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Saturday, December 21, 2013


The below reproduced article on women officers, authored by Maj Gen Raj Mehta, was published in Geopolitics.


Raj Mehta

In a dramatic policy shift on 24 January 2013, outgoing US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the 1994 military ban on women serving in combat. This landmark initiative will allow uniformed women to be closer to front-line combat roles from mid 2013 onwards - unless there is strong opposition in the US Congress. India, which faces crippling shortages of over 13,000 officers in its armed forces, can learn lessons from this American initiative. It can make a virtue out of necessity by enrolling more women officers to make up its deficiencies. Raj Mehta examines the complex dynamics involved.


The recent American announcement allowing uniformed women to enter the hitherto ‘male only’ preserve - the combat zone - has aroused strong emotions worldwide. The male-dominated military world is not excited and a flood of articles have questioned the validity of the policy change. Understandably, women’s rights activists and equal-opportunity enthusiasts the world over are delighted because another male bastion has fallen by the way side. A dispassionate analysis however reveals that the forward movement to “officially” allow uniformed women to enter combat is in actuality a small, breakaway step from the otherwise glacial evolution of allowing American women to enter hardcore combat. It has, however, stopped short of officially allowing women to serve in combat. The fine-print of the policy change allows women to be permanently assigned to a combat battalion as radio operators, medical officers/orderlies, tank mechanics and other critical jobs; assignments barred by the now-rescinded 1994 combat exclusion policy which prohibited women from being assigned to ground combat units.

A Reality Check - Are Women Closer to Combat Now?

That combat exclusion, was, in real terms, never strictly applied by the US armed forces and was informally “bypassed” - and therein lies a tale. America has a uniformed strength of 1.4 million personnel of which a significant 14 percent are women both in enlisted and officer ranks. It has deployed over 2, 80,000 women in Iraq and Afghanistan since 1990; suffering 144 women killed in service and over 865 wounded. Under severe manpower availability pressures, the US military got around the exclusion rules by "attaching" women for some jobs to battalions. This meant they were working in combat situations without getting any official credit for the same. Army women veterans wryly say that the new policy has merely legitimized existing arrangements. "We're already doing this stuff," says a former Marine captain, now the Executive Director of the Service Women's Action Network.  She added: “We’re not talking about opening up the Infantry to every woman, but the women who do want to try these jobs should be allowed.” A US Quinnipiac Poll held in February 2012 found that 75% Americans believed women should be allowed on the front-line.

The consuming desire to allow women in combat roles in-so-far as women activists, uniformed women and the female gender in general, is widespread. The men, world-wide are, however, nowhere near as enthusiastic or as supportive of the landmark US policy change, and for a number of “reasons” which they cite as hard evidence. Let us examine their validity.


Opinions justifying exclusion of women from combat have coalesced around deep-rooted concerns explained in the succeeding text.

Physical Concerns

Female soldiers are in general, smaller and lighter than male peers, have almost half their upper body strength and 25-30% less aerobic capacity; making their endurance ability far lesser than men. The female skeletal system is less dense and more prone to breakages; in particular to stress fractures. There are concerns too, that women pilots do not cope with g-forces as well as male pilots do. Naval opinion undermines women as submariners because of their need for more space; separate toilets; problems of “hot bunking” (sharing bunks with male peers on shift basis; the word “hot” meaning that the bunk retains the warmth of the last occupant). Estimates pitch the additional cost of catering as a costly $300,000 per women submariner.

Psychological and Physiological Concerns

The perceived negative impact of a combat unit's esprit de corps if a woman peer is wounded or taken prisoner/molested is cited as a key reason for women to be excluded from front-line combat. The Israeli Defence Forces report soldiers going berserk and exhibiting “uncontrollable, protective, instinctual aggression” on such occasions. There is also the fear of women ruining male bonding by bringing in romance and its stressful/competitive fall-outs. Increased pregnancy risks; attendant social disruption and women using their bodily functions and pregnancy to escape combat situations are serious add-on issues.  The issue of a woman’s instinctive underpinnings to nurture and preserve life rather than take it makes men feel women will always be squeamish about killing and bloodshed; an unavoidable fallout of combat.


