By Rod McGuirk
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Australia will remove all gender barriers in its military over the next five years, opening up positions that had previously been considered too dangerous for women, including front-line combat roles, a minister said Tuesday.
Australia will follow Canada and New Zealand in allowing women who meet physical and psychological criteria to perform any role they choose, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said.
"This is a significant and major cultural change," he 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 can currently 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, 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 women 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," James said.
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.
Smith could not say whether the elite Special Air Service and Commando Regiments fighting in Uruzgan province could include women troopers before Australia withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014.
But he said he knew of an Australian army platoon in which the best shot 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," Smith said. "Why would we take away the chance of the best shot in a platoon playing that role?"
The military is working with a university to determine what physical capabilities are required for specific male-only jobs. The first of these jobs to be opened to women will be announced by next March. Smith said standards will not be dropped and there would be no quotas introduced for female representation.
Only 8,000 of Australia's almost 60,000 troops are female and defense chiefs have long attempted to recruit more women.
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