Capture scare blocks women from combat

New Delhi, Jan. 24: India is unlikely to emulate the US and allow women into combat anytime soon because the country has not resolved how to deal with a situation in which a woman is captured by the enemy, a former top military officer whose report has shaped government policy on women in the military services has told The Telegraph.

"It is a reality in the making but it is really a political call for the government of the day ' are we as a nation ready to accept a woman being captured by the enemy? Whoever takes the decision finally becomes accountable," said Air Marshal (retired) Sumit Mukerji, who was tasked as Air Officer Personnel (AOP) to prepare a report in 2008.

Based on the recommendations in Mukerji's report to the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, defence minister A.K. Antony announced in September 2009 that women officers would be granted permanent commission in the armed forces' non-combat wings. They would fly transport aircraft or work in the education, administration, legal and technical branches.

The first batch of women officers eligible for permanent commission was to be inducted this year. That has now been deferred to 2014.

But last September, the air force for the first time selected two women to train in flying Mi-8 helicopters that are capable of a combat role.

Mukerji, who has headed the air force's main combat-flying establishment in Gwalior, retired in 2011 as the air officer commanding-in-chief, Southern Air Command. In an earlier avatar, he was the air attache in India's embassy in the US and closely followed the evolution of America's policy on women in the military.

Among the three services, there are different perceptions on the kind of roles women can be given. In September 2012, the Army Headquarters filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court arguing strongly against inducting women because the culture, principles and ethos of the force did not support it. Fundamentally, the army argued, women cannot be expected to lead male troops into battle.

Mukerji explained that the army was more apprehensive about the place of women in its service because, unlike the navy and the air force, it had boots on the ground. While the air force penetrates farthest into enemy space in times of armed conflict, the army is likely to count more casualties ' in the numbers of the dead and injured as well as hostages (prisoners of war). He could not recall Indian naval personnel being captured by the enemy in any war.

The armed forces are also against permitting women in combat because of operational and financial reasons.

Three years ago, the former vice-chief of air staff, Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, was targeted by feminists for saying women "get in the family way" and "have offspring".

But Barbora did make the point that it cost the exchequer about Rs 11.66 crore to train a fighter pilot. But if a woman fighter pilot was unavailable for operational tasks because she was pregnant or had other family compulsions, it would impact on the force's war-waging potential.

The classic scenario drawn up by the army relates to women's physical ability ' or the lack of it ' to evacuate casualties under fire. The army would not normally expect a woman soldier to be capable of bodily lifting and evacuating two wounded male comrades from the battlefield.

India's armed forces, however, are steadily moving towards expanding women's combat-support role. This could be in branches like artillery and missile units that operate from behind the frontlines.

"The US has also had its issues," said Mukerji. "They are also not 100 per cent comfortable with it (women in combat). But the way they (the Americans) interact, the way they grow up and their culture are different. Even then, the number of women in combat is really very small. But they do fly tankers (mid-air refuellers) and AWACs (Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft).... One really has to see how many actually function when it comes to the crunch."

Mukerji said there were exceptions. During the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, for example, a woman flying a US Marine F/A-18 Super Hornet had managed to return to base "after some amazing flying despite being shot".

In the Air Force Academy at Hyderabad, there have been instances of women cadets faring better than male cadets but they have been excluded from the fighter stream.

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