“No man with gumption wants a woman to fight his nation’s battles.” – U.S. General William Westmoreland, 1979
Note: This role will be opened to women entering the Army starting January, 2016. These are words that most Australian special-forces operators never wanted to read, nor thought they would ever have to. The Australian Government’s decision to lift gender restrictions within the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) combat roles now means that women are eligible to pursue employment opportunities within Australia’s Special Operations Command (SOCOMD).
Earlier suggestions indicated that special forces were going to be exempt from the proposed changes. However, this has proven to be inaccurate, with the 2nd Commando Regiment and Special Air Service Regiment now accepting women candidates to try out for a spot in both units.
The removal of gender restrictions gained momentum in 2011 after Defence personnel were embroiled in a number of high-profile scandals. The scandals and allegations involved the sexual humiliation and denigration of both male and female ADF employees across all three services. A culture of misogyny has said to be a pervading factor throughout the entire ADF and has been assessed as creating an environment that is widely difficult for women to progress in their military careers. These cases have been regarded by some as systematic cultural problems throughout Defence, which have also extended beyond women to include individuals of different ethnic and social backgrounds.
The opening of combat roles to women has seen Australia follow a number of other nations in its pursuit of equitable military career opportunities for both males and females. Even though it is still in its implementation phase, the mere discussion of mixed gender teams has been an extremely compelling, precarious, and, at times, downright dangerous topic to mention around teammates.
The sensitivities surrounding this issue are without precedent. The Australian Army was established shortly after Federation in 1901 and has fought in a number of major wars, including: the Second Boer War (1899-1902), First World War (1914-1918), Second World War (1939-1945), Korean War (1950-1953), Malayan Emergency (1950-1960), Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation (1962-1966), Vietnam War (1962-1973), the war in Afghanistan (2001-2013), and the war in Iraq (2003-2009).
In addition, the Australian Army has also responded to a number of humanitarian crises and peacekeeping operations, the former including Aceh Province in Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the latter including East Timor, Bougainville, the Sinai, and the Solomon Islands. Never in the short but busy history of the Australian Army have women been granted the opportunity to deploy in a combat role—until now.
On the 11 April, 2011, Australia’s Minister for Defence announced that the Department of Defence was fast-tracking its plan to remove gender restrictions on ADF combat role employment categories. The ADF’s combat role employment categories are broken down into service branches, with the Navy’s categories being clearance divers and mine warfare, and clearance-diving officers; the Air Force’s categories being airfield-defence guards and ground-defence officers; and the Army’s categories being Infantry Corps, Armoured Corps, some artillery roles, the Explosive-Ordnance Disposal Squadron, and combat-engineer squadrons. On the 27 September, 2014, this announcement was formally endorsed by the Australian Government and a five-year implementation plan was introduced which laid out the key milestones and deliverables of the project.
Two of the most significant milestones were set for the 1 January, 2013, and 1 January, 2016. The former opened up every employment category within the ADF to women who were already serving by allowing in-service transfers, and the latter opened up the direct-entry recruitment of women into these previously restricted roles. The Department of Defence maintains that this move is and has always been about increasing its capability. Defence strongly believes that this move will not only increase its recruiting pool, but the ADF’s ability to attract capable people from a wider proportion of the Defence and Australian communities. It believes that employment in each of these previously restricted categories should now be based entirely on skill, not gender. If an individual is able to meet the physical and psychological standards—standards which have been assured to remain unchanged—then Defence’s stance is that every male or female is entitled to equitable career opportunities within the ADF.
The government’s decision to remove gender restrictions on the ADF’s combat-role employment categories has been one of the most emotive and polarized topics since its implementation in 2011. My first exposure to this decision was during my third Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) rotation to Afghanistan in 2011. We had only been in-country for little over a month when we were informed of the Defence minister’s proposal to fast-track this plan. The announcement was met with much skepticism, however, and the timing in particular was coincidental to say the least, based on the abuse allegations that Defence was embroiled in at the time.
In April of 2011, and just before the Defence minister’s announcement, one of Defence’s most infamous scandals hit media outlets around the country. The ‘Skype Sex Scandal’ sent shockwaves through Defence and the Australian community alike. The scandal was centered around an incident which had occurred the month prior at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (ACT). A female cadet was secretly filmed having consensual sex with a fellow male cadet, which was streamed live via Skype to six other cadets watching in another room. Criminal charges were laid on two of the cadets who orchestrated the entire incident. They were subsequently found guilty of using a carriage service in an offensive manner. One of the cadets was also found to have committed an act of indecency on the woman.
The Skype incident sparked several inquiries and culture reviews into the ADF. The Minister for Defence announced an external review of allegations of sexual and other abuse in Defence, and the then-secretary of defense commissioned the independent law firm DLA Piper to review the allegations in order to make an assessment on whether Defence had appropriately handled them. The review received allegations from over 1000 people of sexual or other forms of abuse in Defence since 1950.
