Female Empowerment: Frontline Combat Roles for Aussie Women

Mark Dodd, in The Australian, 29 September 2011, under titleAccess to All Areas.”

HOURS after Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced the lifting of restrictions preventing women from serving in front-line combat units, navy captain Michele Miller was presented as the Australian Defence Force’s poster girl to support the plan.  Articulate, intelligent, ambitious, dedicated, unquestionably brave and now pregnant, Miller recounted how in 2004 as second-in-command of the frigate HMAS Stuart she led a recovery party to rescue wounded US servicemen after al-Qa’ida terrorists blew up an Iraqi oil terminal.

“I had my chance to see body bags and to deal with that distress and what happens when you get combat casualties,” she told reporters quietly. Miller is a strong supporter of the new deal for women to participate in close-quarters combat and Defence would sorely like more Millers. Less was said of her long haul to senior command since her graduation as a junior officer at the Australian Defence Force Academyin 1991. Ask anyone in Defence from the former chief, Peter Cosgrove, to the incumbent, David Hurley, and his deputy, Mark Binskin, and they’ll tell you that combat experience is a definite career enhancer. It was one reason Smith cites for the opening of the last 7 per cent of military jobs from which women have been barred solely because of sex.

Women will now be allowed to apply for all military jobs in the ADF, an offer that quickly has gained worldwide media attention. A carefully monitored implementation will go into effect across five years, beginning next year.

The Defence Minister says he is mindful of the sensitivity of the reform and the likely prospect of resistance by long-serving defence personnel in a culture hidebound by tradition. “It’s important that implementation of this matter be done carefully, methodically, and is done to ensure that the appropriate training and other opportunities are available to enable women to take up these positions if they so chose,” Smith says.

So what jobs are available, how is this a game-changer for the ADF and what of the experiences of other countries that have adopted similar measures, namely Canada, Israel and New Zealand. East Timor aside, New Zealand has had little involvement in contemporary warfare so its experience is largely irrelevant.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy confirms a “revolution” is under way in terms of opportunities for women to enlist in Israeli Defence Force units. “Every year, the number of women who volunteer for combat units is increasing,” she says, adding that only volunteers are accepted for front-line units. The IDF’s job list for women includes light armoured vehicle and tank driver-operators, explosives detector dog handlers, combat medics, fast jet pilots, and search and rescue personnel. Asked to comment onIsrael’s experience with female volunteers for elite combat formations such as the Golani Brigade, the embassy spokeswoman says it appears that female applicants cannot “cut it physically”.

Canada, the other progressive nation to have lifted barriers on women serving in forward-infantry units — a decision taken in 1989 — has women deployed as front-line company commanders in Afghanistan. Women comprise about 15 per cent of Canadian Forces personnel, of whom 2 per cent are classified as combat troops. (InAustralia, the 8006 women serving in the ADF make up 13.8 per cent of the total.)

Unlike the ADF, there are about 100 female combat officers in the regular force, including one who was killed in action. In May 2006, Nichola Goddard, a captain with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, was helping to direct fire on to a Taliban position in Afghanistan when her light armoured vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. For female army personnel in Australia, many of the new job opportunities are in the infantry, including special forces, combat engineers, artillery and the armoured corps.

The Royal Australian Air Force, regarded as second only after the navy in terms of equal opportunity, will now accept applications for its Airfield Defence Regiment.

However, unlike the US, Canada, Britain, Israel and France, Australia is still waiting to graduate its first female fast-jet pilot, even though this stream was open to women for years before Tuesday’s surprise announcement.

Finally, the navy is now open for female clearance divers.

It was no accident Miller was presented to the media because, of all services, the navy leads the way in equal opportunities for women, beginning with a 1998 decision to allow female crew to serve on submarines, an initiative still unmatched by Britain or the US.

It helps that there is little close quarters combat involving warship crews — aside from ship-boarding parties — one reason women have had more success in attaining more senior jobs in the navy than in its two sister services.

In December, navy Surgeon-General designate Robyn Walker will become the RAN’s first woman to be promoted to the rank of rear admiral.

