NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Misguided move for women in combat roles
, October 3, 2009
The Minister for Defence Personnel, Greg Combet, has announced a review of the tasks which women can undertake in the defence forces, including their involvement in combat roles from which they are currently excluded, to improve recruitment and retention of women to the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
The minister said: "A priority of the government is to improve the recruitment and retention of women in the ADF. My own view is that all categories should be open to women. The only exceptions should be where the physical demands cannot be met according to criteria that are determined on the basis of scientific analysis, rather than assumptions about gender."
The involvement of women in combat roles involves far more than issues of physical strength and gender. It would be most unfortunate if a decision to change policy is made on these criteria alone, when there are a range of other issues involved in the defence forces in peace-time, and additional ones in war-time.
Women require separate living quarters and bathrooms, and, in war situations, may be subject to threats of rape if captured.
Some commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq have reported that where female soldiers have been involved in fighting against Islamic extremists, the terrorists fight harder rather than be defeated by units which include or are led by women.
Over the past 20 to 30 years, the Australian Defence Force has removed restrictions on women's roles, based on practical considerations. The Royal Australian Air Force and the Navy have long had a policy of recruiting women for most roles, including combat ones. Recruitment to officer training does not discriminate between men and women.
Mr Combet said the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), in collaboration with the University of Wollongong in NSW, would develop a new set of physical employment standards that would accurately measure a person's ability to perform the broad variety of jobs in the defence forces.
He said the Government would consider the results of the study, expected later next year.
Whether women should serve in combat roles is a complex cultural issue. Historically, women have played key battlefield roles as nurses and doctors. More recently, they have been recruited into officer-training schools on an equal basis to men, and women with professional qualifications have become more heavily involved in intelligence and security, including communications, searching women for hidden weapons, and other roles.
These changes are evolutionary, and should be allowed to develop from within the defence force.
More fundamentally, the Government is seriously mistaken if it believes that recruitment and retention to the defence force will be significantly changed by letting women into combat roles, or that this is the major problem for defence personnel.
A Senate inquiry conducted in 2001 showed that the key issues in recruitment and retention included the lack of family-friendly policies for service men and women, including poor quality housing, shifts for families interstate at any time during the year, lack of support for spouses of serving men and women, prolonged absences suffered by navy spouses, and related issues.
For the members of the defence force, there were a range of other issues.
These include pay levels far lower than could be obtained by comparable professionals outside the services, a poor career path, serious deficiencies in equipment, the lack of practical training caused by budgetary restraints on use of defence hardware such as tanks, aircraft, submarines and ships, as well as chronic shortages of ammunition.
These problems have been long-standing, and have been subject to numerous inquiries by governments and parliaments over the years.
The 2001 Senate report, chaired by Labor Senator John Hogg, ended in these words, "The evidence gathered by the Committee during this inquiry was wide-ranging. The picture of recruitment and retention gleaned from this evidence depressed the Committee. Unfortunately, the cold fact is that many of the conclusions from previous reports … remain valid.
"Everything the Committee discovered during the inquiry was already known to Defence. The evidence had been in front of them for quite some time. The conclusions and recommendations of previous reports have either been ignored or poorly implemented. Given recent national and international events, there is no longer time for procrastination.
"The Rubicon must be crossed now and not put off again as have decisions on crucial recruitment and retention issues for some 15 years, at great cost in personnel terms and expense to the ADF. The Department of Defence must develop and maintain strategies to recruit and retain qualified and experienced people to ensure our national security today and tomorrow. The time for action is now!"
Since then, little has been done. Opening combat roles for women is irrelevant to addressing the problem of building up the Australian Defence Force.