Women in Combat: Challenges of This Paradigm Shift


PTI after an exclusive interview with The COAS, General Bipin Rawat on 04, June 2017, reported his views on this aspect. Women officers were already part of combat duties in Engineers, Signals, Army Aviation, and Army Air Defence. Indian Army was not yet ready for women in a front line combat role as facilities have to be created for them and that the women also need to be prepared for that kind of hardship that is expected from a combat leader. Apart from the combat role, Indian Army was planning to induct women in several other fields. While women were serving as permanent commissioned officers in JAG and AEC, new areas were being created in categories as interpreters and Accounts. Induction had already started with 100 women military police jawans, to begin with.

The recent comments of the COAS under criticism, in fact, reflect his reiterations on the state of readiness and his concerns on induction of women into Combat Role. In a large organization as the Army, any change in important policies is possible only after deep and deliberate Studies and analyses, feedback from command and staff channels, women combatants already in service, and the plethora of information of studies made by advanced Armies worldwide.

The context of a combat role in terms of military tactics and terms of deployment by each of the three services are distinctly different. While women fighter pilots in the AF, and women sailors deployed in submarines and aircraft carriers are in combat roles and a pride of the services as also the nation, the roles of their counterparts in the Army’s front line combat zone is different.

Comparison with the US Military has often become the easiest justification for critics to derail any discussion, or become exhortations for the Indian Military to learn from. The challenges to their deliberations, findings, and outcomes often get missed by many who thrive on their selective application.

“No Women in Combat “, were a policy declaration of four words by President George Bush in 2001, when asked about women in ground combat. The comments in application seemed to allude that the policies currently in place that prevent women from fighting in combat have served our nation well., there was no reason to change what was already working, and our military is successful and will continue to be so”. This was so despite women having been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly ten years.

It was in 2013, that then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed removal of the ban, and a study to evolve implementation by Jan. 2016, or ask for special exemptions. , as those Gen. Joseph Dunford the then Marine Corps Commander had recommended for exclusion from front-line combat jobs in the Marines.

It took fifteen years, and the then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to open all combat jobs to women as a policy on 03 Dec 2015. By his declaration, remaining occupations and positions all combat roles in each branch of the U.S. military were opened to women, without exceptions, including nearly 220,000 jobs in combat arms as infantry, artillery, and armored formations, hitherto fore barred in that U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Even a minimal criticism of this policy would allude to this option as impacting capability , mission readiness and unit cohesion adversely , as was done by many in the government and media then. The journey to this policy review declaration by the most advanced Army of the world is self-effacing in the challenges to opening combat to women as a policy.

What perhaps every soldier of any Military would know, yet never speak about are medical problems that are unique to the female gender, physical attributes, and physiology, some of which have been discussed by Sheila Mathai and  Ravi Kalra, NM, in their analysis “Medical challenges of women combatants: Looking to the future”. Revelations by Armies with this experience become relevant to understand by our aspirants as well as the society they hail from.

The most fearful challenge of military sexual trauma (MST) and its effect on the physical and mental well‑being of women combatants, addressed by McGraw K, Koehlmoos TP, Ritchie EC. Women in combat: Framing the issues of health and health research for America’s servicewomen. Mil Med 2016 has been accepted by most Armies. In amplification, to be abused by your own people while serving one’s country is probably the biggest injury and insult that a woman combatant can face and can lead to grave, long‑term psychological problems, including posttraumatic stress disorders(PTSDs), depression, and substance abuse. Management of PTSD and mental resilience training of women combatants are areas which will have to be developed in militaries that plan to deploy women in combat zones.

A survey commissioned by General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff, found that “nearly 1,000 members of the military told Statistics Canada surveyors they had been sexually assaulted within the previous 12 months in a study that was conducted less than a year after the head of Canada’s armed forces said, ending that type of behavior was his top priority.
Given the numerous studies and reviews towards reform and transformation in the Indian Army underway presently, many of which are being shared with a vast spectrum of analysts , experts and experienced veterans, the Indian Army is perhaps the most dynamic organization not just willing but impelling itself toward a capable and intelligent human resource manned by both men and women soldiers.

Women taking up combat positions in the frontline is the Chief’s and Nation’s vision, but that would need a huge amount of groundwork in terms of developing senior women leadership, cultural environment and changed mindsets for women to stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts in combat without fear, inhibition or potential for trauma. For that, the Army will need to gear up its environment, ethos, psyche, and structure for seamless integration of women officers in combat streams.
With India’s women officers integrated for over 70 years with combat formations, their induction and employment in the combat role will be the strength of their inspiring sense of duty, capability, endurance, and commitment not just in the annals of Indian history, but more recently proven in the Training Academies and professional courses.

The paradigm shift to a gender-neutral Army was spelled out for the first time by none other than the present Chief himself. The time lines would definitely be pragmatic to enable prepare the complex and diverse environment of the service for minimal turbulence when the induction and deployment begins. Sharing his concerns would certainly be a natural part of conversations and the road to this destination.

Written by
Lt Gen A S Lamba
Former Vice Chief Of Army Staff
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of DefenceLover)