Australia decided last Tuesday, September 27, that its women in the military can work in any combat job, including fighting in the commando units at the front-line. Australia’s Defense Minister Stephen Smith confirmed that Australia would implement the changes in military regulations over a five-year period, with a focus on the physical and psychological capacities of each individual rather than one’s gender. The changes will affect the army most directly, as opposed to other branches of Australia’s Defence Force (ADF) where woman already serve in combat roles. In comparison to the rest of the world, the Australian military already deploys a significant number of women in the ADF. The military sent more than 2,000 female troops to fight in Iraq and it currently makes up the largest contingent of female troops deployed by any non-NATO member fighting in Afghanistan. Australia joins the ranks of the very few countries that currently afford women equal opportunities in the military.
The Pentagon did not issue an official reaction to this news, although U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made statements insinuating that the U.S. military may see similar changes in the near future. Panetta stated that, “I am committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant. These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country, and that’s what should matter the most.” Other recent changes in the U.S. military include the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as well as the April 2011 announcement that the U.S. will permit women in the Navy to hold jobs on nuclear submarines. Additionally, there is pressure from outside the government to further decrease gender barriers in the U.S. military, illuminated by the recommendation by a commission for diversity in the armed forces that the U.S. consider allowing women to serve on the front lines.
While the U.S. bars women from engaging in direct combat on the ground, American women are participating in combat situations due to the change in warfare tactics as elucidated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are currently teams in the U.S. Marines consisting entirely of female troops in order that they may interact with local communities, and specifically local women, in ways that may be culturally unacceptable for male soldiers. As such, more than 140 female troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. Additionally, a 2008 poll found that 85% of U.S. female service members have been deployed to a combat zone or drew extra pay for serving in dangerous and hostile areas.
Australian Defense Minister, Stephen Smith stated that “what you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability, not simply on the basis of sex,“ and Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is in full support of the changes in regulation. Once Australia implements this change, there will be no barriers or restrictions on women in the military. The military is currently working to determine the requisite physical tests it will employ for each job in the ADF. Among the changes, qualified women will now be able to lead infantry units or work as snipers and commandos, as well as have the opportunity to command the entire military.
No one expects opposition from overseas allies, including U.S and Afghan troops, currently serving with Australian soldiers. Conversely, there are those groups and individuals that staunchly oppose equality for women in the military. The Australia Defense Association (ADA) is one such lobbyist group that opposed this decision. The ADA’s Executive Director, Neil James, argues that there are physical differences between men and women that make women more vulnerable in combat situations. James gave the warning that “on the battlefield, academic gender equity theory doesn’t apply.” Additionally, retired Major-General Jim Molan cautioned that “society must be prepared to bear the consequences of women serving in front-line combat roles . . . and if society wants that, then society can have it – and bear the consequences.”
Other countries that currently allow women to serve on the front lines include Canada, Germany, South Korea, France, Spain, Denmark, New Zealand, and Israel. The U.S. allows women to serve on the front-line, yet not in direct ground combat. Australia’s decision means that men in combat roles from countries that do not allow women on the front lines will be fighting alongside women from countries such as Australia. Additionally, due to the changing style of warfare, it appears that nations worldwide are deploying women in their militaries into front-line combat zones regardless of their nation’s policies. While the United States has not yet taken the step to give women equal opportunity in the military, Australia’s announcement is something that certainly gives the U.S., as well as countries around the world, some policy considerations for the near future.