How Soon Will Australia's Female Soldiers Be on the Frontlines?

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Captain Jodie Forlonge poses with her Australian Defence Force (ADF) Black Hawk helicopter in Northern Queensland on February 22, 2007

When Lynda Voltz joined the Australian military police in 1987, she did the same job as her male counterparts. "There were three of us and we did 24-hour military patrols. I would go out there and patrol alone, and the blokes who did them with me would also patrol alone. There was absolutely no difference in the tasks we did," she says. Now a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and an MP for Kevin Rudd's Labor Party, Voltz says she joined the military police because in 1987 it was the only military corps in which, as a woman, she would see some action. "I wasn't going to join the army to cook, or to type, or to be a signaler in some room."

Things in the Australian Defense Force (ADF) have changed since Voltz's days. Now 92% of military roles are available to women, and in a drive to make Australia's army even more female friendly, the government is looking at opening up the other eight. On Sep. 8 the Defense Science and Personnel Minister, Greg Combet told Parliament that the Defense Science and Technology Organization at Wollongong University will start the long process of evaluating the physical standards for all military tasks. This will take several years, but once the results are in, all branches of the ADF will be required to hire recruits based on whether they meet the physical benchmark — and gender and age requirements will be thrown out the window.

Women in the Australian army taken some significant steps towards equality since 1979 when it was announced that they would get the same pay as their male colleagues. In 1987, the Royal Australian Airforce saw the first two women complete their education toward becoming pilots, and by 1992 most positions became open to women with the exclusion of frontline roles. At the beginning of 2009, the category of ground-based air defense was opened to women. But despite these advances, Australian women still only occupy 13% of military positions. And today, they are lawfully excluded from roles in seven divisions of the army, these including navy clearance diver, the Special Air Services (SAS) and various positions on the ground that involve direct combat. Before last month, the ruling logic was that women were not physically strong enough to do these jobs. When the new standards come into place, women with a high fitness level will hopefully be enticed by the range of opportunities available to them.

For many, offering women combat positions makes perfect sense. Australian women already serve in the frontline as fighter pilots and ship commanders, and now they will join the ranks of women in Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Denmark and a handful of European nations who allow females to fight on the grond alongside their male counterparts. There about 10 Western countries who allow women into direct combat. "I don't see why it's an impediment, beyond the short term," says Michael McKinley a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Strategy at the Australian National University. "You would have to basically train the male soldier to treat women the same way they would treat a male if they were wounded or in particular danger. It wouldn't take long."

But taking equality in the military to this level has its critics. Former military officer and opposition lawmaker Stuart Robert believes that physically, women aren't cut out for combat, and says that while Israel's regional threats may justify female combat soldiers, Australia's do not. "It's like putting a woman in the ring with Mike Tyson, or putting them in the Wallabies [a male rugby team]," says Robert. "Why do they separate men and women in the Olympics? Maybe they should all compete in the same events?" Robert believes that even if women do meet the state's test criteria for certain jobs, the reality of war presents a bigger different kind of physical challenge. "On a route fitness assessment you may be forced to carry 25 kg," he says. "But can you carry that weight when you haven't slept for days? Can you carry that weight after parachuting in the rain and landing in the mud?"

Many also argue that women in combat pose a security risk to their nation's mission because as hostages, they are potentially more vulnerable to rape and torture than their male counterparts. "You have to admit that, yes, conceptually, it's more likely that women would be in more danger," says McKinley. "I am not convinced that it would have to be the case, but it is possible." Men, after all, are also subject to sexual assault and abuse as prisoners. For Robert, the question is not so much whether men and women will be treated differently in capture — he doesn't believe they would be — but whether male soldiers could watch a woman being tortured and react in a way that wouldn't endanger the rest of the troops or inspire them to reveal state secrets. "The attitude with men [in capture] is just 'Suck it in and welcome to captivity,' but if they watching a woman suffer like that, it's a whole different ball game."

So far, the debate is still hypothetical. The Centre of Expertise in Physical Employment Standards (PES), established in August, will take several years to come up with a final set of standards. That's when the real discourse will begin. But so far Australia seems a little bit hesitant to support its women warriors. On one Australian news web site's poll, 54% of readers voted that they aren't prepared to see Australian women in battle. But others are open to the idea. A commenter named 'Bob' on the Australian Daily Telegraph web site left his opinion for the record: "It's a real easy scenario. You set the fitness standards and the training regime. WHOEVER passes it gets in. End of story."