Australia Exploring New Front-Line Roles for Female Soldiers

Australia may allow female soldiers to serve in front-line combat roles under proposed equal-opportunity guidelines that stoked debate Wednesday on whether women can meet the physical demands.

Defence Personnel Minister Greg Combet told Parliament Tuesday that new physical employment standards were being developed for the Australian Defence Force that remove gender and age criteria and would hopefully help recruit more women to the military.

"My own view is that all categories should be open to women," Combet said. "The only exceptions should be where the physical demands cannot be met according to criteria that are determined on the basis of scientific analysis rather than assumptions about gender."

Canada, New Zealand, Israel and a handful of European countries allow women to serve in combat roles. Australian women already serve in front-line units deployed in Afghanistan but are restricted to noncombat support roles. Female soldiers make up less than 15 percent of Australia's military.

The military recruitment Web site lists a number of positions that "are currently not available to females," including navy clearance divers and jobs within the army's infantry, armored and artillery corps.

Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, said most Australian soldiers were comfortable with the current standards, which are based on physical strength and allow women to work in 92 percent of defense jobs.

"Unfortunately, too many people are looking at it using civilian gender equity guidelines rather than the requirements of the battlefield," James told Sky News.

Combet argued that defence scientists were creating better bombs, better protection for troops and better camouflage, making combat jobs a bit easier to do. He said new physical employment standards were still years away from being implemented and stressed that his agency's top leaders would make any final decision.

Opposition lawmaker Stuart Robert, a former military officer, urged the government to think "long and hard" before allowing women in combat roles.

"(Combet) has never parachuted at night in the rain, he's never carried a mortar baseplate for 50 kilometers in a route march," Robert told reporters in Canberra. "For him to stand there and give his opinion and push the government into something is simply outrageous."

One female soldier, Capt. Anne-Marie Russell, gave qualified support to the idea.

"If women can compete to the same standards as a male, then there should be no limitations on what roles they can do," she told Sky News. "But there should be no lowering of standards to enable women to join certain work environments."