Should women have front-line combat roles in the ADF?

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The issue
In May 2001 the Defence Force released for the consideration of the Prime Minister and Cabinet a report recommending that women be eligible for front-line combat roles within the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
The report is to be considered over the next couple of months and immediately provoked considerable debate within the media as to whether women should be directly involved in front-line combat.

What they said ...
'We have established the principle that women can do combat roles and women can do everything men can do'
Federal Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello

'When you put women into areas where they're not allowed into now, you put them into harm's way'
Veterans Affairs Minister, Mr Bruce Scott
Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 13
Copyright © Echo Education Services

First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.

Issue outline by J M McInerney

At present women are barred from any role that could put them in hand-to-hand combat with enemy soldiers.
This means women cannot drive armoured tanks or serve in the artillery or engineer corps. In the Royal Australian Air Force they cannot serve as airfield defence guards. In the Navy they cannot serve as clearance divers.
If Australia lifts its current ban it will join the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Israel in allowing women to be front-line soldiers.

Chronology of Developments in the Employment of Women in the Australian Defence Force
(This is an edited version of information from a Defence Department Internet site. The full text can be found at - Do not link to this now - see Internet Links section first.)

International Year of Women. Chiefs of Staff Committee agreed to set up a Working Party to examine and report on the role of women in the Defence Force.
Recommendation that women should be permitted to serve on active service but not in combat roles. Many non-traditional areas were opened to women, including engineering cadetships and radio technician.

WRAAF was abolished and females integrated into mainstream RAAF, and equal pay for women officers was approved.

Equal pay for women was granted in WRANS.

Equal pay with males was granted across the three services.

Government signed a United Nations Convention "the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women" (CEDAW). Defence requested exemptions for combat and combat-related duties.
First female Officers embarked on short familiarisation cruiser in HMAS Jervis Bay.
The separate WRANS rank insignias were abolished and the rank structure of the RAN was adopted.

CEDAW was ratified by Australia. Australia's two Reservations to CEDAW applied to women being excluded from combat-related and combat duties that were consistent with policy at that time.

Due to Australia's Reservations to CEDAW, women who had been employed in combat related duties such as third-line transport in RACT and in the RAE in the Army were unable to continue to be employed in these roles.
Abolition of Women's Royal Australian Army Corps and amalgamation with mainstream Army.
All women who joined the Navy from September 1984 were informed that they would be liable for sea service.
Sex Discrimination Act promulgated. It allowed the ADF not to employ women in combat and combat-related positions.
17 000 positions (23.5 per cent) open to women in competition with males.
First female Officers were permitted to complete full training courses in HMAS Jervis Bay.

7 June Women's Royal Australian Navy Service Regulations repealed and separate Women's Services abolished, and the integration of women personnel into the RAN. Consequently the Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service (RANNS) was also abolished and replaced with the Nursing Branch.
First female Naval Officers and female sailors-permitted to serve in seagoing billets.
Services agreed that an Instruction on sexual harassment should be promulgated.

Promulgation of Defence Instruction on sexual harassment.
21 750 (35 per cent) positions open to women in competition with males.

First two female pilot course graduates.
8.8% of ADF personnel (6239) were women.

Minister for Defence Science and Personnel conducted conference to discuss way ahead for women in the ADF.
Navy appointed the first female Commanding Officer.

28 562 positions (43 per cent) open to women in competition with males.

Review of Defence Instruction (General) on sexual harassment.
Army set up Combat Related Employment of Women Evaluation Team (CREWET).
Navy initiated 'Employment of Women at Sea Implementation Plan' to balance sea to shore ratio with available accommodation.
Chief of the Naval Staff agreed to allow women to serve in combat related positions and in all ships in peacetime except submarines.
Navy females on ships deploying to the Gulf would remain onboard.
Three RAAF female pilots employed in combat related roles in C130 aircraft at 36 Squadron.
Chiefs of Staff Committee reviewed the employment of women in the ADF expanding numbers of combat-related positions available to women.

Navy abolished the term WRAN from the female ranks.
Chief of the Naval Staff agreed that women could serve in Collins class submarines.

'Halfway to Equal' (the Report of the Inquiry into Equal Opportunity and Equal Status for Women in Australia) recommended Defence exemptions under the Sex Discrimination Act be rejected. Some exemptions were retained.
Defence Instruction (General) 35-3 'Unacceptable Sexual Behaviour by Members of the ADF' issued on 22 June.
Review of the Employment of Women in Combat and Combat-Related Positions submitted to Chiefs of Staff Committee. In December the Government announced that women could serve in all positions other than a limited number of types of units, opening up 87 per cent of the ADF to women in competition with males.

Defence Instruction (General) 35-3 revised to reflect current developments.