The government’s response to the review included a general apology to ADF or Defence employees who had been victims of sexual or other forms of abuse over the course of their employment, as well as the establishment of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART). The DART was formed to assess and respond to individual cases of abuse in the ADF which occurred prior to 11 April, 2011.
The DART released its final report in November 2014, which was based on approximately 2400 complaints. The report ultimately concluded that a royal commission would be the only effective way to deal with the number of abuse cases stemming from ADFA. The finalised report also detailed how there are an exceptionally large number of alleged abusers who are still serving in the Permanent Forces, the Active Reserve, Inactive Reserve, and the Australian Public Service.
The problem with the ADF and most militaries around the world is that they are simply an apparatus of the state. As an organisation, we are entirely subservient to our government. Any decision the government wishes to impose regarding the ADF, be it deployment, removing gender restrictions on combat roles, or, more recently, our pay, then the ADF really has no choice but to simply grin and bear it. A perfect example of this was seen more recently with regards to the lower-than-inflation pay raise that was foisted on all ADF members by the Australian Government.
The chief of the Defence force (CDF), Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, was quoted as saying it was “a fair and reasonable pay raise in the context of the government’s financial position and the clear need for wage restraint.” He also stated, “We are in an economic and budgetary climate where government has indicated the need for managed reduction in costs, of which pay is a part, across the federal public sector.” Binskin said the ADF provided “a unique service to the nation,” but it “must operate within the government’s wage framework when considering any remuneration package.”
While he may not have agreed with the entire ADF being shortchanged, particularly on the cusp of another long and protracted war in the Middle East, realistically, what were his options other than to issue this deferential response? Was he going to publicly decry the government over their decision? One would think not. He, like us, has no choice nor power over this or any other matter that the government wishes to impose on the ADF. Influence, maybe, but not power.
Another incident occurred at the time of the Skype affair which saw then-Defence Minister Stephen Smith intervene and suspend the ADFA commandant. He did this after allegations surfaced that the ADFA command were not handling the complaints appropriately. Traditionally, there has always been a clear delineation between civil and military control, and Smith’s intervention left the ADF both shocked and discontented. Minister Smith’s judgment to intervene was later proved to be incorrect, but what it did serve to highlight is where the real power lies when push comes to shove.
A Sample of Opinions
The 2nd Commando Regiment and the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) have the most operationally experienced soldiers within the entire Australian Defence Force. The Australian Government’s 12-year commitment to Afghanistan has seen operators from both units deploy multiple times to the region as part of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG). With Australia having wound up its longest war in history, and currently postured for another protracted commitment to the Middle East, both units are far from short on operators who know the demands that life in Australia’s special forces has placed on them.
As part of this article, I have set out to provide a conduit for the raw, unbiased, and brutally honest opinions of those who are not able to publicly discuss their points of view. I have interviewed a variety of colleagues in order to gauge a cross sample of opinions on the subject of women in SOF and mixed-gender teams. Honoring the provision of anonymity, I have afforded each of my interviewees with pseudonyms in order to protect their identities.
Sergeant ‘S’ served 12 years in the Australian Army as a special-forces soldier, and was discharged in 2012 at the rank of sergeant. Sergeant ‘S’ deployed once to East Timor, once to Iraq, three times to Afghanistan, and served with the Tactical Assault Group – East over two separate rotations. Sergeant ‘S’ also earned a leadership commendation in 2011 after being wounded in action in Afghanistan.
On the subject of women serving in Australia’s SOCOMD, Sergeant ‘S’ stated:
Firstly, it should be noted that there is certainly a place for women within combat roles. Simply look at the current examples of female fighter pilots being called upon to fight in Iraq in support of counter-ISIS operations. It should also be noted that women do serve in special-operations forces, but in an intelligence and support capacity. I think the issue here is front-line combat operations.
The concern from the guys on the ground about the prospect of serving alongside women primarily takes two forms, which I will discuss below.
- At the smaller, tactical level, there is concern that the female form is simply ill equipped to handle the types of loads and physical strains placed on the special-forces soldier. This isn’t biased, it is simply a fact that women are built differently to men. It is why there are different standards in athletic events for women. Unfortunately, there aren’t different standards in combat and the enemy doesn’t make concessions based on the sex of the opposition. Further—we must also consider that, based on caveman instincts, women operating within small teams for prolonged periods will likely attract the type of attention that isn’t conducive to success in a combat environment. There have also been studies to illustrate (sorry I can’t recall the book) that combat men have a propensity to treat female casualties prior to treating their male counterparts. There is also the ‘hero’ syndrome that males will inherently suffer from, in which they act in sometimes rash and illogical ways to prove themselves in front of females. The above-noted points are not based on any modern-era notions of equality, but rather primal coding that we cannot escape no matter how politically correct we try to be.
