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Australia lifts restrictions for women in combat roles

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Fri September 30, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The U.S. military is likely to follow Australia's lead, one analyst predicts
  • Australian women will be allowed in infantry, armored and other combat outfits
  • Australia is one of only a few countries with no gender restrictions
  • The plan will be phased in over five years

(CNN) -- Australian women will soon be able to serve alongside their male counterparts in front-line combat roles -- a notable shift in the push for gender equality in professions historically dominated by men.

The change will be phased in over a five-year period, Australia's government announced Tuesday.

Ultimately, women will be allowed to apply to serve as Navy ordnance disposal divers, airfield and ground defense guards, and in infantry, artillery, and armored units, according to the Australian Defence Ministry.

Government officials insist that women will be judged in the same manner as men: not on their gender, but on their ability to do the job.

"I was just elated" by the news," Natalie Sambhi, who is currently undergoing the selection process to become a member of the Australian Defense Force, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "To serve on the front line ... (is) something I've wanted so badly."

As of last month, 335 women were serving in the Australian military's international military operations -- 10% of that country's total overseas deployment.

Australia's decision will make it one of only a few countries in the developed world with no restrictions for women in combat.

Canada, Germany, South Korea, France, Spain, New Zealand, Denmark and Israel formally allow women to serve in combat roles, according to the Strategic Studies Institute and the Israel Defense Forces.

In the U.S. military, women are barred from units that engage in direct combat on the ground. Regardless, some American women have served in combat situations with ground units in Iraq and Afghanistan -- a reflection of the changing nature of warfare and the disappearance of the kind of front lines that existed in conflicts such as World War II and Korea.

Among other things, the U.S. military has created teams of female Marines and soldiers who patrol with their male counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and interact with local women in ways that the military said would be culturally unacceptable for male soldiers.

In Iraq, American female soldiers trained as cooks also were awarded combat action badges after being pressed into duty in other areas that exposed them to battle, according to the U.S. Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which has proposed ending the ban on women serving in direct combat roles.

More than 140 American women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.

Under current Defense Department rules, U.S. women are only allowed to serve as combat fighter pilots, aboard Navy ships and in certain support roles that are likely to expose them to combat situations.

The U.S. Navy announced in April that it intends to open up jobs aboard submarines to women as well.

A 2008 armed forces survey found that 85% of female service members had been deployed to a combat zone or drew extra pay funneled to members of the military who serve in dangerous or hostile areas.

The formal "U.S. policy on utilization of women has been based on old (outdated) Cold War concepts of what wars look like," said Lory Manning of the Washington-based Women's Research and Education Institute.

But "the Australian policy on women has been very similar to the U.S. policy over the years," she added. "It's my guess that the U.S. will be creeping that way too. ... I think (the United States will) at least bring the policy up to match the reality."

CNN's Alan Silverleib and Barbara Starr contributed to this report

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