Defence Instruction (General) 35-3 substantially revised to reflect outcome of Senate Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the ADF.

The report of The Review of the Employment of Women in the Australian Defence Force was produced (The "Ferguson Report"). The aim was to examine the existing ADF policy regarding the employment of women and recommend any change.
RAN commenced training women for service in submarines.

Defence Instruction (General) 35-3 revised and reissued in March 1999 after taking in to account issues raised in relation to reported incidents and the requirements of Commanders in dealing with unacceptable behaviour issues.
In July the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) endorsed the decision from on the 1998 Review of the Employment of Women in the ADF and affirmed that ADF employment policy is to be competency based. The priority for the development of competencies was identified as the ADF Combat Arm employment categories.

A project team was established to develop competencies for the Combat Arms. Physical competencies developed must allow determination of whether the work areas should be opened to the employment of women.

Internet links

The Parliamentary Library of the Parliament of Australia houses an issues paper prepared by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group. It is titled 'Women in the armed forces: the role of women in the Australian Defence Force'. It was last updated on December 22, 2000.
This is an excellent source supplying a great deal of clear and detailed information. It has superb links to other sources of relevant information.
It can be found at

NOTE on next 3 links: the original files are .doc files which can only be opened in the very latest versions of Windows and Microsoft Word. Echo has converted the originals into ordinary HTML files. These alternatives are marked in RED after the original links. It is suggested that the ALTERNATIVES be used if you are unsure.

The Australian Defence Department has a full chronology of key developments in the employment of women in the defence of Australia. The first entry is dated 1899 and it goes through to 2000. This is a fine information source. An edited version of developments since 1975 is included at the start of this issue outline. The full chronology can be found at (Alternative:- CLICK HERE

A background paper prepared by the Australian Defence Department and outlining current employment practices effecting women in the ADF can be found at
It is titled 'Women in Combat' (Alternative:- CLICK HERE

The Hon Bruce Scott MP, Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence presented a policy position paper and general overview of the role of women in the ADF on May 13, 1999.. It was titled 'Australian Women and Defence: A Century of Service'. It was delivered at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
The presentation can be found at (Alternative:- CLICK HERE

In 2000 Australia modified its position on the employment of women within the armed forces, allowing them in combat-related positions. A National Interest Analysis explaining this shift in policy was tabled in Parliament on April 7, 2000.
The document can be found at

In 1987, the Canadian Forces (CF) began recruiting women into combat arms occupations in support of the Combat Related Employment of Women trials, and in 1989, a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the CF to fully integrate women into all occupations by 1999.
A report on the experience of women who have served in the combat arms, made to the Chief of Land Staff's Gender Integration Study in 1998, indicates that the Canadian Army has experienced difficulty in attracting women into, and retaining them in the combat arms and related occupations.
This report allows for some interesting comparisons with the Australian situation. It can be found at

DACOWITS is the United States Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. It makes recommendations to the Secretary of Defence on matters affecting women in the services. It has been in existence since 1951 and is made up of a group of civilian volunteers.
DACOWITS Internet site can be found at
It links to all the recommendations the body has made from 1951 through to 2001.
It also links to its four most recent Issues publications, outlining areas of concern re the utilisation of women within the United States armed services.

Arguments for women having front-line combat roles in the ADF
1. Women are not given full and equal access to all positions within the ADF for which they are suited
Former Army Chief Lieutenant-General, Frank Hickling, admitted to a Senate inquiry in 1999 that denying women combat jobs was discriminatory and prevented them from reaching the highest levels of the force.
It is argued that, as a civil rights and equality issue, women who are willing and capable of performing in front-line combat should be permitted to do so.
Professor Marilyn Lake, a lecturer in history at La Trobe University, has stated, 'It's a matter of women's and men's equal citizenship and that women should be equally eligible to defend the country.'

2. Only women physically and psychologically fit for front-line combat would be selected for such positions
The recent Defence Department report claims there is no medical reason why women should be excluded from combat roles as long as they are the same height, weight and fitness level as men.
This point was developed further in an editorial published in The Age on May 15, 2001. The editorial stated, 'It is true that in general women are not as physically strong as men and this will probably mean there will never be as many women as men in combat roles. Yet some women are as strong, or stronger, than some men and, as female police officers and security guards have shown, are quite capable of overcoming men if it comes to a physical contest.'

