Gender Equality for Superior Firepower

Gender Equality for Superior Firepower

Adapting the Israeli Experience in Female Conscription

03/2017  | Reading time: 10 minutes

The role of women in armed forces is a hotly debated issue in the Western world while buried under the narrative of civil rights and progressive ideologies. Millennia of social structures practically excluded female humans from armed conflicts (as passive actors, unfortunately women and their infants might be those suffering the most), but these norms, developed during humanity’s shift from hunter-gathering societies into agricultural civilizations are in conflict with the standards of the 21st century.

 Civil liberties and achievements in the field of gender equality necessitate a revisiting of the previous practice of setting up high barriers in front of training and deploying female soldiers. In order to analyse the issues on the agenda of our NATO allies (outlined in the 2014 NATO/EAPC Policy on Women, Peace and Security) from a realist perspective, it is vital to analyse the only existing example of a highly militarized female national community, namely the Israeli conscription system.

To study the question at hand, we must begin with the fact that the role of warfare is to achieve one’s political goals. Such a goal can be defensive or offensive, but it cannot be reached without a capable armed body, to safeguard the homeland and execute missions outside of a nation’s borders. Gender equality or any other concern might be a beneficial or detrimental circumstance affecting the capability of an armed force and therefore its effectiveness in achieving the outlined political goal. When analysing gender equality from a perspective of positive and negative effects on the army, the Israeli example shows ample reasons to support gender equality in armed forces with a number of caveats.

Female soldier of the “Lynx” Battalion during training
Source: Flickr – Noa City-Eliyahu

Israel, since its inception in 1948, has decided to conscript both male and female Jews for one reason only: to maximize the amount of firepower the Jewish people can deploy. During the first decades women were restricted to basic land warfare training and during their two yearlong service they were working in positions which would enable Israeli men (both Jewish, conscripted minorities and volunteering Muslims and Christians) to serve in roles where they would engage the enemy. These first decades would see the development of a female Jewish society which is capable to serve as a last bastion of territorial defence, trained with machine guns, assault guns and hand grenades, making it a nightmare to invade the Jewish State even after frontline male soldiers were annihilated. While basic training was established, women were excluded from truly demanding occupations in the Israel Defense Forces.

Recent discourses in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the wider society led to a progressive stance on the matter both because of necessity and female empowerment as well. As conscription percentages among able-bodied male Jewish citizens are dropping, the “backup” role of females has expanded even until the combat battalions of the IDF. In order to alleviate pressure on the male population, more and more positions were opened for female soldiers, such as armed vehicles training, fighter jets, and roles in the navy (excluding the submarines which we are analysing separately). The largest achievement of the IDF was the four co-ed battalions which serve as border guard units and employ thousands of female fighting soldiers. As of now, 6–7% of the Israeli frontline soldiers are women. Israel also provides examples for two types of female integration into the armed forces: the “ace pilot” model versus mass conscription. The former method would see certain women “acing” in areas seldom occupied by female soldiers, such as female fighter jet pilots, which regularly emerge from training, but they are still unique examples in the army. On the other hand, when setting up the co-ed battalions, Israel has conscripted hundreds of female soldiers at once making the process of integration much swifter, utilising also the economies of scale. It is important to note that while female fighter jet pilots are rare, other supporting roles are filled massively by women in the Israeli air force, therefore in all armed branches the necessary advisors, committees etc. exist to protect women’s interests.

A member of the Research and Rescue Team of the Israeli Defense Forces
Source: Flickr

Current debates in Israel are centred around having women serving in main battle tanks on the frontlines and submarines which highlights two of the main obstacles to women fully integrated in a nation’s army. The first is the deployment outside the home front which is contentious since no human society could cope with massive numbers of female prisoners of war. We are by nature more protective of a nation’s female population and it would motivate irrational and rash reactions from a political body if a number of female citizens would become captive. Secondly, certain biological facts necessitate different equipment if and when women are integrated in main battle tank crews or submarines. The first would require, for example, new vests which would provide additional protection against fire, while submarines would either have to be refitted to include facilities for women or change societal norms of inter-gender privacy. As in Israel, religion is a strong force in politics, modesty laws would not permit a complete breakoff in previous privacy norms. Such a phenomenon might not limit most NATO countries, still “economies of scale” still must be utilised when opening more positions for women in the armed forces, especially in times of lacking defence budgets.

The most vital point of the discussion is the inclusion of female soldiers into technologically demanding occupations. The Israeli example proves that medical officers and soldiers working with advanced technology equipment, such as surveillance equipment, drones etc. are excellent peers to their male counterparts. As these positions would also usually lead to an academic degree in high value added sectors, female integration into these top-notch tech teams is a welcome development not only for maximizing human resources for national defence, but also for the job market. Technological advancement has been an enabling factor in achieving gender equality in the armed forces, Israeli female soldiers were permitted to use high-end anti-tank weaponry as these systems became lighter in addition to the previously used small arms.

Trainers of IDF tank drivers
Source: Flickr – Cpl. Zev Marmorstein

To summarise, gender equality has become a widely discussed topic in NATO countries, one which is unfortunately on some occasion directed by ideological stances, therefore it is important to bring down-to-earth arguments into the fold. The role of women in armed forces must be evaluated on realistic grounds, which provides ample reasons for furthering gender equality in armed forces. European countries interested in maximizing the military aspect of their national power and making a potential invasion by hostile countries too demanding to be launched, should deepen the integration of their female citizens into the land protection forces (for absolute resilience of the home front) and in technologically advanced occupations which would also encourage women to pursue careers in medicine, R&D and IT. On the other hand, certain developments would not be welcome given current societal norms, such as confining male and female soldiers into tight equipment or promote mass deployment of female fighters abroad because of the prisoner of war issue. To conclude, NATO has to examine the Israeli experience in order to approach gender equality in armed forces based on realistic expectations and goals, and relevant, decades-long experience. The countries benefitting the most from this experience would be the Baltic and Nordic countries with limited manpower, and it is also worthwhile to analyse female conscription in terms of empowering women. This is a particularly crucial point in developing countries in which NATO-supported military reform could utilise the Israeli experience in conscripting millions of women in the last seventy years.


Opening pic by Flickr

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