AUSTRALIAN women could be qualified for frontline combat roles by the end of next year, raising the prospect of them fighting against insurgents in Afghanistan.
In response to questions from The Age, Defence said that during the next 18 months it would implement physical tests - including tests for combat troops - based on ''capability, not age or gender''.
The new physical tests will include a forced march, lifting boxes to demonstrate muscular strength, a ''fire and movement'' test to measure capacity for short bursts of intense activity and a lift and carry exercise to measure endurance.
''Physical employment standards will identify the essential tasks of a trade and the physical standards required to achieve them, regardless of age or gender,'' a spokesman said.
''The aim is that in future, career choices will only be restricted by an individual's physical and intellectual competence. This also includes combat related trades.''
The issue of women fighting in combat roles burst into the public view in the wake of the Australian Defence Force Academy Skype sex scandal earlier this year.
Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston said publicly for the first time that he wanted women to have combat opportunities. His call came at the same time Defence Minister Stephen Smith ordered inquiries into the treatment of women in the Defence Force.
There has also been speculation that Mr Smith pushed for the promotion of women within the senior ranks of the Defence Force, and rumours in the Defence community that he was even considering a quota system for female officers.
Women already serve in some frontline roles, including Navy boarding parties, aircrew and ground crew in the Air Force when on the ground in contested areas, and in Army combat-support units.
The main roles closed to women are combat infantry, tank crews, artillery battery gunners, cavalry troopers (in armoured personnel carriers) and field engineers.
Arguments against opening up all roles to women include a perceived lesser ability to cope emotionally and physically with violence, the risk of sexual assault by enemy troops and the potential for fellow serviceman to focus on protecting them rather than killing the enemy.
The issue of female military casualties was highlighted in April when a British bomb disposal expert, Captain Lisa Head, was killed trying to defuse an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
In the latest issue of the Australian Army newspaper, Army, a number of soldiers were asked for their opinions on the new physical testing. All of the soldiers, male and female, approved of the changes to the testing on the grounds they would weed out unfit soldiers, but their views on women in combat roles varied.
''No matter how physically and intellectually capable a woman is to be an infantry soldier, you cannot put a woman into an infantry call-sign,'' Corporal Stuart Heeney said.
''It will change the dynamics due to human nature. Blokes will be more interested in impressing women than focusing on the job.''
However, female soldiers and other male soldiers said they believed all roles should be open to women if they proved themselves physically.
''I feel women should be able to work in all Army jobs, but even now the physical standards for a woman to enter and stay in the Army are lower than what a man's are,'' Gunner Sarah Hodgson said. ''I think this is wrong and believe men and women should have the same physical requirements if they are in the same job.''
Women face final hurdle in bid for frontline combat roles