CANBERRA, Australia — Australia will remove all gender barriers in its military over the next five years, opening up positions that previously had been considered too dangerous for women, including front-line combat roles, a minister said Tuesday.
“This is a significant and major cultural change,” Mr. Smith told reporters. “That is why we’d rather err on the side of caution in expressing a five-year period” to implement the change.
Women currently can serve in 93 percent of employment categories in the Australian Defense Force, which includes the army, navy and air force.
But some roles have been reserved for men, including infantry, artillery and naval-clearance diving.
The Cabinet agreed to the change Monday with the support of defense chiefs, Mr. Smith said.
“This is simply about putting into the front line those people who are best placed to do the job, irrespective of your sex,” he said.
The Australian Defense Association, an influential security think tank, previously warned that it could inflict heavy casualties on Australia’s female warriors.
Neil James, the association’s executive director, argues that there are biomechanical differences between the sexes - differences in muscle distribution, centers of gravity and rate of recovery from physical exertion - that make even physically strong women more vulnerable in combat.
“You’ve got to worry about the risk of disproportionate female casualties compared to men, and the minister’s announcement really doesn’t indicate that he’s across all that detail,” Mr. James said.
Mr. Smith said the change would not affect the Australian military’s interoperability and personnel exchanges with its major security partner, the United States.
Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led mission there.
But he said he knew of an Australian army platoon in which the best sharpshooter was a woman who should be considered for a combat role as a sniper.
“Currently she would be prohibited and prevented from being a sniper in Afghanistan,” Mr. Smith said. “Why would we take away the chance of the best shot in a platoon playing that role?”