- At the strategic level, I have often wondered how the Australian public would react to seeing females come home in body bags. Yes, they are soldiers, but there is something different about a female soldier dying in combat. Certainly in other countries and cultures it is acceptable for females to serve within special-operations units, but Australia is not one of those countries.
Corporal ‘P’ served 11 years in the Australian Army with the last seven years served as a special-forces soldier. Corporal ‘P’ was involved in a domestic counterterrorism (DCT) operation during the 2005 Commonwealth Games, deployed once to East Timor, once to Iraq, twice to Afghanistan, and served with the Tactical Assault Group – East before discharging at the rank of corporal in 2009. Corporal ‘P’ was awarded the Student of Merit on the Artillery Communication Course, Field Soldier of the Year award, the Australian Soldier Exemplary Service Medal, and the Special Operations Command Australia Commendation (Gold).
On the subject of women serving in Australia’s SOCOMD, Corporal ‘P’ stated:
What people need to understand is that the war on the ground does not discriminate between men and women. It is brutal and raw. Ground fighting doesn’t care that you’re tired, thirsty, or hungry. Gunfights don’t care what your VO2 max is. This is not a game in which you can simply press replay or pause.
When you are killed on the battlefield, families suffer unspeakable loss, sons grow up with no father, daughters will never be walked down the aisle, wives will never grow old with their soulmate. Gunfights have real consequences.
That is why operators are tested beyond their limits during selection courses; we expect all these elements to not be a factor when you look left and right on the battlefield. We must know that we are fighting alongside the best.
I propose this question that I have heard before: If you saw your 95kg (210lb) son or father wounded on the battlefield, bleeding out in the kill zone, who would you want to run out, pick them up, and rescue them from harm?
As I said, this is not a game nor a time for theories to be tested. These are the lives of my brothers, and I would expect them to be given the greatest chance for survival on the battlefield. Politicians or activists have no right to dictate the terms of how special operations select their members. We have over 50 years of combat experience in SOF, we know what saves lives and what elements get people killed.
When dealing with life or death, who is anyone one to tell us how to fight for our own survival?
Private ‘J’ served 12 years in the Australian Army with the last five years served as a special-forces soldier. Private ‘J’ was involved in a domestic counterterrorism (DCT) operation during the Sydney Olympic Games, deployed twice to East Timor, twice to Afghanistan, and served with the Tactical Assault Group – East before discharging at the rank of private in 2011. Private ‘J’ was also an army physical-training instructor (PTI) prior to becoming a qualified special-forces soldier.
On the subject of women serving in Australia’s SOCOMD, Private ‘J’ stated:
I have over 15 years working with women in a number of roles in specialist military and civilian organisations including intelligence, special operations, and crisis management.
For whatever reason, be it a political football for gender equality, ‘fair go’, operational demand, or genuine capability development, women are going to be given the opportunity to operate in combat roles.
In my opinion, there are an exorbitant number of variables that impact the effective realisation of women in combat roles.
Training and selection
I believe that comprehensive scientific analysis needs to occur to fully understand how different sexes will interact in a special operations (SO) combat environment.
Subsequent modification of psychological selection and training criteria should be supervised to ensure suitable measures are in place to protect those engaged during this analysis. We have already witnessed the fact that government (and military) support for returned service men and women is grossly lacking. Support measures need to be in place from the onset in case the rigors of the analysis, selection and training, and potential combat service are found to me overwhelmingly detrimental.
Physical standards should never be compromised for the assessment of sustainable physical suitability of any SO candidate. These should remain a benchmark, and further consideration should be given to analysis of the effect that prolonged exposure to physical demands may have on women.
In due consideration of the scientific and medical aspects surrounding prolonged sustainable combat operations, I am not qualified to delve into this hornets nest.
The following statistics were released as part of Australia’s Joint Health Command: “A guide for Media-Mental Health in the ADF”
- There was no statistical difference in the rate of PTSD between ADF males (8.1%) and females (10.1%);
- However, trauma histories differ between ADF males and females, with males more likely to report deployment related and accident or other unexpected traumas, whereas females were more likely to report interpersonal traumas; and
- Suicide ideation is 39% more likely among ADF females than their male counterparts.
In light of the evidence presented for female members of the ADF, what is going to be the impact of combat?
In my opinion and based on what I have experienced in my career, the what, where, when (how long) and how of the mission will have a large impact on women’s roles in a successful combat operation. However, to maintain reasonable separation from an un-qualified appraisal of what is physically and mentally achievable by females in combat, I will volunteer a perspective on the psychological impacts that fighting alongside females may have on a team dynamic.
I have two main considerations that should be analysed during the process of determining a role for women in combat:
- All the training in the world cannot prepare you for how you will react in a combat environment. Due consideration needs to be given to the protective instinct of a male toward a female team member that may result in personal actions, or a team dynamic in adverse situations that would not necessarily occur in an all male team. I believe this untested and unknown variable may impact negatively on the effectiveness and ultimately the successful outcome of combat.