Uniformed Women are wired to do well

Opinions about women’s ability to cope with combat are not just driven by rhetoric but, equally, by research. A 2008 study by Jennifer Silva of female students enrolled in the US Reserve Officers' Training Corps program found that female cadets saw military training as an "opportunity to be strong, assertive and skillful" and "as an escape from the negative aspects of traditional femininity". The study reported that female cadets "were hyper-vigilant about their status as women performing tasks traditionally seen as men's work”. It is already well known, of course, that women as a gender are far more conscientious than men; are more honest and have far better communication skills; reinforcing IQ with Emotional Intelligence (EI); an asset that women use routinely and men sparingly, and whose possession  could be a valuable life skill.

Women don’t always have to involve in Close Combat

While the Army assertion about women performing physical tasks with noticeably lesser competence than men is indisputably correct, it seems obtuse and archaic to demand that both sexes should be tested by the same yardsticks and female physiology remain the overriding factor in determining women’s combat worth. In an Indian tank regiment of around 650, for instance, only about 200 soldiers actually enter combat as tank crews; with another approximately 200 involved in supporting tasks where the risk of close combat is lesser though still real. That leaves about 250 soldiers who, though in the combat zone, will rarely be involved with warfighting. The implication is clear; women pitched into a combat zone do not have to be “like the boys”. They can still earn professional respect in the roles that US policy has now specified, sparing males for high endurance jobs.

Air Force and Naval Issues

So far as the Air Force is concerned, there is indisputable medical evidence that male pilots are less able to handle g-forces than female counterparts since women are less likely to suffer black-outs due to shorter blood vessel routes in the neck. This does not make men lesser relevant but it certainly makes women pilots more relevant. No wonder then, that western air forces and even the Pakistani Air Force now allow women to fly fighter aircraft. Even conservative India has, as of January 2013, allowed women pilots to fly combat helicopters. The Naval issue has also been needlessly hyped up as some countries realised, after the Norwegian Navy first successfully inducted women commencing in 1985. Women now hold senior positions in both submarines/ surface ships in some Navies.

Can Women Warriors Cope with Combat?

The question of women being brutalized if captured is, of course, real. That said, the brave attitude of Major Rhonda Cornum, now a Brigadier General is worth noting. She was taken prisoner by the Iraqi’s during the Gulf War in 1991. Asked not to mention that she had been molested,  Cornum subsequently disclosed the attack, but said "A lot of people make a big deal about getting molested," adding: "But, in the hierarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list". In 2007, author Kirsten Holmstedt released Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq. The book presents twelve stories of American women on the frontline including America's first female pilot to be shot down and survive, and a 21-year-old turret gunner. The bottom line? Most women can and do cope with combat, though wisdom may lie in their avoidance.

The history of warfighting also supports the contention that women can become skillful in combat. In World War 2, the Red Army of Russia had about 4,00,000 women serving as tank crew, infantry, snipers, military police, medics and nurses. Roza Shanina, a Soviet sniper during World War 2, was credited with 54 confirmed ‘kills’.  Between 1942 and 1945, 12% of Russian fighter pilots were female. Britain’s Special Operations Cell trained 418 female agents as spies of which 119 were shot, including Noor Inayat Khan; an Indian and a direct descendent of Tipu Sultan.

The Indian Situation – No Combat for Women

Indian readers are aware that warrior women have been an important part of India’s religiosity, folklore and history. Durga, a warrior goddess, Kālī, Chamunda ("the killer of demon Chanda and Munda") are widely worshipped. Vishpala is the 8000 BCE Rig-Veda warrior queen who suffered amputation in battle; then fought with iron prosthesis. Razia Sultana, Rani Rudramma Devi, Chand Bibi, Abbakka Rani, Tarabai, Bibi Daler Kaur, Mai Bhago, Begum Sumru, Kittur Chennamma and Rani Lakshmibai are warrior women who proved their worth in battle. This past does not reflect our grim reality in terms of the current positioning of uniformed women in our military society.

