Women in combat: The way ahead

The US Military’s combat arms branches do not need to ban women. They need to fix their standards problem.” Capt Micah Ables

As discussed elaborately in my previous three blogs, Indian women officers fought a long battle to get included in the Armed Forces on a permanent basis. After the clear verdict of Supreme Court, not much is left to say but a lot is to be done for ensuring the right implementation of the decision. With its uniform Human Resource Policies, Indian Air Force has already made it loud and clear that it will not compromise on the “principal necessity of  maintaining the fighting efficiency, combat effectiveness and functionality of the IAF at all times” for all the SSC officers commissioned after 2006 irrespective of gender. It is clear that there will be uniform Qualitative Requirements applicable to men and women SSC officers. Also, “service requirements and cadre management imperatives would be the primary consideration for grant of Permanent Commission”.
In my earlier blogs I have already discussed how the Indian Army defended its stand on why women could not be part of the forces, especially combat units in India under four specific heads
1.      exigencies
2.      physical capabilities
3.      composition of rank and file
4.      infrastructure
As an officer of the Indian Air Force I perfectly understand what the Indian Army is trying to amplify through these arguments. I have also brought out the point of view of the petitioners who demand equality of standards and nothing else. In the words of one of the petitioners, as told to a national newspaper:

 “One time while grading me, my commanding officer gave me an 8, saying, ‘You are the best in the unit, but a 9 point will be wasted because you can’t get a command post. It will help if I give it to the male officer’. It wasn’t his fault, the organisation was such.” she developed a “three-fold mantra” to ensure that her largely male platoons came to respect her. “If they see that their leader is competent, fair, and takes care of their training, they give respect. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman. When I prove myself on these counts, I become just another soldier, not a woman.”
With the Supreme Court decision, at least now it becomes clear that one day, after a few decades, one will see the women officers occupying higher posts in the Indian Armed Forces. The path ahead is not such an easy one as the stage of policy creation and implementation is one full of heart and headaches. There will be difficulties as the women in combat go on to disturb the way of life of the military leadership and the Warriors. Let us try to understand the same with reference to the above mentioned four points.
 “Being a woman and first does not matter much, being a fighter pilot matters” one of the first female fighter pilots of IAF

As discussed in my earlier blog, even the smallest military unit is like an extended family. They are trained to work like a team. Some of these team members may be born warriors, in addition to being seasoned mothers or even lactating ones. Similarly, certain male officers will also be troubled due to medical ailments which occur with time and frequent exposures to combat operations. But all of them will still meet the requirements of combat-readiness. Indian Army keeps quoting how the Indian family system makes the women in combat a bad option, but it forgets that the same Indian society today demands the induction of women in Armed Forces. Immediately after the First World War, Lieutenant General William Black noted and I quote, “Nothing could be worse than to place our reliance principally on technical means. The moral forces in the breast of the commander and in the soul of the entire people are the qualities which have finally turned the scales in war.”

Presently, nations such as US have started anthropological research in the field of designing fighter aircraft to suit the physical standards of women. With an increased number of women trainees qualifying to become fighter pilots, the day would not be far when India too would make optimum use of their women power through customized fighting machines. Similarly, tanks where men and women have to fight closely can be redesigned (keeping in mind the privacy and proximity of genders) to enhance combat readiness of the fighting forces.
“My talent always helped me, like in the ATC room, where officers said that instructions in a woman’s voice were clearer, especially in emergency situations.” Cdr Prasanna Edayilliam, part of the 1994 batch of the Air Traffic Control branch of the Navy.
Physical capabilities
“What gender neutral Army standards exist were not created to qualify more women, they were designed to ensure that standards were not lowered just to qualify more women.” Capt Micah Ables

