18 June 2016 was a historic day for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and, indeed, for the entire Indian military establishment. On that day, three young women pilots were commissioned as Flying Officers and received their coveted wings from Union Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar— a crucial step towards joining the fighter stream of the IAF.
It was at an Air Force Day gathering on 8 October 2015 that Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), made this rather low-key announcement:
“We have women pilots flying transport aircraft and helicopters. We are now planning to induct them into the fighter stream to meet the aspirations of young women of India.”
His statement came after many years during which the IAF and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refused to consider the possibility of women in combat. But, since then, things have moved rapidly and the CAS appropriately enough chose International Women’s Day 2016 to reveal that the country would soon get its first batch of female fighter pilots. To dispel any impression that Bhawana Kanth, Mohana Singh and Avani Chaturvedi might end up as mere window dressing or public relations mascots, he announced that they would later join regular fighter squadrons and fly along with their male counterparts.
All fledgling IAF pilots begin with Stage-I flying training for six months on the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 Mk II turboprop trainer at the Air Force Academy, Dundigal. Thereafter, the trainees are trifurcated into the fighter, transport and helicopter streams. Stage-II training for the fighter stream is conducted for the next six months at Air Force Station Hakimpet on the indigenous HJT-16 Kiran Mk II jet. After the three women flight cadets were commissioned there in June, they were posted to Air Force Station Bidar as Flying Officers for Stage-III fighter training on the British Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT), again for six months. Subsequently, they will train on fighter aircraft for three to four years before being declared fully operational for combat flying in regular squadrons, if they make the grade. Like their male counterparts, these three women trainees are probably raring to go as fighter pilots. But what are the implications for the IAF and the armed forces?
A Difficult Decision
The IAF has long had reservations about female fighter pilots. In March 2014, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had said: “As far as flying fighter planes are concerned, it is a very challenging job. Women by nature are not physically suited for flying fighter planes for long hours, especially when they are pregnant or have other health problems.” Despite the growing consensus regarding equality for women in every field, should this be at the cost of military capability?
Throughout history, men have done the fighting and women have stayed home. But there have been notable instances of women making a mark in combat. Joan of Arc (1412–1431 AD) is considered a heroine of France for her military exploits during the Hundred Years’ War. She was captured and burned at the stake at the age of 19. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi (1828–1858 AD) gave up her life fighting the British during India’s First War of Independence.
As far as military aviation goes, World War I was an all-male affair. However, during World War II, the Soviet Union deployed several women aviators in combat. Lydia Litvyak, the most famous of them, needed just two combat missions to score an aerial kill and become the first woman to do so. She was downed fighting the Germans, but not before scripting an impressive combat record— 11 solo victories and three shared kills in 66 missions. This is the highest by any woman pilot and, in fact, Litvyak and her squadron mate Katya Budanova (11 kills) are the only two female fighter aces in history. 70 years later, women fighter pilots appear only in small numbers.
So why is the IAF venturing down an avenue that few have trod? Most likely, the decision came from the highest level of the government because the IAF’s move was followed by a sweeping announcement by President Pranab Mukherjee in February 2016 that women would be allowed into all streams of the armed forces, including all combat roles. However, a couple of days later, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar clarified that this would be done in a phased manner because suitable infrastructure such as accommodation and other amenities necessary for women needed to be created. He repeated this message when the women fighter pilots were commissioned in June.
Across the world there is an increasing focus on women in the military. Although in most cases they are barred from combat, this is gradually changing. Already perhaps 25 nations accept women in combat roles, albeit in small numbers, and with restrictions. The most far-reaching change is in the United States where all combat roles, without exception, were opened to women from January 2016 onwards. There are already an estimated 201,400 women in the U.S. military, about 15.5 percent of the active-duty force, and the latest decision seems set to trigger a significant surge in numbers.
The transformative nature of the U.S. move was revealed by Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter:
“They will be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They will be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force para-jumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
Women have also risen steadily in rank and responsibility. In March 2016, Air Force General Lori Robinson was nominated to head the U.S. Northern Command— the first woman to lead a combatant command in U.S. history. It also seems more than likely that early next year “the world’s most powerful man” and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military will be a woman. The last 14 years have seen 161 U.S. women soldiers killed and 1,016 wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the U.S. decision is in keeping with its wider emphasis on gender equality, the UK seeks to remove its ban on women in combat for a different reason— to counter a severe male recruitment deficit. Closer home, Pakistan already has about 20 female fighter pilots under training, with one dying in an unsuccessful ejection in November 2015. The IAF’s first women officers were commissioned in ground duties branches in June 1993 and as aviators in December 1994. At last count, there were over 1,300 women officers in the IAF of which 94 were transport and helicopter pilots and 14 were navigators.