Defence Minister AK Anthony has, in a written Lok Sabha response indicated that, in September 2012, the Army was short of 10,100 officers; the Navy 1,996 and the IAF 962; totaling 13,058 officers. Women officers comprise a mere 3.3 percent of Army officer strength; 3.9 percent in the Navy but a healthy 10 percent in the Air Force. Women officer strength, 21years after their recruitment first began in 1992, is 1,214 in the Army, 302 in the Navy and 1,079 in the IAF. These numbers exclude lady medical and nursing officers. The Army recruits women officers in the Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Intelligence Corps, Army Education Corps and Law branches. The Navy recruits them into the Law, Logistics, Observer, Air Traffic Controller, Naval Constructor and Education branches. In the IAF, though, women officers are recruited in all branches and streams, except the fighter stream of the flying branch.

Rejecting the combat-role-for-women demand, the Government has cited the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) report of 2006 and the Tri-Services Committee report of 2011. Women are currently recruited as SSC officers for five years extendable to 14 years of service. Permanent commission is however available in the Law and Education branches of the Services and a few additional technical branches in the Navy and IAF.  

Indian Women Officers Deserve Better
The author has seen women officers in uniform perform with displayed capability in the war zone in J&K for over a decade. He found them spirited, conscientious, gutsy, principled, honest and reliable; capable of sustained hard work at par with male peers. That they could not be tested under fire is no slur on their capability or potential simply because the current rules forbid entry into combat. That said, our crippling officer shortages have often compelled us to “unofficially” use them in the war zone in certain roles. The author did not come across any woman officer who backed out by quoting rules or regulations.  They have carried out assigned military tasks as well as men have; assisted in rural development, schooling, women care; running orphanages, schools, child care projects in “black areas” where they were vulnerable to combat situations - with as much courage as their male peers. Tested in weapon firing; during Engineer bridging camps; night parades and exercises, they have displayed adequate soldierly capability. In May 2012, seven women officers climbed Mount Everest; all being honoured by the President of India for their world class performance.
While actual combat in the Indian case is a long way off; certainly farther than it is in USA, our women officers need to be encouraged by being granted permanent commission. We also need to focus on creating gender sensitization amongst the rank and file of the armed forces and in its General Officer ranks that greater induction of women will help reduce the crippling officer shortages to manageable proportions. For the near time, posting women to combat support units with the same career guarantees that their male counterparts get is a jugad solution that the Ministry of Defence must flesh out soonest in supreme national interest.  


Yogi said...

Why is it that all women and their supporters want them (women) to be officers only? Why not have all females units and employ them on all kinds of military duties on experimental basis and then take a call!

Synapse said...

Our army which still belives in differentiating "martial castes" (Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs) from all others and also incorporates these in its policies for alootment of arms to officers, there is still a very long way to go for change in mind sets.

At the very heart of it, is a question for both men and women - In the new found indipendence, do women want to be treated a "gentle ladies" with "chivalrous" men around or they would now be chivalrous themselves as men have been?

The answer lies in opening up the combat to women, and those women ready for it should be welcomed. Gradually, skeptic men too will change.

For the skeptics - It is better to try and fail then not having tried at all!

Anonymous said...

All studies find women capable of all kinds of jobs. No disputing that. However, how open are feminists to criticism? All hell breaks loose when someone even vaguely suggests that there could be some disadvantages in employing women in certain fields. Remember Larry Summers? The point I am making is in today's world, it is politically incorrect to say that women are 'not capable' of excelling in certain kinds of tasks.
I also believe that armed forces are not platforms to achieve social equality. The business of the forces is to kill people, however crude it may sound, and we teach our officers and men to do just that. Hence, expecting qualities of equality, compassion, empathy etc to be instilled in our officers and men of the forces should not distract the forces from its ultimate aim - to kill people, in style. Because, if the forces fail when that time comes, there will be no equality, no natural justice. Because there will be no India.

PBOR said...

the issue is not if women can and do cope with combat or not. ofcourse they can. the issue is whether we are socially and psychologically ready for that. i am afraid. we are not yet. The 'outrage' on strip searched Devyani Khobragade whereas NO fuss over striping Kalam and Khan, proves my fear.

Anonymous said...

In Indian context, foremost thing ne has to ensure is to make training of men and women officer exactly the same. When a woman will do the same training then only they can do the same task. Earlier they used to do inferior training and presently they have relaxed standards for same training particularly in physical standard. Till then a women will never get the same respect from men as a male officer gets.

Anonymous said...

