Australian army women may get a combat role

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The Independent Online

Women soldiers are rarely allowed to take ground combat roles, but that may be about to change in Australia after a policy review.

The overhaul, which will be decided by Cabinet in weeks, would remove all gender barriers from the military next year, arguably making the Australian Defence Force a leader on gender equality.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, right, who is the first woman to lead Australia, and Defence Minister Stephen Smith are among those urging change. Mr Smith says:"What you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability."

But questions remain about whether troops and the public are ready for women in combat roles. An influential security think-tank says it could inflict heavy casualties on Australia's women warriors. If the Cabinet supports the policy change it would be in place by the end of 2012 – giving women a chance to qualify for roles in Afghanistan before 2014, when the country plans to withdraw its 1,550 troops.

Gender boundaries have been retreating in Australian defence services for years. The government announced last month that women sailors can bunk with men in submarines. Women also can pilot helicopters and fighter jets. The positions closed to them include infantry, parachute, commando, special air services, artillery, tank and armoured cavalry units.

The current policy is similar to that of the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. None allow women in roles where their primary function is to fight enemies at close range, though women are trained to be combat-ready and can find themselves in such gunfights.

Even Israel, which drafts both men and women and is often cited as an example of gender equality in the military, does not allow women to serve in front-line ground units such as infantry, armour or special forces. AP