3. The nature of warfare has changed and women are now particularly well-suited to it
This point was made in an editorial published in The Australian on May 15, 2001. The editorial stated, '... the changing nature of military technology has meant the divisions between front-line combat and support roles has become blurred ... Moreover, because of the increasing reliance on military technology, front-line combat has become relatively rare ... In East Timor, Australia's female troops took part in virtually everything except patrols. Yet in a guerrilla conflict such as that, there was no front line in the traditional sense.'
According to this line of argument, modern styles of warfare, because of their greater reliance on technology on the one hand and the lesser likelihood of formal pitched battles on the other, have largely removed the old style front-line combat.
This means that women would be better able to participate in the types of battle that are currently fought. It also means that the sorts of support roles that women are now eligible to perform are little different from the situations in which they would find themselves if they were allowed into front-line combat.
It has also been claimed that women are well suited to technologically based warfare.
Ian McPhedran, the defence reporter for The Herald Sun, has claimed, 'Psychological studies show that in some aspects women are better suited than men to the heat of battle. They are capable of superior and faster comprehension ...'

4. Women have engaged in combat in the past and do so now in other nations
It has been noted that individual women, such as Frenchwomen Emilienne Moreaux, fought with distinction in the trenches during World War I. It has also been noted that in Russia during World War II almost a million women took combat roles. Further, women such as World War II French resistance fighter, Nancy Wake, have successfully taken part in highly dangerous espionage operations.
Today it has been noted that the United States, Canada, Norway, The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Israel all allow women to be front-line soldiers.

5. Societal attitudes toward women on the front-line will change
It has been noted that front-line combat is one of the few areas in Australian life to which women are not given the same access as mean. It has further been argued that as societal attitudes have changed with regard to other activities that are now considered suitable for women, the same process will occur with regard to women in combat roles.
The Age in an editorial published on may 15, 2001, noted, 'It is hard to believe that only 30 years ago debates were taking place about whether women should drive trams or buses - and there were even fiercer debates about whether they should fly commercial aircraft. These obstacles to women's equality, and many others, have gone.' A number of social commentators have suggested that objections to women in combat roles will similarly disappear.
Michael O'Connor, executive director of Australia Defence Association, has made this point. Mr O'Connor has stated, 'The recommendation to Cabinet to eliminate the restrictions [against women in the armed forces] is overdue. In the context of ... equal opportunity ... those restrictions have been largely indefensible.'

6. There is a decreasing number of men who want to join the armed forces, especially to take up front-line positions
This point was made in an editorial published in The Australian on May 15, 2001. The editorial stated, 'The defence forces face serious recruitment and retention problems, and putting women on an equal footing with men may broaden the recruitment base.
Female recruits have dominated the graduating classes of the Australian Defence Force Academy in recent years, but are more likely to quit the armed forces ahead of their male counterparts.
One plausible explanation for this is that keeping women out of combat roles denies them experience that would help them shatter the glass ceiling that cuts them off from seniority.'

Arguments against women having front-line combat roles in the ADF
1. Women already occupy all the positions within the RDF for which they are suited
Supporters of the status quo argue that women do not need to be given access to front-line combat roles, as they are already eligible to serve in virtually all areas on the armed forces.
At present there are 6500 women in the ADF or 12.8 per cent of the total force. They have access to 90 per cent of jobs including many potential combat roles.
In the navy they serve in Collins submarines and in warships and in the air force they can fly fighter jets and transport aircraft.

2. Women are physically and psychologically unfit for front-line combat
The Returned Soldiers League (RSL) has argued that women are not physically strong enough to fight in the front lines. It has been claimed that in hand-to-hand combat men's 50 percent greater upper body strength would give them a crucial advantage over female troops. It has also been claimed that men's greater physical endurance and larger lung capacity, together with their 30 percent greater lower body strength, would give them a significant advantage in forced marches carrying heavy equipment.
Ken Bladen, the Western Australian RSL president, has stated, '... their haversacks in wartime ... will consist of ammunition, water, supplies. I mean you're talking about a haversack of about 35 to 40 kilos. We don't believe that for sustained periods women should be carrying them.'
In addition it is claimed that women are likely to have a greater susceptibility to danger-induced stress and thus may be more likely than men to put their own lives and the lives of their comrades at risk in front-line combat.
Rusty Priest, the acting RSL national president, has summed up these arguments. Mr Priest has stated that the factors making women unsuitable for front-line combat service are 'physical and mental stress, prolonged and continuous physical exposure to cold and heat and rain, lack of adequate hygiene and exposure to close personal danger.'

3. Women have special hygiene requirements that could not be guaranteed in combat situations
Ken Bladen, the Western Australian RSL president, has argued, '... there is another reason, and that is because of their physical attributes there's a definite danger of infection if they (women soldiers) can't wash on a regular basis.'
Though it has not been stated openly by those who are opposed to women as front-line combat troops, the concern here appears to be that menstruation makes personal hygiene a more significant issue for women than it is for men.
It has also been suggested that women have a greater physical susceptibility to urinary tract infection so, again, regular washing is more important for them than it is for men.

