for about 10,000 of the 81,000 full and part-time positions in Australia’s armed forces, with the newly opened roles mainly as frontline infantry and artillery soldiers, naval clearance divers and airfield guards.
The changes would not prescribe female ratios for frontline positions, Smith said, and it was “entirely a matter for the men and women of the defense force to put their names forward for a particular role.”
The reform was widely supported by senior military chiefs, Smith said, and work would begin immediately.
The move would boost Australia’s compliance with sex discrimination conventions, he added.
“It is a logical extension to the very strongly held view in Australian society that all of us are equal irrespective of our backgrounds and irrespective of our sex,” he added.
New guidelines will be developed outlining the physical and mental requirements for elite jobs and both men and women would have to satisfy them, Defence Personnel Minister Warren Snowdon said.
“It will mean in the future we may well see women leading, for example, infantry companies,” Snowdon said.
Women would be allowed to work as snipers and commandos and Smith said the reforms would clear the way for a female to one day command the entire military as chief of defence — a role until now confined to men.
He denied the changes would in any way diminish defense standards or that it would make Australian forces a greater target in conflict zones such as Afghanistan.
Neil James, head of the Australian Defence Association lobby group, has previously warned that close-quarters combat is too dangerous for women and that they were more likely to be killed in frontline environments than men.
He accused Canberra yesterday of “jumping the gun” on research currently being carried out by defense officials about women’s abilities in a military context.
“It doesn’t actually give us a lot of confidence that this is anything more than another political gimmick and a distraction,” he said.
Snowdon conceded there was a “variety of opinions” about the shift and there would be strong pockets of resistance, but he was confident they could be managed.
The changes come as Australia reviews the treatment of women in its military following a number of sex scandals — the most highly publicized involving the Internet streaming of a female cadet having sex at a top defense academy.