Women in combat roles: Should army follow air force?

Syed Ata Hasnain



The Air Force’s decision to induct women into its fighter wings will put pressure on the Army and the Navy. Here is a take on the Army and how it could look at the demands

It is a fine decision indeed. The decision to induct women into the fighter wing of the IAF is a momentous one; one more bastion broken. Its implementation is to be almost immediate, with induction of a few trainees currently undergoing training for other flying duties. So effectively in line with some other countries, including Pakistan, Indian women will have the opportunity to deliver munitions against aircraft or ground objectives and destroy them. That means they are into the business of killing or being killed and that is a transformational change. Air Chief Marshal Raha needs to be complimented for his stewardship of this final decision.

While a few celebrate and women all over India absorb this good bit of news, the inevitable question that will arise is when will it happen in the Army and the Navy. Is a combat role possible there? I have been one of those who have been writing extensively on the subject and have always maintained an even balance in my perception, laying out all the factors, issues of concern and limits which will affect the final decision. No doubt the IAF decision must be kept in mind, but the relative environment is completely different.

As fighter pilots, WOs will no doubt be involved in extensive team work but at the actual point of combat a pilot is single and master of the platform in use. Individual expertise in handling technology is relevant as much as retention of mental faculties to be a part of the team effort. The physical danger is high.

In the Army, a decision to induct WOs in combat role implies them being a part of the Combat Arms ( Infantry, Armored Corps and Mechanized Infantry) and Artillery; they are already a part of the Combat Support Arms; Engineers, Air Defence Artillery and Signals besides being with the Services; ASC, EME and AOC. They receive permanent commission into the JAG and AEC. WOs have been demanding for some time extension of their services to the Combat Arms so that they have a frontline leadership role in combat and management of all other connected aspects of operations, logistics and administration. Their right to demand this cannot be denied.

The debate on this must be an informed one and deserves to have all the factors squarely laid out to arrive at some conclusions which are without any emotions or other baggage. To the Army’s credit, during the tenure of General Bikram Singh, former COAS, a serious effort towards understanding the nuances was made in the form of a comprehensive study by the HQ South Western Command. This was discussed at length but fell short of a final decision.


For public information it is important to know briefly what the Combat Arms and Artillery do in an operational environment. That will help in creating an informed opinion. The modern day Infantry (foot soldiers) does just about everything; its prime task is to close in with the enemy and physically destroy him in combat, capture and thereafter hold ground. It means long marches through physically demanding terrain and under threat, with loads and battle gear up to 30 Kg and then being in a position to assault, fight and win. Unit battles can last for 48 hours or more.

In defensive operations, the task is to hold a piece of ground as part of a system of defence, withstand severe artillery bombardment and then be ready to repulse the attack by the enemy through physical means. Despite the severe punishment that an Infantryman suffers the officer has to be in a position to inspire his men and lead by example and direction.

The Mechanized Infantry does almost a similar job except that it is all in the plains, desert or riverine terrain (Ladakh plains too) and the approach to a point near the objective is mounted, in semi-protected armored vehicles (ICVs). The Armored Corps (tank corps) uses semi-protected platforms with a large amount of armament to engage the enemy’s tanks and destroy them. Tanks are vulnerable to tanks, aircraft, anti-tank missiles and even artillery guns of a certain caliber.

They are operated by three/four man crews and a number of tanks make up sub-units and units which are commanded by officers. That is where WOs will have to be; in command of 3, 14 or 45 tanks and more. It is exhausting, terribly stressful, needs flexible minds and demand robustness. Artillery fires shells of various calibers from a distance behind the frontline but officers and men are required to be upfront with troops to direct the fire accurately; so young officers in particular are where the Infantry/Mechanized Infantry or Armored Corps are, right in front. An artillery officer has to experience both the gun end and observation end to be proficient.

On the face of it WOs can do any of these jobs provided they have the ability to physically withstand the rigors of combat and more importantly continue to retain their mental balance, and decision making ability under severe stress. In my experience I have come across WOs from Engineers and Corps of Signals who could give male officers of the Infantry a run for their money.

There are three reservations that most of us have. Firstly, can women spend long hours/days alone with male troops in the field? I have seen dozer detachments of the Engineers with WOs sleeping on the deck of their machines for weeks altogether. Secondly, can they lead by example under stress or will they be liabilities in crunch situations?

Thirdly, would we wish our WOs to ever be in situations such as Lt Saurav Kalia was in May 1999 in Kargil? The answer to the last two is that even male officers are known to buckle so if you have the best of the best WOs in such roles their performance may just about be better.

So I am all for experimentation but with such stringent norms that the most daring of women find it difficult to qualify. Special psychological tests would require to be drawn up for this. We need to start gingerly after all it involves lives and we can’t be playing games with that. Let us be start with the Artillery and graduate to the Armoured Corps. If a woman can fly a fighter aircraft she can fire a Bofors gun and drive and fire a T-90 tank. However, the standards could be such that only the best of the best WOs should only make it to the hallowed Arms.

The implications are for us to understand and take decisions. Women in Combat Arms would be like others, on Short Service terms. The moment you open it up for permanent commission you would have legal issues of progression and promotion. That would mean command of Combat Arms open to WOs. I am not sure I have reached that level of emancipation in my thinking.

For the casual reader let me explain.

The Indian Army is a command oriented Army; essentially that means that promotions are based upon your ability to command troops. If WOs are inducted into Combat Arms they will have small sub units (from 30 to 120 men) to command but by the fifteenth year of service they will come up for promotion to Colonel (by selection) when they could have anything from 600 to 1200 men under command with equipment of different shades.


That is the stepping stone of experience which qualifies you for higher ranks but equally is the rank and appointment where the buck stops; the hallowed rank of the Commanding Officer (CO). If the Army does decide to induct WOs into Combat Arms this is the decision which will be most important because permanent commission appears to be a foregone conclusion. Legally the directions exist and we have an awkward situation where the litigation goes on and WOs have crossed the 20 years of service mark.

So let me not glove my take; let it be taken to the cleaners. At least you need something to start a discussion/debate instead of the clichéd ideas to which we stick. Take a bold decision. Keep the numbers very small, the selection norms extremely stringent.

Don’t bother about slow breaking in by appointing WOs as staff officers in Combat Arms units. Go for the kill and induct into field areas also. Let them be troop leaders and battery second in commands. Based upon the experience over three or four years, decide about the Infantry and Mechanized Infantry. I consider these synchronous in task content and the last bastion should be decided upon after more thought. The issue of command should be debated extensively. I am not sure that this is something the WOs are going to break into very easily.


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