Australia will join a short list of nations that allow women soldiers to take on frontline combat roles after Canberra announced plans to remove gender restrictions in the nation’s defence forces over the next five years.

The reforms will see Australia join Canada and New Zealand in removing restrictions barring women from serving in infantry and special forces units.

Stephen Smith, defence minister, said an individual’s capacity to fill a defence role should be based on their ability rather than their gender.

Australia’s women soldiers are excluded from 7 per cent of all defence positions, including army artillery and infantry roles. There are 335 Australian women soldiers serving in overseas operations representing more than 10 per cent of the country’s overseas deployed forces.

Mr Smith said women would still need to demonstrate they had the right “physical and psychological and mental attributes” when applying for certain positions.

“If a woman is fully capable of doing the entrance programme for the Special Air Service or Commandos, they’ll be in it,” he said.

“This is a significant and major cultural change and it will require significant and major management of the reform,’ he said, adding the changes had the backing of the army, navy and air force chiefs.

However, the Australia Defence Association, a think tank, expressed fears that the changes could see a rise in the number of women casualties.

“The big issue they don’t appear to be willing to address is the risk of disproportionate casualties,” Neil James, a spokesman for the ADA, told Australia’s state broadcaster.

“Someone, one day, is going to have to stand up and face the people of Australia and explain why we’re killing our female diggers in larger numbers than our male diggers unless we do this very carefully.”

Mr Smith said after discussions with senior defence officials in Canada and New Zealand he did not expect any major issues implementing the changes.

“There will be different views. There will be strong support in some quarters and there will be questioning in others,” Mr Smith said.

He said he did not expect Australian troops operating in places like Afghanistan to be singled out by having women in frontline combat roles. “It will make us no more nor no less a target,” he said.

The latest changes will remove the remaining vestiges of gender discrimination in Australia’s defence forces.

“There will be a staged implementation programme which will see these restrictions removed over a maximum period of five years,” Mr Smith said.

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