Women in Combat – Again!

The Minister for Defence Personnel, Science and Materiel, Greg Combet, reportedly intends to commission an academic investigation of the suitability of women for employment in military categories of the Australian Defence Force currently denied them. These generally include combat infantry, armour and artillery in the army and special forces in both the army and navy. Generally speaking, these categories involve especially dangerous operations in close proximity to an enemy. The report in the Australian on September 9 suggested that Combet, possibly deriving from his previous experience as a senior trade union official, saw the issue exclusively as one of equal opportunity in employment, missing the obvious point that such service as well as offering employment opportunities also offered the opportunity to be killed or maimed as part of the job description.

Assuming that the investigation team is competent to assess the unique demands on the military in combat operations at a time when the pool of experienced people in the community is at an all-time low, they supposedly will focus upon the physical ability of women to handle the considerable variety of tasks that troops must handle. This is somewhat pointless. Some women will be able to cope while some, perhaps many, will not. But as with men, the ADF will select people for the task at hand. The danger in such an investigation is that, as has happened in some police forces, the task will be redefined to fit the equal opportunity drive regardless of any effect on the mission. There remains an inevitable suspicion that this is yet another investigation with a predefined outcome.

The commitment to this investigation obscures a far more important and fundamental philosophical issue of whether we as a community want to see our women on the battlefield, killing and being killed. The question has never been put to the Australian people. Rather it has been decided by governments under pressure from minority groups and their various choristers to see it as an equal employment opportunity question. People in these groups are typically unfamiliar with the brutal reality of combat and, like the usual advocates of conscription, they are quite unlikely to perform any kind of military service.

Yet as our casualties continue to grow in Afghanistan, the question takes on an immediacy that cannot be ignored. Currently we properly honour our combat dead, sometimes to embarrassingly mawkish levels. But that attitude is more than likely to change to popular outrage if a young Australian woman is killed, maimed or, perhaps worse, taken prisoner by the Taliban extremists.

There is actually nothing new in the government’s desire to extend employment opportunities for women in the ADF. In a tight labour market, even in a time of economic slowdown, the ADF is struggling to recruit even the inadequate numbers authorised by the government. While some of the pressure for change certainly comes from the equal opportunity enthusiasts, especially those women with ambition to become generals, most comes from a bureaucracy that for at least forty years to my knowledge has been unable to understand that, to get recruits, the ADF must compete effectively in a tight labour market. To avoid that fundamental reality, Defence and successive governments have used the equal opportunity argument to get more women in to make up the numbers.

For as long as I can remember, Defence has used civilian employment precedents to set wages for the ADF. The fundamental flaw in the reasoning is that military service, especially in the high-risk combat specialisations, does not have civilian equivalents. The lowest-paid people in the ADF are the combat infantrymen, yet theirs is the riskiest job, especially at a time when combat commitments have become almost a permanent feature of the force. Moreover, in this age of modern warfare, often against enemies that are hard to distinguish from innocents, the combat infantryman is a highly skilled specialist who must also exercise the additional skills of the diplomat. Defence has tried to get around this difficulty by paying hefty allowances for deployments to combat zones, but these have created their own problems including internal jealousies of those who benefit, especially given that all ADF personnel are required to maintain combat readiness or be discharged. Under these circumstances, access to increased pay becomes a lottery organised by the personnel branches. What becomes in fact a wildly fluctuating income for some frequently creates personal financial difficulties. Similarly, the plethora of allowances that are available creates problems where the desk-bound are more aware of their existence than the much busier combat troops.

When she was shadow defence minister before the election of the Howard government, Jocelyn Newman wanted to institute a more or less single, allowance-free pay scale at a higher rate than the existing base that would at once recognise the total commitment of all ADF personnel as well as give them and their families greater income stability. Unfortunately, Howard found different work for Newman in government, but it is likely that the control freaks in the department would have strenuously resisted such a radical reform. For one thing, it would have cost jobs in the public service-staffed pay branches.

What makes the current situation worse is that Defence has made the recruitment process so bureaucratised and slow that many qualified people give up and look for employment elsewhere. No job seeker is likely to hang around waiting for Defence without an income and perhaps with Centrelink breathing down his neck if he has another job offer. Given that the ADF perforce employs high-quality people, few potential recruits have difficulty in finding work.

There is something dreamlike about the desire of the government and its bureaucrats to increase the proportion of women in the ADF much beyond the steady 13 to 15 per cent of the past twenty years. The Victoria Police, whose women frequently engage in a less lethal but quite intense combat role, have not been able to increase their female numbers significantly despite a deliberate discriminatory recruitment policy in their favour. Currently women stand at 23 per cent of the force, although this includes a significant number of part-time officers, mostly married women. Counting full-time officers only, just 19 per cent of the Victoria Police are women.

