Women in combat roles: India can romanticise it but here’s why we are not ready yet

Women in frontline combat roles in the Indian Army is more of a romantic notion than an implementable idea, at least for now.

A fresh debate on giving command positions to women in the Army, besides combat roles and permanent commission, has been on for a while. Such has been the fervour that an online petition has been initiated.

However, this is due to the lack of understanding of issues and a utopian idea to have women in combat.

Those clamouring for permanent commission for women in the Army should read up the facts before shooting off.

Women officers have been inducted into the Army from 1993. Initially, they were brought in for five years of service under “Special Entry Scheme”, which was then converted into Short Service Commission (SSC).

In 2008, permanent commission was extended to women in streams of Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Army Education Corps.

Last year, in a landmark move, the Narendra Modi government decided to grant permanent commission to women in all ten branches where they are inducted for Short Service Commission — Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Intelligence.

So, the clamour is based on a lack of understanding, given the force already provides permanent commission to women.

Command positions ::

Now, about command positions. The Modi government told the Supreme Court last week that women may not be able to meet the challenges and hazards of military service due to their “psychological limitations and domestic obligations”.

It also said that male troops, who are predominantly drawn from rural backgrounds, may be unwilling to “accept” a woman commander.

Those equipped with the nuanced understanding may find this argument repulsive. However, there is no denying that this remains an issue at a pragmatic level.

Also, women occupying command positions in peace stations (since they are not in combat), will be counter-discriminatory.

Before you lose your cool and call me a male chauvinist, consider this. Male officers spend most of their time in frontline positions along the LoC in direct combat, in places like Siachen where the temperature goes below -50 degrees, and in counter-terrorism and insurgency operations in places like Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast.

After such difficult postings, away from families, officers look forward to coming back to peace stations where they can take up command positions.

Now, if these positions are given to women officers, where would the male officers go? Should they remain in hard postings? Is this not counter discriminatory to the officer, his wife, children and parents?

Women in combat roles ::

Next, we come to the idea of women in combat roles — Infantry and the Armoured Corps. No matter how much you romanticise about this, it is practically impossible, especially in India.

It requires a societal change first. Even countries such as the US have only recently started inducting women in infantry combat roles.

Even in sports, women have set records while competing against women and not men because of different physical attributes and stamina.

Why I say this is because in war or operations, one cannot guarantee that women will come across only female combatants.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down last year in an aerial combat with Pakistan Air Force and captured. Imagine the outpouring of emotions nationally if this was a female pilot.

Now, please don’t say that it would not have mattered. We are a country that fell to its knees when a civilian aircraft was hijacked by terrorists, forcing us to release terrorists who continue to haunt the country with attacks after attacks, taking more lives than what was exchanged for.

In the Army, female officers are regularly deployed to the front, especially as doctors who are also sent for medical camps in Kashmir. However, extra precaution is involved to prevent their kidnapping.

Also, one is often given the example of foreign armies like the US and Israel that have female combatants. But even their forces don’t deploy women in direct infantry combat.

How fit are women ::

According to the Centre for Military Readiness, since the attack on the US on 11 September 2001, a total of 149 women deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria have lost their lives.

An analysis of the total death of American female soldiers lists three reasons — helicopter or aircraft crashes, Improvised Explosive Device (IED), and medical reasons.

An Army official said that deaths in IED explosions are not because of being in direct combat, but because of blasts mostly during convoy movement.

Quoting a study of the Marine Corps comparing the performance of gender-integrated and male-only infantry units in simulated combat, an article in The World Street Journal said that the all-male teams greatly outperformed the integrated teams, whether on shooting, surmounting obstacles, or evacuating casualties.

According to Marine Corps Times, in 2018, a total of 92 women were operating in a multitude of combat billets across the Corps. “Yet, only 11 enlisted women are serving today in the traditional ’03’ infantry career fields,” it said, quoting Marine Corps officials.

The report added that no woman has attempted the Basic Reconnaissance Course or Amphibious Reconnaissance Course, and there are no female snipers, according to data provided by Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

“Of the women serving in combat billets, most are in less physically demanding roles…,” according to data obtained by Marine Corps Times.

This is bound to happen given their physical limitations.

In Israel, too, women are mostly deployed in the military police and perimeter security rather than in actual combat.

In Siachen, there are posts with only four soldiers. They sleep and share the same cramped post to attend nature’s call. Can one imagine a female soldier there?

Soldiers undertake patrols that last for over 20 days at times. During this period, the men sleep and bathe together, and do the morning chores in open, often with another team keeping a watch for a possible ambush. There can be no separate arrangements for women.

One can go on and cite numerous examples. It is important to stop pushing the romantic notion of women in combat roles and start thinking from a practical point of view, keeping the reality in mind.

By: The Print