Monday, April 11, 2011

Combat roles offered to women By Mark Dodd

 Women will be allowed to serve in  frontline combat roles after the Gillard government ordered the Australian Defence Force to bring forward the removal of bans that have stopped women from applying for the most dangerous and demanding military jobs.

                                                                                                                 Picture: Gary Ramage
Australian soldier Jacqui de Gelder stands on patrol in Chora, Afghanistan.

 The historic decision by Defence Minister Stephen Smith means women who meet the tough physical standards required of their male counterparts will now be able to serve in elite special forces units such as the SAS, work as naval clearance divers and join general infantry and armoured units.
 The decision to fast-track women into combat roles coincided with the announcement of a raft of reviews and inquiries into the treatment of women in the defence force spurred by the Skype sex scandal.
 About 93 per cent of all jobs in the military are currently open to women, including serving in submarines and piloting fighter jets, with the 7 per cent of jobs closed to women mostly in the army.
 The changes mean Australia will soon join New Zealand, Canada and Israel, which have no restrictions on any defence jobs, including forward combat units.
 Mr Smith and the head of the defence force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, yesterday said that as long as women met the physical and academic requirements, any job was now open to them. However, meeting the rigorous entry standards for combat formations is likely to prove challenging. The Australian Defence Association lobby group remains sceptical about the use of women in combat, as does Keith Payne, the nation's oldest surviving holder of the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
 Mr Payne said that aside from the demanding physical requirements of combat infantry, a big concern for commanders would be responding to women wounded in action or captured.
 "If you're in a tight situation and one of the ladies goes down - and one of the blokes stops to pick her up - then that is the wrong thing to do," he said. "You're priority is to fight your way through to the bloody objective and then you come back and look after the casualties later."
 Mr Payne, who earned his VC in 1969 for gallantry in Vietnam, said he had enormous respect for Vietnamese women combatants, who served with distinction in combat units. But he added: "I'm old Victorian era. I don't think it's a place for women doing frontline duty."
 Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston said the sudden announcement appeared to be a distraction to divert attention from the of inquiries announced by Mr Smith into the Skype sex scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy. "It's like muddying the waters. It's an odd thing to have mentioned among all those inquiries," he said.
 Defence says the announcement complements the measures unveiled yesterday to improve gender equality in the military workforce. And Mr Smith said defence chiefs were in agreement about allowing women a combat role. "In principle, the government agrees with the policy position recommended to it by the Chief of the Defence Force that all positions should be opened up to women in the combat role subject to physical, intellectual capacity and capability," he said.
 "It's implementing that that is the challenge, and what is the science related to physical capacity."
 No date was set for achieving the fast-tracked timetable.
 Air Chief Marshal Houston said it was imperative that women were able to apply for all ADF jobs. "What we're looking at here is the last 7 per cent (of roles), which are all combat-related and mainly in the Australian army," he said. "We are all 100 per cent unanimous that this has to happen if we are to be a truly women-friendly organisation. We should have all positions open to women."
 Mr Smith said any military opportunity for women "should be determined on the basis of physical and intellectual capacity, not on gender. So the Chief of the Defence Force will bring forward that matter as a matter of priority."
 Defence was already assessing the physical requirements of all military roles in a $2.5 million study as a precursor to removing gender bars on combat roles.
 In 2009, then defence science and personnel minister Greg Combet said a joint study by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and Wollongong University would develop what he called a set of "physical employment standards" for women.
 ADA spokesman Neil James warned in an interview at the time of the study that the decision to open up all jobs to women would result in high female casualties.
 "I don't think the people of Australia would like to see their daughters, sisters, wives or female friends killed in disproportionate numbers to male service personnel," he said. "It's a simple physicality thing. On the battlefield, academic gender equity theory doesn't apply."
 Mr James said last night he stood by the comments, but added that "certain combat jobs could be opened up for women, including serving in self-propelled artillery and combat engineering units, as long as they were provided with the correct equipment".
 Former assistant defence force chief Major General Peter Abigail, who is now the head of
 the government-backed Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, said he fully supported women in combat roles, including special forces units.
 He said as long as selection standards were not lowered, there should be no bar for women who wanted to serve in elite forward units. "The only questions about that are how many girls would want to meet those benchmarks and, then, if you ended up with a unit with only a few girls in it, what difficulties might that present," Major General Abigail said. "But I'm quite relaxed about it. It's an idea whose time has arrived.
 "What I would hate to see happen would be standards lowered so that numbers could be met on the one hand, or a token arrangement where particular jobs are set aside which didn't require the same competencies.
 "There are going to be issues in terms of how they actually make it work, but I think we're past the time where we can argue."
 Entry selection to the SAS requires at least one year served in an army unit, typically the commando regiment or combat engineers. What follows is a combination of some of the most gruelling physical and mental tests designed to weed out all but the most dedicated.
 Tests vary, but can involve carrying an 80kg pack on endurance marches lasting several days. A test this year required entrants to each carry two 20-litre jerry cans of water in addition to their combat rucksacks.
 Psychological tests involved long question-and-answer sessions to test cultural sensitivities, being woken in the middle of the night to write essays or ordered to strip in the presence of women.


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