CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian women will be allowed to serve in frontline combat roles, including as special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, after the government said on Tuesday it was dropping all gender restrictions for the military.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, will become the fourth country after Canada, New Zealand and Israel to open all combat roles to female soldiers who pass physical entry tests, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said.
"Once this is fully implemented there will be no restrictions. If a woman is fully capable of doing the entrance program for the Special Air Service or Commandos, they'll be in it," Smith told reporters.
Australia currently allows women to serve in the vast majority of jobs in the 59,000-strong military, including on submarines and as air force jet fighter pilots.
Women also serve in Afghanistan with frontline artillery units and as drone aircraft operators, but are barred from infantry combat units and special forces, which make up around 7 percent of army jobs.
Entry to the elite SAS is particularly grueling, involving endurance marches and mental tests over several days in the country's searing outback, while carrying weapons, water and an 80kg pack.
The ban will be lifted immediately, but it may be up to five years before as the army must implement new tests on and train army doctors to operate on women, Smith said.
He added that he expected no opposition from Australia's overseas allies, including U.S. and Afghan troops serving with Australian soldiers in southern Afghanistan's Uruzgan province.
"I'm not expecting any difficulty as a result of what to the government and the service chiefs is a logical extension to a very strongly held view in Australian society that all of us are equal, irrespective of our sex," he said.
Australia has around 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, based mainly at Tirin Kot in Uruzgan, and is the largest non-NATO member of the international coalition fighting Taliban insurgents in the country.
Australia was an original member of the U.S.-led coalition that invaded the country to oust the Taliban, and has lost 29 soldiers in almost a decade of conflict.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)