Women in combat: Operational capability must always be the prime determinant of ADF employment policy

This summary of a very complex and nuanced issue is based on all the factors and implications analysed at length in our comprehensive discussion paper on the subject. We provide this summary here because public debate on the issue of employing female personnel in combat positions is often misinformed or worse. Our discussion paper on this issue includes a section on commonplace myths and false assumptions - put forward reflexively in favour or against such employment - in order to remind public debate of the actual issues involved.


The ADA’s 10-point summary

The longstanding ADA position on the gender aspects of combat employment is summarised in the following ten points:

  • Helping to defend Australia is a universal civic responsibility (like jury duty), not somehow “someone else’s problem” (such as only serving or former members of our defence force).
    • All Australians have a citizenship responsibility to serve in our defence force when required or otherwise support the effectiveness of the force at other times.
    • These responsibilities are shared by all Australians irrespective of where they live or their family circumstances, age, gender, occupation, religion, ethnicity, sexuality or political beliefs.
    • Gender employment issues in our defence force are therefore part of wider citizenship responsibilities, not a stand-alone matter that can or should be considered in isolation from them.
    • Just as importantly, they are never just a gender-equity issue.
  • Every Australian needs to remember why we have a defence force in the first place.
    • The overall operational capability of our defence force must always be the prime determinant of employment policy within the ADF.
    • Otherwise we risk failing to deter wars, risk losing wars and risk the lives of both our male and female defence force personnel irresponsibly and immorally.
    • These aspects are discussed further in our discussion paper.
  • Operational preparedness standards for physical fitness, strength, endurance, stamina, load-bearing and marksmanship are based on hard-won battle experience over a century.
    • These operational standards must not be lowered to enable universal or selective workforce participation by females.
    • Just as the necessary operational standards are not lowered to enable participation by all males, or indeed by Australians of all age groups, heights, weights, physiques and states of health generally.
  • Similarly, the operational effectiveness of the weapons and equipment procured for our defence force by Australian governments must not be reduced or otherwise diluted to enable universal or even selective female use of them. Just as the necessary operational effectiveness is not sacrificed to enable defence force participation by every male, or indeed by Australians of all age groups, heights, weights, physiques and states of health generally.
  • There are no psychological or emotional barriers to employing female defence force personnel in combat. There are also no insurmountable teamwork or group-dynamics obstacles.
    • Australia has employed women in the vast majority of combat roles in our Navy and Air force for decades. All such roles are now open to females.
    • In the Army, Australia has also employed women in most combat-support arms roles for decades. Since 2013 all combat and combat-support arms corps positions are open to females.
    • The take-up rates for combat roles, and rates of qualification in meeting operational standards, by females are both broadly the same or better as comparable Western countries.
    • Arguments commonly mounted to oppose female participation on psychological or emotion grounds are invariably incorrect conceptually or factually.
    • Similarly, most social and cultural arguments posed against broadening female participation in combat roles have been disproven by ADF and allied experience gained in existing mixed-gender units.
    • Some arguments opposed to, or in support of, female participation are also often based on historical and urban myths.
    • All these aspects are discussed in the section on commonplace myths in our discussion paper.
  • Once trained and qualified, female defence force personnel should be, and are, allowed to undertake any military task where previous government policy limitations were due solely to physicality – rather than physiology or bio-mechanics – and where the participating female personnel can meet and maintain the physicality standards needed.
    • This is predominantly a land-based combat (and therefore Army) requirement where small-group or individual-on-individual combat is likely, mechanical assistance is often not possible or has limited capacity, and where even crew-served vehicles and systems can break down, be destroyed or need to be evacuated on foot to continue the fight.
    • The Navy and the Air Force are predominantly platform-based services where combat roles generally involve personnel working and fighting, with mechanical assistance, on ships and aircraft. Direct individual-on-individual combat is far less likely, as is evacuating the platform to continue the fight.
  • Female defence force personnel are readily employed in any situation where technology, training, the procurement of modern equipment or other means can effectively neutralise physiological or bio-mechanical differences between the genders so that the overall operational capability of our defence force is not affected — and the female personnel concerned do not end up inequitably facing a much higher risk of injury, wounds or death than male personnel undertaking the same tasks.
  • In combat roles that might or do incur additional risks for female personnel compared to males undertaking the same tasks (such as a much higher rate of disabling injuries generally, disproportionate casualties or sexual assault if captured), the ADA supports the right of female personnel to choose whether to accept such extra risks or not.
    • However, we believe that the exercise of such choice needs careful monitoring to ensure the choice is truly free and reasonable in the circumstances.
    • It must not incur unintended, inequitable or unfair results for such females (and their male comrades) in practice.
    • The dilemmas and challenges involved are discussed at some length in our discussion paper.
  • As allocation of male personnel to combat roles is at times not voluntary, particularly in the Army, the allocation of female personnel should wherever possible be the same in order to ensure true gender equality. This is also discussed further in our discussion paper.
  • In both collective and individual terms, operational credibility is vital for operational effectiveness in a defence force.
    • Not just in perception, or for effective teamwork, but because lives are at stake.
    • Employment in combat roles must never involve using prescribed or target quotas based on gender, rather than the operational capabilities needed to deter or win wars and the personnel standards necessary to achieve this.

We suggest that anyone purporting to hold an informed or broad view on this issue who has not worked through all the complexities and implications outlined above and discussed in our discussion paper is deluding themselves about undertaking an objective enquiry — even if they do not necessarily agree with some or all of our deductions or conclusions.

Our comprehensive discussion paper on employing women in combat can be found here.

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