- Women will die in combat roles just as men have/are. The psychological impact of seeing a female body is different to seeing a male. In my opinion, its occurrence will drastically raise the incidence rate of psychological trauma for combat team members.
Private ‘N’ served 12 years in the Australian Army with the last six years served as a special forces soldier. Private ‘N’ deployed once to East Timor, three times to Afghanistan, and served with the Tactical Assault Group – East before discharging at the rank of Private in 2014.
On the subject of women serving in Australia’s SOCOMD, Private ‘N’ stated:
After 12 years of military experience, many of those years as an SF operator with the 2nd Commando Regiment, the question of if women should be allowed in combat roles has been raised on a number of occasions and been a subject of discussion on around a dozen or so times throughout my career. So should women be allowed in combat roles? I’ll use my experience as a commando on combat operations in the Middle East and TAG-E duties to focus my answer.
In short, I believe women can contribute to certain roles within Special Forces, however there are caveats in respect to what I’ve personally seen. I believe as a generalisation, woman are incapable of conducting “green role” style operations as a whole, and most “black role” operations as well, in particular Direct Action (DA).
I’ll use Afghanistan as an example. I am yet to meet a woman who could carry 40kg (88lb) of equipment along with an M4, run across various terrain, maintain steadiness with that weight and kill an enemy, run further along undulated terrain to then pick up a wounded fellow soldier who weighs 140kg+ (308lb) with equipment, and carry that fellow soldier to safety in order to deliver first aid. I’m not saying it’s impossible for a woman to do, I’ve just never met any that could show they were able to. My girlfriend is a professional athlete and she can outdo me in a lot a physical activities, but put a weight vest on her and she doesn’t stand a chance.
Do I think there is a likely place for females in SF? I strongly believe woman can contribute in some Domestic Counter Terrorism (DCT) roles. For example, capabilities that include intelligence gathering, surveillance, and hostage reception are easily suited to both males and females. Surveillance and intelligence tasks require less carried weight, steady hands for tasks like photography and picking locks, and an ability to blend into environments without raising suspicion.
It all really comes down to weight carriage. Unfortunately, I don’t believe most woman are capable of carrying the gear needed for direct combat style operations. Maybe it will be possible when technology enables operators to carry loads far less than what they currently do.
Irrespective of my above opinion, I think we should give females the opportunity to attempt selection for SF and reinforcement but it should be done at the current standards expected and treatment given to males. If an individual in a team cannot: carry the gear they need for an operation; deliberately kill; function with little food and water; is afraid of intimidation; or pick up the heaviest person in the team and carry that person to safety, then they are useless, regardless of gender.
Some guys will give their opinion and say females are psychologically incapable of killing in combat. I believe women are just as capable as men. Both men and women need to be psychologically tested and deemed capable of such acts. During my psychological testing, I was told that most applicants fail this stage and are deemed unsuitable. If a female can pass the same test, then why let it stop there?
Others will say that a woman couldn’t defeat a man in an unarmed combat situation. I disagree. There’s plenty of SF that can’t fight well in an unarmed combat situation. The 2nd Commando Regiment has spent the last few years designing a better way to teach operators to overcome a stronger adversary and outsmart them in unarmed combat. Women are just as capable of outsmarting a man and doing the same.
My overall opinion is if a female can professionally do everything a male can do and not get caught up in the politically correct bullshit, then why not let them operate within SOF roles? Men will have to be the ones to let go of their ego and accept that a girl might just beat their ass.
Corporal ‘D’ has served in the Australian Army since 2000 and as a special forces soldier since 2005. Corporal ‘D’ deployed to East Timor and Fiji in 2006, to Afghanistan in 2007, 2008 and 2010 (the latter as a Team Commander during which the Eastern Shah Wali Kot Battle Honour was awarded), and served with the Tactical Assault Group – East as a Team Commander for a period of three years.
On the subject of women serving in Australia’s SOCOMD, Corporal ‘D’ stated:
Woman in combat roles is always going to be a highly contested subject. In today’s western society we have the incessant need for everyone to be treated equal. The hard facts remain that the world is not a fair place and in many situations, the right person for a specific role will require both physical and mental attributes with combat roles being at the forefront of these.
Speaking from my own experience of which is all I can do, combat roles require the highest of physical standards. Although the level of equipment that each operator is expected to carry will vary, my previous operational tours consistently saw me carrying 45kg (99lbs) in patrol order (i.e. no packs) on every operation. This was without the addition of a telescopic ladder, stretcher or specialist equipment. I have not met too many women who were capable of carrying such weight for durations of around 14-16hrs in horrendous climatic condition. That being said I have no doubt there may be a few women who might be capable on the physical side of modern combat warfare, but why the need? We are not in a world war situation where we are severely deficient of combat troops.