But these women are exceptions in the ultra blokey top echelons of defence hierarchy.

About 1500 Australian troops are serving in war-tornAfghanistan, including many women based in forward units as combat medics, communications and intelligence specialists.

So, with integration plans well advanced, how many women want to try for selection to combat units, and what of their prospects of success based on the demanding physical and psychological requirements?

Retired chief of army Peter Leahy, a seniorUniversityofCanberraacademic, is a keen supporter of the initiative but reckons fewer than 2 per cent to 3 per cent of female applicants will pass infantry selection.

What’s all the fuss about, he asks. Women are already in combat. Unofficial figures provided to this newspaper suggest up to 15 per cent of military jobs inAfghanistaninvolve women.

The nature of modern warfare such asAfghanistanmeans war among the population without well-defined fronts and flanks, Leahy says. “It’s war among the population and women are there among the support roles, they’re already right up there on the front line.

“So, practice shows us they are not going to pull back on our capabilities; they add capabilities when you work among communities who expect their women will be searched or spoken to by other women,” he says.

He also supports the right of women to fight in hand-to-hand combat. “I support it in principle and practice as long as that practice means that the tests are robust and proper and have been scientifically developed so that whoever passes them — male or female — can do the job.” Practically, that could mean being able to carry a wounded fully laden soldier weighing more than 100kg from the battlefield, Leahy says. Informal army studies indicate few women will take up the offer of actual combat, he adds.

“We’ve done some preliminary tests to see how many would be involved, and it’s not many, with figures showing 2 [per cent] or 3 per cent might be able to meet the physical requirements, and they’re busy being Olympic athletes or playing basketball for professional teams,” Leahy says.

“Certainly in my experience, as I travelled around the army trying to gauge what people were thinking, I didn’t find many women who actually wanted to be in the infantry.”

Despite indications that few women will opt for a combat role, the announcement remains contentious among incumbent and former military commanders. Speaking on ABC1’s Lateline program, Hurley foreshadowed the initiative would meet with resistance from long-serving traditionalists within the defence force. “This is one of the reasons we need to be conservative in our approach to transitioning from where we are today.

“This is a big step in a cultural sense; it’s a big management challenge for the ADF at all levels to bring the organisation along behind this,” he said, adding: “There will be the concerns you normally read in the media about: ‘Are women up to it?’ ‘We’ll have to look after them’ — those sorts of positions at the emotional end.

“Then there will be simply some who will say that they cannot physically do it. To those people, we say this: it’s all about setting physical standards that if you achieve them, you can do the job. Move on with it.”

Smith’s announcement has been immediately welcomed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who says women aspiring to serve in a combat role can now do so “on the basis of merit and ability”, rather than sex.

But the decision rankles traditionalists, including several distinguished former senior officers. Former army commander and head of UN forces in Cambodia John Sanderson says he has reservations about the practical implementation of the plan. “This is a fundamentally important decision about the future of the army and its capability to fight battles in the national interest,” Sanderson says. “This issue has been around globally for many, many years and there are experiences associated with this in other parts of the world where battles have been fought. It’s worth our while to look at those,” he cautions.

Retired major-general Jim Molan, who commanded coalition forces in theIraqwar, offers this blunt assessment: society must be prepared to bear the consequences of women serving in front-line combat roles. “What the government is now saying is that women can go into units that are optimised for killing at close quarters,” Molan says. “And if society wants that, then society can have it — and bear the consequences.” Molan warns that implementing gender equity on the battlefield also will add considerable cost to an already tight defence budget.

The Australian Defence Association’s Neil James, a former army intelligence officer, says he has concerns about how society will deal with news of female combatants killed in action. No friend of the Defence Minister, James questions the timing of the announcement.

“It may be just coincidence, but it came on the morning The Australian had a banner headline about Julia Gillard having a problem with female voters, and minister Smith has form here because he first introduced this issue when he was copping flak about his handling of the ADFA incident back in April, and he announced it as a distraction then.”

Meanwhile, the five-year transition to achieve full integration tells its own story, James says. “They [ADF] don’t foresee this being an easy process,” he says.

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