New Delhi- From US and Russia to Turkey and Pakistan, countries around the globe have for long had women fighter pilots. Some even became "aces" with over five "kills", a few got killed in combat.
Many nations, including Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, also deploy women on warships. Women officers in the US even serve on ballistic missile submarines, and may be joined in the underwater nuclear arm by enlisted women sailors soon.
In India, the converse remains true. The top civilian leadership and military brass are steadfast about their objection to deploying women in combat roles. So, women here cannot tear into the skies as fighter pilots, serve on sea-faring warships or join the infantry, armored corps or artillery.
Leave alone the combat role, even their battle to get permanent commission in the "support arms" is still to be fully won. Women have been allowed to join the armed forces as officers since the early-1990s but they currently number just 2,960 of the 59,400 officers in the 1.3-million strong armed forces. The defence establishment has repeatedly thwarted their demand for permanent commission due to "operational, practical and cultural problems".
The mental barriers are still up. IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, answering questions in Kanpur on Tuesday, said the capabilities of women "air warriors" in his force was never in doubt but biological and natural constraints precluded them from flying fighters.
"As far as flying fighter planes is concerned, it's a very challenging job. Women are by nature not physically suited for flying fighters for long hours, especially when they are pregnant or have other health problems,'' said ACM Raha.
Defence minister A K Antony, in turn, told Parliament just last month that two studies - by the integrated defence staff HQ in 2006 and a high-level tri-Service committee in 2011 - had both rejected induction of women in combat duties. A serving major-general said, "As a society, we are not ready for our women in combat roles. What if they are taken PoWs?"
Yes, there are some practical problems. Indian warships leave alone the cramped submarines; do not have separate facilities for women in terms of cabins or bathrooms. A woman officer leading a platoon in the hot pursuit of militants in thick jungles or in a bunker with soldiers at the LoC is inconceivable as of now.
But equally, technology has virtually made attributes like physical toughness redundant. Moreover, women helicopters and transport aircraft pilots in IAF have been found as proficient as their male counterparts in flying high-risk rescue and other missions. Some women pilots have even flown sorties of AN-32 aircraft to Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, the world's highest advanced landing ground at 16,500-feet, as well as IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft to Leh.
A major hindrance is that it takes over Rs 13 crore to train a single fighter pilot, with the huge investment being recovered over 13-14 years of active flying. "Women fighter pilots may get married, have children, disrupting our tight flying schedules. Fighter flying requires very high level of physical and mental fitness," said an officer.
But many feel there is a need to re-look the entire issue. "Women officers may be clamoring more for permanent commission. But they must also have the option to choose if they want combat duties, be it in a fighter or on a warship, even if the ground close-quarter combat is barred for them," said a senior officer.