For the uninitiated, modern warfare still involves intense close quarter combat. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of men have a basic, primal instinct to protect females; much like a female’s is to give birth and protect the lives of their children. Any man who doubts this and doesn’t feel the need to step up when, say, they see a female being assaulted by a male, I’d have to say that you’re a coward and your input is invalid. The morale effects of seeing a fellow female soldier killed in hand to hand combat, and the uproar that would ensue when her body was brought back home, I cannot even fathom. I have been to many funerals for my fellow operators killed in action and in no way am I inferring that their lives were worth any less than that of a female, but ask yourself, how would you feel if your daughter was killed at the hands of a man in combat? Is the thought of that worth the “equal opportunity”?
Despite all this, I can truly say that combat roles and Special Forces specifically are the final frontier of gender inequality. Anyone who has served will attest that it is an Alpha male society where the weak are picked off at will. There is no human resources department to solve your problems. Sure, there may be a handful of women who could carry the weight, be close quarter combat experts and completely comfortable in a alpha male dominated society, but would they be the ones who would apply anyway?
Dr. ‘D’ entered into the Australian Army on a scholarship to attend medical school. Following graduation, Dr. ‘D’ served two years in the regular Army before successfully completing selection for the Special Air Service Regiment, and spent the remaining five years of his military career serving as a doctor within Special Operations Command, reaching the rank of Major. Dr. ‘D’ deployed on five occasions, once to East Timor, and the remainder to Afghanistan with Australia’s Special Operations Task Group.
For his second tour of Afghanistan he was awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service for his management of critically injured casualties under dire circumstances. When not deployed, Dr. ‘D’ spent time in support of both Australia’s Domestic Counter Terrorism response, and the country’s Special Recovery Operation capability. During his military service Dr. ‘D’ represented Australian Special Operations Command at the NATO Special Operations Forces Medical Expert Panel, and was also awarded a Fellowship to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
On the subject of women serving in Australia’s SOCOMD, Dr. ‘D’ stated:
In short, I have absolutely no issue with females in SF roles. I believe that if a female can pass the exact same physical criteria as the males for selection and the reinforcement cycle, then they deserve to be in the job and should be employed as a bloke would in a combat role. That said, given the physiological makeup of females (less muscle mass, generally reduced cardiovascular capacity) the chance of them passing the physical criteria would be unlikely. I also don’t think the criteria should be reduced just to get females in.
Obviously there is a role for females in the grey space, and also in the female engagement type roles on deployment. No doubt there are aspects of intelligence work that females would be better suited to than men.
I don’t have anything to add to the arguments against females in SF, other than the dialogue already out there. As Grossman mentions in ‘On Killing’, the Israelis had concerns about how blokes acted when a female got hit in combat, leading them to reconsider a female’s role in combat. Other concerns are the complications of the blokes wanting to have sex with the girls in their unit, potentially causing disasters. I don’t feel that hygiene concerns during prolonged field work are a particular concern for females, and the type of girl who would be interested in SF I’m sure would be able to manage those situations.
In essence, I feel that females should be given every opportunity in SF, but I am a strong believer that they should be assessed by exactly the same criteria as the males if they want to do the same role. From a purely medical and psychological perspective, I don’t see any issue with them giving it a crack.
The ability to work effectively with women is not a foreign concept to any of our special operations forces. At last count, there were over 50 women at our Regiment working in support roles who perform exceptionally well at them. There is not a culture of misogyny within SOCOMD. We do not engage in sexually, racially, or ethnically objectifying practices, either. Both Regiment’s have most certainly had some isolated cases of these occurring, with some making national news, however these are the confined actions of a handful of degenerates and are in no way the reflection of an entire unit. A good friend and female colleague from the regiment also had similar sentiments.
When Sergeant ‘A’ was asked how she was treated and whether she felt like she was working amongst misogynistic alpha males, she replied:
I have never accounted for this behavior…but I truly believe it is because of the professional manner girls need to portray at work. I have seen that the girls who sleep around get treated badly. The boys have no respect for them. There also seem to be girls who claim that they can do everything that the boys can do, and others that don’t like swearing and soft porn calendars. I can see why this pisses the boys off and would lead to them being ostracised.
When asked about her opinions on women in SOF roles, Sergeant ‘A’ stated:
I have mixed emotions regarding mixed gender SOF units in the ADF. I personally have no intentions to do the job myself or want to see women in the frontline, but in saying that I do not object completely to the idea. Not all women are the same and I believe one day some women will be able to do the job and be good at it.
Sergeant A’s argument:
You are probably wondering what I have done to offer you my opinion. In 2001, I enlisted in the Australian Army and have been posted to Townsville and Sydney over the past 13 years. During this time I have served eight years within Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) in communications and logistic support roles. In 2008 and 2012 I deployed with SOCOMD to Afghanistan and worked closely with other SOF elements during the two six month rotations.