This is a very old argument which is again and again quoted while emphasizing the unsuitability of using women in combat. What needs to be understood is the fact that the attrition rate of average male officers appearing for induction to Special Forces is already high. This means, even most of the Male officers do not qualify for the specialized Combat units-this remains a Niche arm of any Armed Force. So if women officers want to apply and get considered for this arm, it is well understood that they will be prepared to meet the standards. In fact, bringing women to a close combat situation may open new avenues for the armed forces. With many Extremist groups, Terrorist organisations spreading their wings with unconventional warfare, the induction of women in combat in such battlefields would enhance our capabilities to handle such situations.  
Composition of rank and file
“Presently, the environment has turned very conducive and normal for women officers in the IAF. In the last 25 years, the organisation and the people have become accustomed to the presence and performance of women officers. Newer fields (intra-organisation) are opening for women; however, promotion related biases continue due to the inbuilt sympathy factor with the male officers, who are the bread-winner for their families. Women officers are always envied being from the double income group and, therefore, miss out on such sympathy factors prevail unconsciously within the organisation,” says Wg Cdr Anuma Acharya, a retired woman officer to a daily newspaper

One of the most important reasons related to denial of permanent commission to women officers and using women in combat is the disturbance they will cause to the list of male officers who  were “the most probable” contenders for higher command posts. As discussed in my earlier blog, all promotions to next higher ranks for officers cadre is time bound till 14 years. The competition starts after that as the curve becomes steeper due to less number of vacancies and more eligible contenders for higher posts. Now the women officers who would be granted permanent commission would also have to be considered. This would make the chances of picking up the rank faded for many. But as the saying goes “May the best (Wo) Man win.”
There is no such thing as a difference in male officer and a female officer. We share the same syllabus and all other amenities,” one of the first female fighter pilots of IAF

When the first few batches of women officers entered the various arms of Indian Armed forces, there were hardly any facilities available for them, be it the work place or the accommodation. There were teething problems related to the kitting, training and accommodation of these women officers. But with time most of them have been looked after. More importantly, the ‘ad-hocism’ related to the career progression of women officers with Short service commission has come to an end with clear HR policies on the eligibility criteria related to grant of Permanent Commission to them.
Indian Army still states that the infrastructure required for a unit on movement during a combat exigency lacks the ability to create infrastructure specific to women in combat. This means, during the short time given to set up camps and attain operational readiness, it becomes an added burden to provide for a woman officer. Given a few more years of women being assigned as Commanding Officers, the Indian Army will create the required infrastructure.
Paradigm Shift: The Way Ahead

Paradigm Shift: The Way Ahead

Wars teach us a lot. In fact, the very existence of an Armed Force depends on its survival in the worst of calamities. Day after day men and women prepare themselves to excel and survive. Learn to kill or else get killed is the motto of their lives. And it is during such times that the well-tried and tested equipments, techniques and leaders become obsolete overnight. Such changes are known as Paradigm Shifts. During the First World War, three such paradigm shifts related to warfare came to light, namely; the use of machine power instead of horses, the use of aircraft and introduction of depth in weapons. These paradigm shifts changed the fate of many rulers and nations.
Similar is the case of Indian Armed Forces which are a reflection of the Indian society which is presently undergoing a start of such paradigm shift. The social changes in the roles played by different genders in daily life and the fading distinctions between genders affect the way of life in India. But, with the deep rooted customs of Indian society, it is a Herculean task for the Indian Armed Forces to create the right policies for women officers who are so few in number still.

A paradigm shift in basic thought process of male counterparts and a transformation from one framework to another would be required to pave the way ahead. But a paradigm shift will not happen just like that. It is going to be a slow, painful, gruel some, mind –boggling process where many lives will depend on the decisions of very few. Some such agents of change that will make this paradigm shift possible can be: thinking about entry of girl students to Sainik Schools and Military Schools, Entry of women cadets at NDA and entry of women in Ranks below officer cadre.
To end the long series of blogs on Women in Combat, I would like to quote the Bard “All things are ready, if our mind be so.” William Shakespeare, Henry V

Sqn Ldr Vidula Abhyankar (Retd)

Sqn Ldr Vidula Abhyankar (Retd)

A short service commission Officer of Indian Air Force, Sqn Ldr Vidula has worked for last 17 years in the field of education, training and development of Air warriors and their families.

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