In the ADF, while the numbers vary between the individual services and the reserves, employment is no comfortable sinecure for any personnel and thus does not appeal to many people, male or female, especially under current pay scales. Defence rather cynically banks on a high degree of patriotic or adventurous commitment from its people and generally enjoys it until growing maturity or family commitments force a rethink and a consequent departure from the force.

Expanding female employment opportunities into the most difficult and dangerous categories is likely to have at best a marginal effect on the overall percentage of women in the ADF. Currently women enjoy a number of privileges. One, of course, is that they may not be directed into close combat roles as men are. Every woman joining the ADF knows at the outset that, unlike her male colleagues, she is protected in that sense; the change envisaged by the equal opportunity enthusiasts could well result in a much lower rate of female employment. There does not seem to be much evidence that women are anxious to enjoy the bloody end of the military business.

More recently, commentators have introduced the demographic argument, that we don’t have enough men to defend Australia. But the notion that “demographic pressures” threaten the ability of the ADF to recruit sufficient numbers is a canard based on comparison of percentages rather than actual numbers. In fact, the recruitment pool is set to grow in raw numbers even if it does not grow as a percentage of the population. The logical flaw is to assume that recruitment targets will grow by the same percentage as the population or the recruitment pool.

In the Spring 2005 issue of Defender, the Australia Defence Association journal, Treasury Secretary Ken Henry reasserted the traditional Treasury line that Defence gets too much money. The only new thing in his article is the straw man he has constructed to “prove” the institutional point. Mr Henry’s opening sentence gave the game away: “Discussions on Australia’s current and future defence needs have traditionally been dominated by considerations relating to the strategic military environment.” One would have thought that such was a particularly sound basis for making defence policy rather than something to be cast aside because, as he went on to suggest, our demographic future is somewhat difficult.

Far from “considerations relating to the strategic military environment” defining defence needs, Australian history suggests that political and financial factors have been the primary determinants of defence policy. A year away from the outbreak of the Second World War, the then Treasurer, Richard Casey, was peddling his department’s line that Australia could not afford more than 3 per cent of its national income for defence. Casey, who had some genuine knowledge of defence, was simply peddling the current Treasury line. Of course, four years later, Australia was spending 35 per cent of national income, itself less than the 40-plus per cent Great Britain was spending. 

Leaving aside the history, how compelling is Treasury’s attack on defence spending? According to Henry, demographic changes manifested by low population growth and an growing aged cohort mean “slower growth in the workforce, slower growth in per capita incomes and slower growth in the aggregate economy”. His figures are incontestable but the issue is what they mean for defence. One impact of slower population growth is the smaller pool of potential recruits. Henry’s data showed that the pool of twenty-to-thirty-year-olds in 1965 was about 1.1 million (counting for that time men only). In 2005, the figure for men and women was around 3 million. But for 2045, the pool of men and women in the same age cohort is expected to be around 5 million—more than four times the 1965 figure and two-thirds more than for 2005. This is the pool from which the ADF must raise no more than 55,000 regular personnel, unless the government finally admits that the authorised ADF is too small to meet its government-imposed commitments.

Of course, Defence must compete for people within that pool but it is fundamentally the issue of competing that will decide whether sufficient troops are available. Competition can take a number of forms, with the most extreme being some form of compulsory service. Whether compulsion is introduced—as it has been on at least four occasions since Federation—is fundamentally a political question. Compulsion is of doubtful military value in modern strategic circumstances and is very expensive. Nevertheless, depending upon those circumstances, it is always an option available to government.

In 1965, Australia had regular armed forces of around 76,000, albeit with the aid of limited conscription. That force represented some 69 troops per thousand of the twenty-to-thirty-year-old male cohort. Currently, the figure is around 18 per thousand (counting men and women). Using the population projections for 2045 and assuming no expansion of the ADF, the demand for personnel would be significantly less, at some 11 per thousand of the twenty-to-thirty-year-old cohort. If the ADF were to be expanded to 75,000 personnel (to take an arbitrary figure), the demand would rise to around 15 per thousand, still lower than at present.

Whether Australia could afford such an increase in troop numbers is fundamentally a political and strategic rather than an economic question. Australia’s military employment of 2.5 per thousand of total population is significantly lower than Britain’s at 3.5 per thousand and the United States at 4.61. Even unthreatened and neutralist Ireland employs 2.98 per thousand. (The less said about Canada and New Zealand the better, but they have the inestimable advantage of being defended by a bigger neighbour.)

In this context, it should be noted that defence spending is qualitatively different from most other forms of government spending, especially those that can be characterised as transfer payments. Defence outlays are a form of insurance premium rather than recurrent or even capital outlays, and are thus a legitimate business cost. The challenge is to decide whether to afford the premium and how to calculate it.

If Australia does have recruitment problems for the ADF, they will not be solved by politically correct equal opportunity gimmickry but by some economically sophisticated solutions. That in itself would be no more than just to those who offer their lives for the rest of us. 

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