The major problem I have with the idea of introducing more women into SOF units is the fact that Defence has brought in a 12% quota of females into a unit. In doing so, the units are not necessarily gaining the best people for the job, but rather a percentage to keep everyone in Canberra happy. This hinders the unit’s capability to achieve the mission.
For the past 13 years I have met fit and strong women but I have only ever met a handful of woman who I believe could pass a Special Forces selection course. Of this small amount I have only personally known one female who has shown genuine interest in becoming a qualified SF member. She is fit, very strong and driven. I can see her doing exceptional well within the Army as long as she doesn’t lose sight of her dreams.
For the rest of females that I have spoken to, they also believe that an infantry or SF soldier’s role is beyond their capability or desire to accomplish. It’s not that we believe a female is incapable due to fitness or strength, but because of the factors which I’m going to talk about. Here are some points which I believe females should ask themselves when considering SOF.
Fitness and strength capability
My first thought is that under no circumstances should the standards of entry be lowered due to the person’s sex. If a man needs to carry 40kg (88lbs) over 15km (9.32 miles) then a women needs to be able to carry the same weight over the same distance and time. To lower the standards will not only increase the chances of your team failing the mission, but women will become a liability to their team mates who then need to pick up their slack. If a female is able to complete all of the training at the same high level that her male counterparts have, then from a fitness perspective, I can’t see a problem with females working within SOF. The level of fitness and strength, however, is only a small part of what is needed to be a SOF member which brings me to my next subject psychological strength.
There are so many questions which all military personnel need to ask themselves. How would I feel about killing someone? Could I do it within Close Quarter Combat? How would I feel watching a friend bleed out, whilst struggling to take their last breath? How would I feel about seeing dead or injured locals? These are situations in which SOF operators have found themselves on an all too regular basis over the past 10 years in Afghanistan. SF personnel are trained to kill. Men or women can or will endure PTSD, but women have the in-built drive to protect. Will they prove to be more susceptible to PTSD?
There will only be a small amount of women who could suppress their emotions and be capable of dealing with the experiences SOF personnel have seen or endured. If a woman can find her inner cand*t (please excuse the language but it’s the best word to describe the emotion, which one requires to fight) to succeed in battle and be capable of withstanding the psychological problems that is inherent in combat, then I cannot see a reason as to why a female cannot work within SOF. Looking past a psychological aspect, a women’s body is another factor.
A women’s body
A woman’s body struggles with the weight and work load that is required of a SOF member. The female body make up is completely different to men. Physiological factors such as fat mass, strength, aerobic endurance and biomechanical factors such as stride length and forward lean of the pelvis have the potential to increase the energy cost of load carriage and cause injury.
Male soldiers are required to carry packs weighing upwards of 40kg (88lb) and body armour of 10kg+ (22lb), or in an assault role body armour of approximately 20kg+ (44lbs) without factoring in weapons systems. The average Australian man weighs approximately 85kg (187lb). An Australian female weighs approximately 70kg (154lb) and is required to carry the same weight. The entire weight which she is to carry is close to her overall body weight and increases the chances of injury exponentially. In the event of a casualty, a soldier is expected to be able to pick up their comrade, who will be carrying the same weight and get him or her to safety. How likely is it that a 70kg (154lb) female could do this?
Since being in the Army I have met a handful of women who are capable of carrying the weight and completing the pack march in times similar to the men. I have not witnessed a female being able to carry another man or drag him in training with these weights. I’m not sure if other women have or have not received any form of injury but for myself I have endured back and hip problems due to the physical strain of carrying such weight. Again, there will be a small majority of female’s who can pass and maintain the fitness levels. But at what other cost will there be?
Do you want or do you see yourself having kids? I know that not every female desires to be a mother but it’s a natural process which we have been given the capability to do and do well. I have a two year old girl and to fit my family life around work has not been an easy process for me and my work colleagues. I have had to give up niche roles within my unit so that I have the flexibility to complete day care drop off and pickups. I have had to say no to exercises and deployment opportunities because at those times I had no one to care for her. I can never be 100% Army ready now because my family and little girl is my main priority. To be a female within SOF you need to be ready to give up your want to have children.
Field or deploying in mixed gender teams
This subject is a big topic, which I believe all past and serving members can relate to. Imagine being in a team with 7 other men but because you are female you are required to sleep and shower in the female accommodation, you are missing out on the team bonding which the other men will develop because of the mateship that is formed during this time. Imagine your team is on a time sensitive tasking awaiting orders for a target but the team isn’t co-located due to segregation issues.