Whenever the topic of women in combat roles is broached, certain objections emerge. Thankfully, menstruation is now off the list. It kept women out of the U.S. space programme for many years. But other concerns are abound such as pregnancy and the threat of rape, if taken captive. Women fighter pilots who get commissioned around the age of 23 are likely to soon get married, get in to the family way and have to be kept off flying. Or so the argument goes. Accordingly, the IAF has “advised” the first three women fighter pilots to delay motherhood for at least four years, so that their training to fully operational status may proceed smoothly.
Determined young women everywhere are voluntarily delaying marriage and pregnancy in pursuit of meaningful careers. Having signed up for perhaps the most demanding and high-profile job in the IAF, these three are scarcely likely to jeopardise it. Besides, the average age of marriage for women of the strata of society which most officers come from is steadily rising, with the first pregnancy correspondingly later. And the number of children per woman is already two or less. Therefore, in the worst case, the IAF would “lose” these women officers for perhaps a couple of years. Many male pilots, too, suffer downtime for a variety of reasons, including two-wheeler accidents and illnesses. And, childbirth is not an illness. Therefore, the IAF’s concerns seem somewhat overblown.
A far more emotive issue is the likely fate of a woman fighter pilot forced to eject over enemy territory. This is usually presented as a sort of clinching argument against employing females as fighter pilots. In May 2015, in response to a question about admitting women in the fighter stream, Defence Minister Parrikar stated: “No. Think of what can happen if a woman is taken as a prisoner in combat operation.”
But what do women feel? In 1992, Major Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon, was taken captive by Iraqi forces when a U.S. Air Force Blackhawk came down. Both Cornum’s arms were broken and she had other severe injuries. While being transported in the back of a truck, she was sexually assaulted by one of her Iraqi captors. In a later interview, she said: “You are supposed to look at this as a fate worse than death. Having faced both, I can tell you it is not. Getting molested was not the biggest deal of my life.” Nor did Cornum believe her ordeal should be used to keep women away from combat roles. She explained: “Every 15 seconds in America, some woman is assaulted. Why are they worried about a woman getting assaulted once every ten years in a war overseas? It’s ridiculous,” adding, “It is clearly an emotional argument they use because they cannot think of a rational one.” Indeed, the intensely savage gang rape of “Nirbhaya” in Delhi in December 2012 indicates that women may be equally at risk by horrific assaults by home-grown attackers.
Therefore, while it is important to explain the hazards to any woman volunteering for the fighter stream, this need not be an overriding consideration, unless she sees it as such. As Major Cornum said: “There is a phenomenal amount of focus on this for the women but not for the men.” Her opinion is borne out by the fate of Captain Saurabh Kalia (1976–1999), the young Indian Army officer who was severely tortured and killed during the Kargil War while being held by the Pakistani forces. In February 2015, the Islamic State terror group also released a sickening video showing the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot they had captured when his plane crashed during a bombing mission over Syria. The point is that war is often dirty and every male pilot knows that his treatment, if taken alive, might not be less repugnant than that of a woman captive.
However, it is also true that society is more concerned about the fate of women in conflict and would be outraged if women were captured and ill-treated. Therefore, it might be prudent to deploy women on live missions only within the country, at least to begin with. As the CAS put it: “Women fighter pilots need not necessarily get involved in combat across the border. There are many tasks within the country.” Besides, there are other more immediate issues to consider rather than the hypothetical possibility of being captured.
To begin with, IAF women officers were only granted Short Service Commissions (SSC) which entitled them to serve for ten years, extendable to 14. However, in 2010, the Delhi High Court ruled that women officers of the Indian Army and the IAF should be granted Permanent Commission (PC) since they “deserve better from the government,” especially the same retirement benefits as male officers. In September 2015, the Court extended this benefit to women in the Indian Navy. However, these judicial rulings are under appeal.
Since it costs well over Rs 13 crore to train one fighter pilot, the IAF would like to get at least 13 to 14 years of active flying per pilot to justify the huge investment. Would it not then make sense to grant PC to women fighter pilots and, by extension, to all other women officers? If women can fly fighters, why should they be excluded from prestigious assignments such as those of Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) and Fighter Combat Leader (FCL)? Later, why should they not become Flight Commanders and Squadron Commanders? Why, if they qualify and are found suitable, should they be denied higher command assignments? Such tricky questions will surely be posed a few years down the line and it is not too early to commence discussing these issues.
There are genuine reasons why women might find it difficult to fit into combat roles in Army field units or on Naval warships and these have been lucidly and compellingly argued in different fora.
