Women Military Aviators : Further Reading : Australia

Fighting on the front line

By Mark Forbes, September 20 2002

Women should be allowed to fight on the front line, Defence Minister Robert Hill has said. It is believed to be the first time an Australian defence minister has supported placing women in direct combat roles.

When an internal defence report advocating the move was leaked last year, his predecessor, Peter Reith, remained ambivalent, stating he needed to consider public sentiment on the issue.

Senator Hill said he philosophically supported the move.

"If women want to serve in the front line, I don't think they should be excluded simply because they are women," he said.

"There aren't too many areas where women aren't serving. In terms of the front line, they are certainly serving on ships in the Gulf, women are playing a critical part."

His assistant minister, Danna Vale, was overseeing studies into the requirements for key military roles, "not distinguished by sex, but physical capabilities", Senator Hill said.

Mrs Vale said women were only excluded from six military job categories involving direct combat.

"They serve on all our surface ships, they serve on submarines, can fly combat aircraft, fly helicopters, and women have served with distinction in army operational roles under war-like conditions such as in East Timor," she said.

The question of employing women in direct combat roles was also a cultural and social one, Mrs Vale said.

The government would not make a final decision until after public debate.

Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove said placing women in front line combat roles was "a matter for the government and the community".

The former defence chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, strongly endorsed placing women in the front line, stating controversy over it was "rubbish".

The RSL is a staunch opponent of the change, last year claiming combat conditions could be too difficult for women and asking women to kill enemies in battle was morally bankrupt.

Senator Hill also backed a proposal from General Cosgrove to introduce random drug and alcohol tests across the military.

"They work in dangerous environments. The vast majority are obviously very professional and very responsible, but there is the possibility of individuals putting themselves at risk and putting others at risk behaving in this way. It therefore being available as a tool for commanders I think is not unreasonable."

Mrs Vale also said she supported the plan in principle.
"I have asked General Cosgrove to further develop the concept as a high priority and to bring forward policy advice for the government's consideration."

General Cosgrove's proposal came after the drowning of Leading Seaman Cameron Gurr off Christmas Island this year.

Australia Considers Women in Combat

Monday, May 14, 2001

Australia's prime minister will consider a Defense Department report that recommended allowing women in combat if they meet the physical standards applied to male soldiers, a newspaper said Sunday.

"The report says there is no medical reason for women to be excluded from combat roles as long as they are of the same height, weight and fitness levels as the men,"

the Sunday Telegraph quoted a department official as saying.

"Women can do anything men do."

Prime Minister John Howard said his government would consider the proposal, the newspaper reported. He said 95% of defense force positions are already open to women.
"I'm regularly flown by very talented female pilots in the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force). I think they're terrific," Howard said.

Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Scott said the government would have to consider the physical and practical aspects of the issue, as well as public opinion.

Currently, women in the Australian armed forces can carry weapons only for self-defense. Those rules were challenged by a three-year study carried out by the army's directorate of career management.

Reith urges caution over frontline women

By Mike Seccombe

Practical and physical issues had to be addressed before the Government would agree to any Defence Department recommendation for women to fight in the Army front lines, the Minister for Defence, Mr Reith, said yesterday.

It was reported at the weekend that a departmental recommendation would approve women serving in combat roles.

But the response from the Government was mixed, with the Prime Minister, non-committal, the Treasurer broadly in favour, and Mr Reith cautious. A spokesman for Mr Reith said the minister...

"expected any report to address the issues of the physical demands as well as the practical matters of living arrangements in small frontline units. ...The minister will consider those in relation to public sentiment on the issue."

Women already serve in 90 per cent of defence positions and fill combat roles as fighter pilots, in submarines and on ships, but may not perform combat duties in the infantry and armoured sections of the Defence Force. They may carry arms only for self-defence.

Mr Reith's junior minister, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Scott, counseled caution before putting women recruits "in harm's way". Soldiers had to carry heavy packs on their backs and defend themselves at the same time.

"You've got to be able to carry it, so that is a physical aspect ... "Then of course there are the public opinion issues that we've got to listen to as well."

The public opinion closest to Mr Scott's portfolio - that of the RSL - was strongly opposed to an expansion of the role of women. The acting national president, Mr Rusty Priest, said most of the RSL's 220,000 members did not want women in combat roles because of the difficult conditions they could face.

The executive director of the Australian Defence Association, Mr Michael O'Connor, said any move to include women in frontline positions would probably make no difference to the numbers of women joining the defence forces.

"Despite years of trying, the proportion of women is not going up; it remains about 15 per cent overall, and 13 per cent in the Army. ...Such suggestions may make the forces look good in the eyes of the equal opportunity people, but the better way of broadening the recruit base for these positions would be to increase their pay. ...Ordinary infantry, gunners, tank crews - these are the lowest paid jobs in the military."

Mr Howard refused to express any opinion, but pointed out 95 per cent of positions in the defence force were open.

"I'm regularly flown by very talented female pilots in the RAAF. I think they're terrific."

However, Mr Costello was happy to commit himself, saying the only areas where women were not already in combat roles were in armour and the infantry.

"So we have established the principle that women can do combat roles and women can do everything that men can do."

Women pilots landing service jobs

The Newsletter for the Australian Association for Maritime History, March 2000, carried the following item:

"Women can probably do any service-related job that a man can do but have always had to battle against chavinistic attitudes. Amongst the most prestigious jobs are those of aircraft pilot or navigator.

Currently the RAAF has 17 female pilots and navigation officers involved with every type of aircraft they possess, including F111s. The Army has 7 female helicopter pilots, while the RAN has one female pilot and 3 flight crew."

warriordoc_F-16_250.jpg Fast women: Or why women who fly high performance aircraft are fast but not loose

by Tracy L. Smart, Aust Mil Med 1998; 7(1):8-16


Women entering a male dominated sphere for the first time will always encounter difficulties. Some of these problems relate to the physical or physiological attributes of the women themselves. Others relate to the attitudes of the men whose world they wish to enter.

The Royal Australian Air Force currently has its first female attempting to break into one of the last bastions of male domination left in today's military - the fast jet world.

The concept of flying women is not new. A brief look back at the history books tells us that women played a large role in the early history of aviation. Early pioneers included the Wright Brothers sister Katharine, Harriet Quimby in her purple satin flying suit who was the first woman to fly the channel, and household names such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. Australia even had it's own pioneer aviatrix, Nancy Bird, who learned to fly in 1933 at the age of 17 and flew for one of this country's earliest air-borne ambulance services.

Download the full essay in PDF format

Tracy L. Smart is the Commanding Officer, Institute of Aviation Medicine, RAAF Base Edinburgh, SA.

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