Why women must be allowed to take up combat roles?



By Nithin Sridhar

Last Saturday, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that women will not be a part of any combat operations of the armed forces due to the concerns regarding their safety. Expressing his concern regarding the various hardships that women may be subjected to if they were allowed into combat roles, he said, “Think of what can happen if a woman is taken as a prisoner in combat operation”. While it is true that, women in combat roles may have to endure many hardships, at the same time it is also true that, men in combat roles also undergo similar hardships. Hence, before advocating a blanket ban on women from taking up combat roles, it will be wise to have a fresh look into the pros and cons of the issue.

Situation outside India

This issue is up for debate in most countries including USA which opened up all of the combat roles for women only in 2013. Apart from USA, the following countries Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Eritrea, Israel, and North Korea also allow women into combat roles.

The US Department of Defense’s Memorandum on “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule (1994)” defines Direct Ground Combat as “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, and shock effect”. One of the most important reason cited for the exclusion of women from such a Direct Combat is that they are not ‘Physically fit’ to handle such missions. Another reason cited is that they would be subjected to torture and rape if captured during combat.

Martha McSally, a retired United States Air Force colonel who was the first woman in U.S history to fly a fighter aircraft in combat strongly contests these opinions. In her paper “Women in Combat: Is the Current Policy Obsolete?

According to Martha McSally,  “Common arguments against women serving in ground combat are not sufficient to exclude all women from being considered for combat roles. Some women have the physical strength to fill ground combat assignments, just as some men do not. Assessing recruits as individuals can provide the most capable and flexible fighting force. Women do not, by their mere presence, diminish cohesion in a war-fighting unit. And the American public is willing to have women serve in any role in the All-Volunteer Force for which they are qualified

Harjit Hansi, in his paper “Employment Of Women In The Indian Army” gives a list of similar arguments that have restricted the role of Women Officers (WO) in combat roles in the Indian Army.  The three prominent arguments listed by him are-

  1. Hazardous Battlefield: Vulnerability of women operating in close contact battles looms heavily on mind of all field commanders. This is one prime concern that has prevented entry of women in combat arms and certain support arms.
  2. Deployment Restrictions: Bulk of the Indian Army (IA) is deployed majorly in difficult and rugged areas. The posts are isolated, sans any basic facilities, cut-off for months and the operational tasking warrant working in close proximity with men. Protracted and solitary deployment of WOs under such circumstances has attendant issues and restricts their employment.
  3. Special Requirements: Due to certain social & domestic obligations and physical constraint, service in Army pose a greater challenge for WOs vis-a-vis their male counterparts. Their role as wife, mother, need for spouse postings etc adversely affect their continuous availability to the organisation, more so at sub unit level, where the deficiency of officers is maximum. Maternity leave of 180 days, 60 days each of Annual Leave and furlough deny a unit of an officer for 10 months with no relief forthcoming.

In a war, there are only survivors

The hardships faced during war or captivity are no doubt real and unbearable. But, it is equally so for both men and women. Hence, arguing that women are somehow more vulnerable than men is faulty. Every person who enlists in armed forces is well aware of the risks involved. Hence, when a woman officer is voluntarily ready to serve in combat roles, she should be given a chance to do so. The same applies in the case of deployment to remote areas. It is true that women serve multiple roles as wife, mother etc. But, it is also true that men also serve similar roles of husband and father. Hence, if a woman and her family is ready to adjust with her lifestyle choices, then there is no reason to disallow her from taking combat duties.

Regarding the issue of physical and psychological fitness. Though men and women are biologically different, this in itself cannot be the criteria for disqualification of all women from combat roles. Instead, each interested woman must be subjected to required physical and psychological tests and only those who qualify must be recruited. It should be noted that, recruiting women into combat roles should not translate into compromising with the require standards. Any such lenience or compromise in the merit criteria will directly affect the performance of the said combat units. Instead, a comprehensive criteria must be adopted that takes into account all the various skills and factors and not just the physical strength. Hence, the arguments that are forwarded against the induction of women into combat roles are in reality, only assumptions based on obsolete notions.

The changing face of war

Further, the nature of warfare has changed drastically. Traditionally, women were not allowed in front line activities. They were restricted to support activities at the back of the line. But, today, all activities are exposed to front line risks. The line between combat and non-combat operations have blurred. Hence, even those women who are serving in supporting, non-combat missions are also routinely exposed to combat risks. The American encounters in Afghanistan and Iraq serve as an example. Therefore, a blanket ban on women from taking part in combat missions makes no sense. Instead, a provision to allow women to take up combat duties on a voluntary basis must be made. There are considerable advantages in recruiting women into combat roles.

  1. There will be larger talent pool from which people can be recruited into various combat roles. The combat roles not only requires physical strength, but also requires other personality traits like quick decision making, discipline, intellect, strategic thinking etc. Hence, women can add value to combat units.
  1. Recruiting women will also help to bridge the gap between demand and supply of the soldiers and officers. Indian armed forces are currently faced with a shortage of 52000 personnel, including 11000 officers.
  1. Women are well equipped to deal with some scenarios better than men. The US established All Female Lioness team specifically to accompany all male Marine combat units into insurgent infested areas of Ramadi, Iraq. Lioness team was tasked with searching Iraqi women for weapons or explosives, during home raids and served to provide a “calming presence” to Iraqi women and children. A similar job was entrusted to Female Engagement Teams (FET) in Afghanistan. Though both Lioness team and FET were conceived as a support team, they performed combat duties as well.

These show that women in combat units can act as a valuable asset to the armed forces. Hence, the criteria to induct people into combat roles should be purely on the basis of merit and not gender.

“Therefore, the Defense Minister should reconsider his decision to keep women away from taking up combat roles”.