Military & Aerospace

Women Join the Fighter Stream of the IAF: Will It Work?
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Issue Vol. 31.3 Jul-Sep 2016 | Date : 06 Sep , 2016

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 at marriage for women of the strata of society which most officers come from, is steadily rising, with the age at 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 down time 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.

If someone can learn the art of flying a fighter jet and handle tactical situations, gender becomes irrelevant.

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 US 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 of 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.

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.

Sticky Questions

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,” specially 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.

Combat Conundrum

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 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.

Highly motivated women are ready to work twice as hard to prove themselves since they know they are under constant scrutiny.

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 – 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.

Performance Matters

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 on 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 October 24, 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?

The US Marine Corps too is rolling out mandatory gender training to overcome “cultural resistance” to women in fighting units.

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 US 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.

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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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt Joseph Noronha

Former MiG-21 Pilot and experienced IAF instructor before he turned to writing articles on aviation.

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One thought on “Women Join the Fighter Stream of the IAF: Will It Work?

  1. Ifs and buts are many – why are we discussing the physiology of a woman – if she is willing to be a fighter pilot let her don the mantle. They are flying commercial jets so why not military jets. >Life is hazardous in the military – we know it when we join so lets go along with it.

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