All opinions are fine But our adversaries are barbarians who do not believe in international coventions. Gen Raj Mehta may kindly address the solution for this before we sent our women into combat. Perhaps he will find a way to ensure that there is no close combat. It is a good idea. But before our society changes(we still have effective khaps inspite of all laws)should we have all westernised experiments in our stressed out Forces?

Unknown said...

See article "Women in the Army" at: http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/women-in-the-indian-army-ii/

army doctor said...

First of all we must see that Pak and chinese armed forces have employed women.Then only we should think of employing more of them in our AF.Otherwise we will be at a great disadvantageous situation.

Anonymous said...

All arguments by the author and other supporters of combat role for women are fine, but why only as officers why not across ranks. Why don't these people support that with as much passion, for in the foreign armed force that these people love to cite as examples that is the reality. The day all these people raise a demand for induction of women in all ranks will i believe that they are truly sincere. Real social justice would be opening up the armed forces for women across all strata of society and not only for a few who are relatively advantaged and capable of getting into the officer cadre.

Med Spl said...

it is a nice move for westerners but not in indian setting since most of our NCOs are fom village background. Women officers in combat zone may not be feasible for indian situation. i guess we shouldnt ape westerners in everything. we have to see our ground reality which makes Women officers in combat zone unrealistic and Women NCO is a stict NO for same reason.

Anonymous said...

The comments and views are welcome, but do ask the COs who deal with women officers (mis referred to as Lady Offrs in general and Lady Cadets at Academies). The gradation is pretty clear in Indian Army. YOs joining are fresh, willing and wanting to learn. By the time the YOs courses are done for about 25% romance is in the air and for almost 90% the parents of the girl (yes though a women offr her parents repeatedly speak to COs for the girl) are planning marriage arranging postings near hometown. The women offrs applying themselves cannot be faulted at all, they are at par with their male counterparts. However by 5-6 yrs of service biology and societal norms takes over and issue of marriage becomes supreme in a patriarchal society like ours. The pattern emerging thereafter is universally that of problems in attending PT, Games, functions and parties by the WO. A major crisis appears at social functions whether a military spouse is a lady or an offr as each side wants privileges. The issue of spouse postings and applications for the same is the major job for any CO. Rampant lobbying by senior officers in case of women offrs joining from army/ forces background is common as parents contact their still serving compatriots for intervention.(Perhaps someone from MS branch can comment on this aspect). Professionalism at this stg starts taking a backseat as the women offrs repeatedly look to delaying their advance courses or refuse to attend the same. It is very common to claim medical category and delay postings in preferred peace stns than to proceed for courses or new postings. The COs in true Army tradition now start loading such offrs with less work or work meant for much junior officers. The women offr has her biological issues, the unit has a task at hand , the CO is looking to get things done and of course the elusive HC/ HDMC course. So no point in rocking the boat. A set pattern emerges, reluctance of WO-- COs inital pushing -- delayed work -- reassign work to other offrs -- disquiet and disaffection amongst other offrs -- other women offrs junior in service watching and learning or following suit-- or other women offr diligent worker needlessly clubbed with the poor behaviour pattern of the former WO. irrespective the org suffers. WOs only in services and therefore posted out to new outfits every 2-3 yrs. 6 yrs and above service level carrying disaffection, an exaggerated sense of being wronged, extremely conscious of rights chary on duties and exceptionally well versed in spouse posting rulesand ante date seniority rules.

Gen Mehta would have perhaps analysed the issue much better had he directly commanded the WOs and handled the issues generated on day to day basis.
I have not yet spoken of camraderie, inspecting cook houses of men and their latrines, leave and marital discord of men to be handled by the very same WOs as also Basic trg and soldiering ref to by senior offrs as gyan on daily basis. Besides women on the frontline and at the OR level it would be not out of place to suggest that we from the services would want that WOs be posted to the arms also. Let the inf att period of male offrs be reduced to one year universally and WOs with 5 years plus service be att for one fixed tenure of 2 yrs to the arms. The proposal should have no problems as better trained and more qualified WOs would be available vis a vis fresh lieutenants from the academy. The WOs too should not have any objection as issue of serving with the Arms would then be open. The arms should have no objection as the future commanders expounding on the subject would have a first hand experince of the pros and cons. Any takers...
Commanding Officer