The first shots of a new gender battle have been fired over Defence Minister Stephen Smith's plan to tear down all barriers to women serving in combat.

The proposal, announced yesterday as part of an overhaul of the treatment of females in the Australian Defence Force, comes a decade after the move was first formally recommended, and more than a century since women first served as military nurses.

Provided women can meet rigorous physical standards, the move would see women joining frontline units from special forces to tanks, infantry and armour. It would bring Australia into line with a range of other nations allowing women into combat roles, including New Zealand, Israel, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, South Korea and Scandinavian countries.

But the proposal has opened divisions within both the military and politics and has yet to be tested against public opinion: an internet poll yesterday on news.com.au showed a majority of about 65.5 per cent opposed the move.

Smith's decision to accelerate the opening of all military roles to women followed the latest scandal at Canberra's Australian Defence Force Academy, in which the secret filming of an 18-year-old female cadet having sex was broadcast by Skype to other trainee officers.

The scandal triggered a new round of inquiries into women in the Defence Force, covering not only the Skype incident, but also other alleged cases, the abuse of alcohol and social media, and the behaviour and culture of military cadets.

Smith told ABC television that his office and the Defence Department had received many new complaints since the allegations were aired on Channel Ten.

The investigations, and the plan to open all combat roles to women, follow the Defence Force's determination to recruit more females for a military hard pressed to attract and retain skilled personnel.

At present males comprise about 85 per cent of the Defence Force. The intention is to remove gender barriers, and open combat roles according to skills, abilities and rigorous new physical standards at present under development.

"What you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability or capacity, not simply on the basis of sex or gender," Smith told Sky News.

Smith has been supported by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who told Macquarie Radio that the key issue was the operational capability of different individuals, male or female, to fulfil relevant roles. "The fact is if a woman has the capability there's no reason why she shouldn't do the job," he said.

The Darwin-based commander of the Army's 1st Brigade, Brigadier Michael Krause, told the ABC if a woman was strong enough and fit enough, she could do the job.

But opponents have argued that women lack the required physical strength, that their presence could distract male colleagues in battle, and that society is not ready to accept large scale female casualties or the risks they faced as prisoners of war.

The Australian Defence Association has warned that female soldiers face "disproportionate casualties" in combat requiring extended one-on-one physical confrontation.

Opposition Defence personnel spokesman Bob Baldwin told breakfast radio there was no public clamour for women to be given more combat roles, and their presence was a question yet to be resolved.

"I don't think that public opinion in Australia is ready to support that at this stage, and neither is the Coalition," he said.

Former SAS commander Brigadier Jim Wallace told the ABC that while women were equal in areas such as emotional and attitudinal requirements, they lacked physical strength.