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Guest Column - Force Magazine
Women in Combat

India would do well to learn from the ground realities in the US and Israel armed forces before opening its doors completely

Maj. Gen. Mrinal Suman (retd) Maj. Gen. Mrinal Suman (retd)

Induction of women in the fighter stream of the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been in the news recently and has generated considerable euphoria amongst the uninformed. Ominously, defence minister Parrikar remarked, “This is just the beginning. Slowly, women in large numbers will be part of the armed forces.”

Invariably, whenever the issue of women’s induction into the armed forces is debated, examples of the US and Israel are cited to justify the demand for more avenues for women. The recent decision of the IAF was also justified on similar grounds: if the US and Israel can have them, why not India?

It is generally assumed that the US and Israel are highly emancipated societies wherein both men and women are given equal opportunities in all fields including service in the armed forces. Further, it is believed that all positions in the military have been opened to women and that they are allowed to perform combat role as well. The recent decision of the US Secretary of Defence to permit women to serve in the Special Forces has been well covered by the Indian media.

As there are a large number of misconceptions, it will be prudent to learn about the ground realities in both the countries. Women activists and advocates often exaggerate the facts to force their countries to induct more women. For example, it is a deliberately created myth that Israeli women participate in direct combat.

The United States
The United States is considered a pioneer and a trendsetter as regards induction of women in the services. There are approximately 2,14,000 American women serving in the military. They constitute nearly 14.5 per cent of its strength. Close to 2,20,000 women were deployed for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and accounted for nearly 11 per cent of all US soldiers.

According to (an authoritative independent website that compiles data of casualties suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan), the total number of US fatalities in Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ had reached the figure of 4,497 by 18 April 2016. The figure includes 97 women fatalities. However, all women fatalities were due to enemy rocket attacks on bases, suicide attacks, IED blasts and air crashes. In other words, not a single woman’s death had occurred in close combat with the enemy.

Similarly, during Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ (Afghanistan), puts the total number of US fatalities at 3,515 till 18 April 2016. A total of 50 women appear in the list. Once again, all fatalities were due to enemy rocket attacks on bases, suicide attacks, IED attacks and air crashes. Many people tend to confuse casualties due to hostile action with combat casualties. While combat casualties are those that are suffered while engaged in direct combat with the enemy, casualties due to hostile action can occur even in the rear areas. It will come as a surprise to many that over 500 civilians employed by the contractors to provide logistic support to the US forces died in Iraq due to hostile action like rocket attacks on the bases. As can be seen, in both the above mentioned operations put together, women casualties were just 2.4 per cent of the total casualties whereas their strength was 11 per cent of the total force level. Once again, it shows that women were kept sheltered in safe jobs, away from close combat with the adversary. They generally performed medical, intelligence, logistic and traffic control duties.

In the US, the scope of combat-risk assignments for women is being continuously redefined to open maximum appointments to them. Since January 2013, approximately 110,000 ground combat positions have been opened to women. However, close to 200,000 positions still remain closed to women. As per the current US government policy, ‘all ground combat positions will be open to women, unless rigorous analysis of factual data shows that the positions must remain closed’. Thus, it is for the services to convince the government by October 2016 as to why certain positions must remain earmarked exclusively for male soldiers.

Indian Navy’s women contingent during Republic Day Parade
Indian Navy’s women contingent during Republic Day Parade

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