Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Why women must be allowed to take up combat roles?

Nithin Sridhar

(A shorter version of the article is published in
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.

This issue is up for debate in most countries including USA which opened up all of the combat roles for women only in 2013 (1). Apart from USA, the following countries like 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 (2). 

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” (3). 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. The Presidential Commission Report, 1992 prepared in USA (4) listed out various reasons for barring women from combat roles- 

1. Women are shorter, have less muscle mass and weigh less than men, placing them at a distinct disadvantage when performing tasks requiring a high level of muscular strength and aerobic capacity, like ground combat. Female dynamic upper torso muscular strength is approximately 50-60 percent that of males. 

2. Factors affecting cohesion would include: real or perceived inability of women to carry their weight without male assistance, a "zero privacy" environment on the battlefield, interference with male bonding, cultural values and the desire of men to protect women, inappropriate male/female relationships, and pregnancy--particularly when perceived as a way to escape from combat duty.

3. Direct combat units have few, if any, personal comforts comparable to those available in support units. Lack of privacy in combat units could result in morale and cohesion problems when normal and widely accepted standards of personal modesty must routinely be sacrificed in wartime or peacetime training environments.

4. Even if some women are strong enough to handle the physical demands of combat, the introduction of factors such as sexual entanglements and jealousies--even if the women don't invite such attention-- would make the forward commander's job more difficult.

5. A number of public and military surveys have found strong evidence that deployment of mothers in land combat units, implying a national acceptance of deliberate violence and brutality against women, is contrary to American cultural values, particularly when there is no military necessity to use women--much less mothers-in direct combat units.

6. As with combat aviation, the risk of capture is a serious cultural and military issue. David Horowitz testified that future American presidents "will be under pressure to win a war in four days or lose the war at home."

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?”(5) She makes following observations- 

1. Closer inspection of the argument from “physical strength” reveals two troubling double standards. First, as discussed more fully below, the argument that women should be excluded from combat because they do not possess the requisite physical strength is both over- and under-inclusive; many women have the physical strength to engage in ground combat while many men do not. Second, the Army does not submit male recruits to physical strength examinations before assigning them to ground combat positions. (…..)The double standard here is glaring: Male recruits are not disqualified from entering combat career fields for lack of physical strength, but all female recruits are peremptorily disqualified from such fields regardless of their physical strength. 

2. All personnel wearing the uniform must have some basic level of physical strength to ensure they can defend themselves in battle. However, a capable combat soldier must possess more than just physical strength. Skill, motivation, and a fighting spirit are just as crucial for the warrior, and all of these characteristics are gender-blind. Army and Marine leadership have recently been emphasizing additional crucial traits like judgment, discipline, restraint, and intellect, to name a few. (….)In order to get the best team of ground combat warriors based on physical strength and all other relevant qualifications, it is not logical to include marginally qualified CAT-IV males while excluding physically qualified CAT-I–III females.  

3. The Presidential Commission concluded that women’s presence might impede cohesion in ground combat units due to lack of ability to do the job, lack of privacy, traditional male views of women, sexual misconduct, and pregnancy. Cohesion between all males might also be impeded by a number of other elements—i.e., an individual’s lack of ability to do his job or carry his weight, selfishness, racist attitudes, lack of integrity, favoritism, or a variety of other dynamics that could degrade the team. However, none of these elements are inevitable and the right leadership climate can identify and eliminate the primary causes of degraded cohesion: double standards and behavior that “degrades the good order and discipline in the armed forces. The reality is that there are challenges in bringing a group of any human beings—male or female—together to form a cohesive and effective team. Add in the stresses of combat training and life-threatening situations and the challenges increase. Unit leadership must create a climate where every person is respected as a team member with equal opportunity, responsibility and accountability. (….)In sum, cohesion is a leadership issue, and leadership has the greatest effect on unit cohesion regardless of the gender composition of the team. 

4. Some critics of women in combat center their arguments on personal beliefs regarding the proper” roles of men and women. These critics argue that women must be givers and protectors of life—not takers of life—and that a man’s role is to protect and a woman’s role is to be protected. (….)Since the early 1990s, many credible national polls conducted on the subject has found that a majority of Americans support giving women the option to serve in direct ground combat. In January 1990, in the aftermath of the invasion of Panama, a CBS News/New York Times poll of 1557 American adults found that seventy-two percent of those surveyed thought that military women should be allowed to serve in combat units on a voluntary basis. 

5. Critics of women in combat state that Americans are not ready to deal with women POWs and all the risks that go along with being captured. . Elaine Donnelly, a well-known activist against omen in the military, has placed a great deal of emphasis on the risks of rape as a POW. Although the risk exists for women, it also exists for men, and both accept that risk as a part of their job. In either case, rape is a violation of the Geneva Convention. In the current war, male and female reporters, contractors, and civilians are also vulnerable to being kidnapped, tortured, raped, and executed. These are the horrors of war with an enemy whose strategy ignores these conventions. All men and women occupying military positions that render them more vulnerable to capture go through extensive training to prepare for this treacherous situation; each soldier must think through and accept the risks of experiencing potential horrors as a POW. And although the public is rightly outraged when any of our service members are captured, the lack of outrage about female POWs in particular undercuts this reason for excluding women from combat.

After thus considering all the arguments against the recruitment of women in combat roles, Martha McSally concludes that- “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

These conclusions though made in an American context, they equally apply in Indian context as well. Harjit Hansi, in his paper “Employment Of Women In The Indian Army” (6) 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.

The hardships faced during war or capture is 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 voluntarily is ready to serve in combat roles, she should be given a chance to do so. The same applies in 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 to 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, yet this in itself cannot be 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. As 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.

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. 

2. 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 (7). 

3. Women are well equipped to deal with some scenarios 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

3. Memorandum from Secretary of Defense to the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force et al., Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule (Jan. 13, 1994). 
4. Women In Land Combat, Selected Findings - 1992 Presidential Commission. 
5. Women in Combat: Is The Current Policy Obsolete? By Martha McSally. 
6. Employment of Women In The Indian Army by Harjit Hansi. 

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