For instance, many women do not meet the physical standards set for men. Unless these standards are relaxed (at the possible cost of operational effectiveness) women would suffer far more stress fractures and other injuries than their male counterparts. There are huge logistical, regulatory and disciplinary costs and privacy issues involved in keeping a handful of women in field assignments among hundreds of male soldiers for days if not weeks. Traditional gender roles are strong in the villages from where most soldiers come and they might resent taking orders from women officers. Romantic relationships also have the potential to disrupt unit morale, cohesion and fighting capability. Lastly, there is reason to fear that some men might act foolishly to protect women combatants in dangerous situations because they are culturally conditioned to protect “the weaker sex”. Therefore, women could easily become a liability in crunch situations.
However, many of these problems are non-issues in an IAF setting. In the high-technology air combat domain, technical expertise and decision-making skills are more important than brute strength. An aircraft does not know if a man or a woman is on the controls. If someone can learn the art of flying a fighter jet and handle tactical situations, gender becomes irrelevant. G forces, too, do not discriminate. In fact, some limited studies have shown that women could potentially have slightly higher G-tolerance as the blood has a shorter distance to travel along the length of their body. What about the quality of aggressiveness so prized in a fighter pilot? The short answer is this— not all women are submissive, just as not all men are aggressive.
Today, all IAF stations and squadrons are well established and have the requisite infrastructure. Women have been flying in transport and helicopter units for over 20 years and many lessons have surely been learned. Fighter flying is merely the next logical step.
All things considered, the induction of women in the fighter stream of the IAF is a welcome step and the IAF is uniquely placed to show the way to the other two services for women in combat roles. However, the government has sanctioned this scheme on an “experimental basis” to be reviewed after five years. Perhaps this is meant to pacify internal resistance. But it is hard to see what might justify reversal of policy.
In an official statement, dated 24 October 2015, on women pilots, the spokesperson of the MoD said: “Since their induction into the Transport and Helicopter streams of the IAF, their performance has been praiseworthy and on a par with their male counterparts.”
As the first three female fighter pilots were specially selected and have, “performed splendidly in flying and ground subjects” according to official reports, how can their performance be grounds to declare the experiment a failure? The same goes for women trainees of subsequent batches totalling ten courses in the stipulated five years. On the other hand, if permitting women to fly fighter jets turns out to be a blunder, why wait five years to backtrack?
Could official hesitancy be due to an innate fear of women’s “emotional vulnerability” or that they might be found wanting in a crisis? 22 year-old Pilot Officer Shefali Chaudhary proved otherwise. She was one of the first women helicopter pilots of the IAF and had just joined the 115 Helicopter Unit at Tezpur in 1996. During a picnic on the banks of the Brahmaputra, three members of the party slipped into the mighty river and she lost her life while trying to save them.
Perhaps there is concern about how male officers might react? Young fighter pilots should have no problem accepting women as squadron mates. Unlike males of previous generations, these have grown up competing with girls at every stage and have even learned to accept being outperformed by them. For the rest, just as transport and helicopter personnel have adjusted to the presence of women since 1994, so too will fighter squadrons. The masculine sub-culture is itself evolving and there are dozens of fields where women were grudgingly admitted only after a prolonged struggle but, today, find common acceptance.
Indeed, with women proving their mettle in public life, in corporate settings and even in space, most men realise that blind opposition to female participation in any sphere puts them on the wrong side of history. However, it would be advisable to conduct gender sensitisation training for personnel of the fighter squadrons that the women pilots are to join. The U.S. Marine Corps too is rolling out mandatory gender training to overcome “cultural resistance” to women in fighting units.
The Indian military ethos is that of a meritocracy. Its members are evaluated and promoted depending not on who they are or where they come from, but on their demonstrated and consistent performance. That is why the armed forces command the greatest respect among all the country’s institutions. Can they afford to ignore half the country’s talent or deny women the right to fight for the country, solely on the basis of gender? The IAF needs to ensure that performance standards are rigidly maintained without any hint of a “gender quota”. If women, or men for that matter, do not make the grade as fighter pilots, they should not be “pushed through”. Highly motivated women are ready to work twice as hard to prove themselves since they know they are under constant scrutiny. They dislike being treated as weaklings as it offends their self-respect. They also resent some women seeking special treatment on the pretext of gender.
History shows that change often triggers misgivings, grumbling and active resistance, especially if the old order is threatened. But within a short time, most people adjust. This happened when women officers first joined the IAF and again when they were permitted to serve as transport and helicopter pilots. Therefore, it is unlikely that the induction of women as fighter pilots in the IAF will be as dramatic (or traumatic) as some might imagine.
This article was originally published on the Indian Defence Review and has been republished here with permission.
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