Women in combat: Why operational capability must be the prime determinant of 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 much public debate on the issue of employing female personnel in combat positions is generally 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 bring public debate back to consideration of the real 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.
    • Female or male 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 not just a gender issue.
  • We should also never forget why we have a defence force in the first place.
    • Nor that the overall operational capability of our defence force must remain the prime determinant of employment policy within it.
    • 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 based on hard-won battle experience over a century must not be lowered to enable universal or even selective workforce participation by females. Just as they are not lowered to permit 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 they are not reduced or diluted to permit 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.
    • Australia does this now and has done so for many years.
    • Arguments commonly mounted to oppose female participation on psychological or emotion grounds are invariably incorrect factually or conceptually.
    • 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.
    • 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 allowed to undertake any military task where the current government policy limitation is due solely to physicality, rather than physiology or bio-mechanics, and where the participating female personnel can meet and maintain the physicality standards needed.
  • We support female defence force personnel also being 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 more disabling injuries generally, disproportionate casualties or sexual assault if captured), we support 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 it is truly free and reasonable in the circumstances — and that it does 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 npaper.
  • 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. Any broadening of 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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