4. Women soldiers taken captive by the enemy would be raped and would face a greater risk of torture
Ken Bladen, the Western Australian RSL president, has made this point. Mr Bladen has stated, 'I'll be frank with you, she's going to be raped and possibly tortured more than the men will (if captured by the enemy).'

5. Women in front line combat would damage the morale and effectiveness of male soldiers
It has been argued that male troops would find it difficult to accept women in the front-line. It has been suggested that men have a natural tendency to protect women and that this would be present even in a front-line situation and would make it difficult for male soldiers to give women soldiers an equal load of combat duties.
It has further been argued that male soldiers are likely to resent any concessions made to female soldiers - such as giving women a greater opportunity to wash and modifying training and exercise regimes to better suit women's physical requirements.
It has also been suggested that sexist attitudes are entrenched in army life and that these could result in anything from prejudiced treatment of women soldiers through to sexual harassment, bastardisation and sexual assault.
The current Defence Minister, Peter Reith, while not opposing women in the front-line, has warned of the possibility of sexual harassment. He has referred to the first sea-postings of women in the Australian Navy after which female sailors aboard the HMAS Swan were subjected to some highly publicised incidents of sexual harassment.

6. Society is not yet ready to accept women as front-line troops
Placing women in the front-line is essentially a cultural and ethical issue.
It is not fundamentally a question of whether women are physically or psychologically capable of performing such roles. It is more a question of whether society is ready to accept women as killers or to accept that women's lives can be lost in the defence of their country.
Opponents of women in front-line combat roles argue that Australia is not ready to have women serve as state endorsed killers or to take the greatly increased risk that women in combat roles will be killed in battle.
It has been suggested that having women in front-line combat positions might make governments more reluctant than they currently are to commit Australia troops to military engagements.
This point was made in an editorial published in The Australian on May 15, 2001. The editorial stated, 'Had any of our female troops serving in East Timor been sent home in body bags, there undoubtedly would have been a far bigger public outcry than if their male counterparts had met the same fate.'

Further implications
There is a range of factors associated with this issue that do not appear to have received full consideration within the media.
Firstly, it has been suggested that one of the reasons why the armed forces in Australia may be interested in having women assume front-line combat roles is that they has been experiencing some recruiting problems in this area among men. Combat positions are the least prestigious and least well-paid positions in the armed forces, in part because there are no directly comparable positions in civilian life against which wage levels can be set. There is a certain irony in supporters of women's rights seeking for women a role that a majority of men do not appear to want.
Secondly, it is notable that service in the armed forces is currently being viewed as a right whereas traditionally it has been viewed as a duty or an obligation - one that, on occasion, has been enforced by conscription. In the event of Australia being involved in a large-scale armed combat it is interesting to speculate whether the supporters of combat roles for women would also support the conscription of all able-bodied women of service age.
Service within the armed forces is not a right comparable to equal access to other areas of employment, as there are circumstances during which citizens can be compelled by law to fight for their country. The issue of conscription and how it would apply to women needs to be considered. Defenders of women's right to fight for their country stress that there are women who want to take up this role; the position of women who do not want to fight needs to be considered.
There is a tendency to believe that with the shrinking of Australia's armed service personnel and a growing reliance on technology that conscription is an issue of the past. This is not automatically the case as there have been a number of proposals over recent years that some form of compulsory national service be employed to help address the problems associated with youth unemployment in Australia.

Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $21.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

The Age
14/5/01 page 4 news item by Darren Gray, 'Report backs women in combat'
15/5/01 page 4 news item by Larissa Dubcki, 'Combatants or rank outsiders?'
15/5/01 page 14 editorial, 'Girls can do anything'
16/5/01 page 18 cartoon by Leunig

The Australian
14/5/01 page 2 news item by Kevin Meade and Robert Garran, 'Dissent in the ranks over women in combat'
15/5/01 page 4 news item by Robert Garran and John Kerin, 'Conflict over women in combat'
15/5/01 page 9 analysis by Robert Garran and John Kerin, 'Tough enough for combat?'
15/5/01 page 10 editorial, 'Frontline no barrier in gender wars'
15/5/01 page 11 comment by Michael O'Connor, 'ADF's right for the wrong reason'

The Herald Sun
14/5/01 page 7 news item by Andrew Probyn, 'Women in combat'
15/5/01 page 11 news item by Ian McPhedran, 'Female troops gagged'
15/5/01 page 11 news item, 'Democrats back women in combat'
15/5/01 page 19 cartoon by Knight, 'Coming soon to the ADF: Rambolina'
15/5/01 page 20 editorial, 'Front-line women'
15/5/01 page 21 comment by Ian McPhedran, 'Women can be smart fighters'