Now you and your team are out on patrol and water is rationed. There are no showers or toilets and you are required to pee and poo within vicinity of your team. You cannot leave sight of your team in case you require help. Hygiene becomes a real issue (remember water is scarce). At the moment, ADF requires shower facilities for females whilst on exercise. Are they expecting special treatment for SOF females? I’m sure females wanting to join SOF will not want this special treatment, I personally can handle only having bird baths but it’s another factor in regards to equality in ADF standards.
Are women ready to give up their hygiene, dignity and privacy in order to belong with her team and be safe?
I understand my opinions will ignite much debate between men and women but I believe that within society, women are going to strive to be equal to men. I am 100% in favour of this. Men will start to see eye to eye with women and before we know it, the first qualified female SOF member will be deployed with our SF male counterparts.
It would be fair to say that the comments and views of the interviewees in this article go beyond the surface issue of just ‘women in SOF’. They provide an educated opinion based on actual experience and look much deeper than simply saying ‘we don’t want them here’. What these examples serve to highlight are the typical and astute responses that anyone would receive if they were to have this conversation with operators from either Regiment.
The majority of votes against women joining our ranks isn’t based on a culture of misogyny or exclusion; it is based on the demands of the job we have become intimately familiar with. They are also based on the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. The reputation and success that our SOF have enjoyed on a national and international level is unquestioned. A number of conversations since the announcement have thus revolved around the enormous and untested variable that mixed gender SOF teams may have on the unit.
A number of responses also promote the idea of women serving in specific roles within SOCOMD. They represent opinions that are truly focused on capability development, as they are provided by those who have actually served as qualified SOF members or support staff who have worked at length within the command. They are not phony statements which discuss synthetic notions of capability that have been issued by politicians or senior Defence staff. They are the valid opinions of those who have actually worked within, or in support of, Australia’s special operations.
The opinions provided promote a rhetorical line of thinking based on what these individuals believe are the most pressing concerns with allowing women into Australia’s SOF units. Physical performance is unsurprisingly one of the most common and recurring themes. It is no surprise that SOF are expected to carry exceptionally heavy loads for extended durations, and the ability of women to be able to do this and maintain combat effectiveness has been questioned in a number of the responses provided.
These arguments are also backed by the dominant concern that standards may be subsequently lowered to accommodate the inclusion of women. Not surprisingly, this has been one of the most discussed topics since the government announced its plans to lift gender restrictions. Women have different standards to men in all of the ADF’s physical assessments, and operators were extremely concerned that this was going to migrate into our selection criteria. So far, it has not and does not look like it will, which has for the time being alleviated some of the concerns surrounding this issue.
The concept of women in SOF and the subsequent idea of mixed gender teams is also providing some interesting discussions. Some concepts referred to as the ‘cave man theory’ and ‘hero syndrome’ have been raised, as well as the effects that the working environment of SOF may have on the relationships between males and females in the same team. Whilst people may argue that this point is invalid as most of the free world work in mixed gender environments, I would counter argue with the fact that most work environments do not reflect the unique demands that are placed on special operations units. There is no other job that is comparable to what special forces do, so attempts to promote a gender-equal work environment for the sake of political correctness is both naïve and dangerous.
Neil James, who is the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, has openly expressed his concerns with the move, stating that more women would die if they were to serve in combat roles. Mr. James also said: “I don’t think the people of Australia would like to see their daughters, sisters, wives or female friends killed in disproportionate numbers to male service personnel. You know it’s a simple physicality thing; on the battlefield academic gender equity theory doesn’t apply, you know, the laws of physics and biomechanics apply.” Similarly, the Federal Liberal MP, Stuart Robert, has also claimed that there are certain roles that women just aren’t able to perform.
Mr. Robert was a former infantry officer and has questioned those in government who are pushing this agenda but have never served a day in the military. He stated: “There’s a reason why the rest of the Western world hasn’t rushed into this, so for Mr. Combet to stand there and say his personal opinion is that women should be on the frontline and serving in all units, when he’s never served there, when he’s never parachuted at night in the rain, when he’s never carried a mortar baseplate for 50 kilometres in a route march, when he’s never spent nights and nights without sleep, for him to stand there and give his opinion and push the Government into something is simply outrageous.”
Another rhetorical and interesting approach to the subject was raised by a colleague of mine in relation to sports. The ADF holds annual inter-service sporting competitions between the army, navy, and air force. Rugby union and rugby league are two of the most popular sports played each year, and each service has a separate men’s and women’s teams. Why is it OK for the ADF to maintain a strict gender bias in sporting competitions without question, yet if we question the imposition of women in combat roles we are automatically labeled by some as sexist?
