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Australia opens front-line military roles to women

Australian women will be allowed to serve in front-line combat roles after the government said Tuesday it was dropping all gender restrictions for the military.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Australian women will be allowed to serve in front-line combat roles after the government said Tuesday it was dropping all gender restrictions for the military.

Defense Minister Stephen Smith said Australia will follow Canada and New Zealand in allowing women who meet physical and psychological criteria to perform any role they choose, including serving as special forces troops.

"This is a significant and major cultural change," Smith said.

Women can currently serve in 93 percent of employment categories in the Australian Defense Force, which includes the army, navy and air force. But some roles have been reserved for men, including infantry, artillery and naval clearance diving.

'No restrictions'
The Cabinet agreed to the change Monday with the support of defense chiefs, Smith said.

"This is simply about putting into the front line those people who are best placed to do the job, irrespective of your sex," he said. "Once this is fully implemented there will be no restrictions. If a woman is fully capable of doing the entrance program for the Special Air Service or Commandos, they'll be in it."

Australia currently allows women to serve in Afghanistan with front-line artillery units and as drone aircraft operators, but they are barred from infantry combat units and special forces. Australian women also already serve on submarines and as air force jet fighter pilots.

The Australian Defense Association, an influential security think-tank, previously warned that the change could inflict heavy casualties on Australia's women warriors.

Neil James, the association's executive director, argues that there are biomechanical differences between the sexes — differences in muscle distribution, centers of gravity and rate of recovery from physical exertion — that make even physically strong women more vulnerable in combat.

"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.

View images of the women deployed as the second Female Engagement team in Afghanistan

The ban will be lifted immediately, but it may be up to five years before as the army must implement new tests on and train army doctors to operate on women, Smith added.

Smith said the change would not affect the Australian military's personnel exchanges with its major security partner, the United States.

Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led mission there.

Smith added that he expected no opposition from Australia's overseas allies, including U.S. and Afghan troops serving with Australian soldiers in southern Afghanistan's Uruzgan province.

Smith could not say whether the elite Special Air Service and Commando Regiments fighting in Uruzgan province could include women troopers before Australia withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014.

No quotas
But he said he knew of an Australian army platoon in which the best shot was a woman who should be considered for a combat role as a sniper.

"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?"

The military is working with a university to determine what physical capabilities are required for specific male-only jobs. The first of these jobs to be opened to women will be announced by next March. Smith said standards will not be dropped and there would be no quotas introduced for female representation.

Only 8,000 of Australia's almost 60,000 troops are female and defense chiefs have long attempted to recruit more women.

Australia was an original member of the U.S.-led coalition that invaded the country to oust the Taliban. It has lost 29 soldiers in almost a decade of conflict.