It would be interesting to see the reaction from a men’s professional ARU (Australian Rugby Union), NRL (National Rugby League), or NFL (National Football League) team if they were told that they were going to start opening tryouts for females. Could it be possible that men and women’s professional sports enforce this bias based on the physical differences viz. unfair advantage between the two sexes? Could it be possible that common sense has dictated that, say, a 60kg (132lb) women is not entirely suited to a professional all-male ARU, NRL, or NFL team for the same physical discrepancies? Does the course rating and tee system in professional golf still differ for men and women? Does the Australian Pro Tour, and every other professional tennis circuit, still maintain both men’s and women’s singles tournaments?
The answer to all of these is an unequivocal yes. If anyone would like to argue the contrary, I would suggest that they should first try and argue their point to any professional sporting body (they could maybe start with the Olympic Committee) and see how far their gender equality arguments get them. It is by no means sexist nor misogynistic to say that men are physically different to women and therefore more suited to a number of different employment categories. I’ve found that most people who tend to disagree are almost always pushing an unsubstantiated and invalid agenda from the outside looking in. Coincidentally, I’ve also found that the higher the rank, the more people tend to toe the party line with this entire proposal.
My opinion on the subject echoes similar sentiments to my colleagues. For one, I do believe that there are employment opportunities for females within certain combat roles as well as SOCOMD. Having spent the last two years of my career within a Domestic Counterterrorism (DCT) role serving with the Tactical Assault Group – East, there were a number of critical employment opportunities that are perfectly suited to both males and females. In fact, a number of capabilities would actually improve with the introduction of mixed gender teams. For instance, if the objective of a particular DCT task is to, say, gather intelligence and blend into an urban environment whilst doing so, then a mixed pair is far more convincing than two males working together who fit the operator profile.
The British 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company (also known as 14 Company or simply “The Det”) was a mixed gender unit within the British Army Intelligence Corps who conducted undercover surveillance operations in Northern Ireland against members of the Irish republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. Fighting an incredibly adept enemy on their home soil, the success of a number of their operations were attributable to the outstanding work of their female operatives. These tasks, however, were very specific and incredibly suited to the mixed gender teams and operating environment of 14 Company.
I do not believe, however, that women are particularly suited to the war fighting and direct action roles that the 2nd Commando Regiment and the Special Air Service Regiment have become renowned for on the battlefields of Afghanistan. I also think that mixed gender SOF teams in these roles is a disaster waiting to happen.
Whilst it may have been one thing for our previous government to have hastily implemented the proposed changes to allow women into combat roles, it is certainly another for current and former operators to provide a more realistic point of view; a point of view which is based on experience rather than trying to win popularity and votes by mitigating the political climate at the time. The quick fix also appeared coincidental in terms of timing and suggested more of a deflective strategy than one of comprehensive foresight.
Two girls have already attempted selection this year but did not pass, with the physical requirements proving to be a significant issue. Both girls attended the mandatory Advanced Infantry Tactics (AIT) course at Singleton prior to their respective selection courses. One had chosen to attempt selection for the Special Air Service Regiment and the other had chosen to attempt selection for the 2nd Commando Regiment.
One of the candidates in particular was a clear standout. She was intelligence, fluent in three languages, university educated, extremely fit, and determined in her goal. Her physical ability placed her around the middle of the group’s average, however her biggest drawback was her size. She weighed around 55kg (121lb) with minimal body fat, and extended time out field saw a much sharper decline in her performance as compared to the male candidates.
When it came to the physical testing component, there were also some issues. For instance, the Special Forces Entry Test (SFET) must be conducted prior to selection which tests potential candidates physical ability in a number of different ways. Two of the assessment criteria for the SFET is a timed 2.4km (1.5 mile) run with 7kg (15.5lb) of webbing plus an M4 rifle, and a 15km (9.3 mile) pack march with 28kg (61.6lb) of weight plus an M4 rifle. Whilst this female candidate could pass the pack march, it was ultimately the timed run which proved to be her biggest obstacle.
When I asked if she was treated noticeably differently on the course, the answer was also an unequivocal yes. It was noticed that both students and some directing staff (DS) appeared to be more helpful towards her than what they were with other candidates. Why? Well, as someone integral to this particular selection put it, “It’s human nature. She was a polite and attractive female. Did I treat her any differently? Fuck no. But I could see others well and truly doing it.” Similarly, she was also afforded a second chance during the SFET to pass her run after she failed the first attempt, something which I’ve certainly never heard of happening before.
Our SOF units aren’t particularly struggling to attract candidates, nor are they significantly undermanned. The government’s announcement to lift gender restriction on combat roles was met with skepticism by anyone who cared to look deeper, and even more so by those of us who actually do the job.
Since the first key milestone of opening up every employment category to already serving women was met on 1 January 2013, the number of in-service transfers have been minimal. An unconfirmed figure for the entire year of 2013 was less than 20 transfers across all three service branches. The number for SOF has been even less, and the two that attempted selection did not make it past the first week.
As long as the physical requirements remain the same, then selection may ultimately prove to be the last vestige of maintaining the tried and tested all-male SOF units that Australia currently has.