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Ladies a step closer to combat

- Army plan for key role in indirect fighting

New Delhi, Jan. 13: Lady officers in the Indian Army will command artillery batteries, lead sappers to lay or clear minefields and fly helicopters into hostile territory if a proposal to be made by the chief, Gen. Bikram Singh, later this week is accepted.

This takes women closer to being drafted for combat but strictly in the arena of indirect, or distanced, fighting. Sappers, for instance, are soldiers who support the infantry by performing tasks such as building roads and bridges.

This means the military top brass will still not consider lady officers for service in the infantry, mechanised infantry, special forces or armoured regiments.

The navy still does not permit women in warships and the air force does not let them pilot combat aircraft. The 1.2-million-strong Indian army is overwhelmingly male-dominated. Of about 47,600 officers, there are only 1,500 positions for women.

Gen. Singh, who had last month asked unit commanders and regiments to be more sensitive and accommodate the career aspirations of working wives, is scheduled to make a presentation on Thursday to defence minister A.K. Antony on opportunities to draft lady officers into combat-support arms.

The minister had asked the services for such presentations after a study headed by a committee comprising officers from the army, the navy and the air force recommended the gradual opening of permanent commissions to lady officers in 2010.

“There are certain bindings (on opening permanent commissions to lady officers), but we have a comprehensive plan to enhance the scope,” Gen. Singh said at a news conference today. He said the possibility of lady officers — who had shown “exemplary performance” — in combat or direct fighting-arms, like the infantry and the mechanised infantry, could be considered later.

Gen. Singh said the American experience of women in or near combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan was leading militaries the world over to re-assess their potential.

The primary reason to consider permanent commissions is economic: women are demanding the security of longer tenures just like the men who are officers.

Lady officers are currently recruited only on short service commission (SSC) that entails a maximum service of 14 years. They serve in the legal, administrative and staff positions and also as helicopter pilots away from combat zones, apart from serving in the medical corps (in which they are granted permanent commissions).

Men who are officers in the army on permanent commission serve 20 years and more (depending on promotions).

The quieter, but no less intensive, debates around women’s roles concern both cultural and operational issues.

One is whether men subordinate to lady officers are prepared to accept and execute commands in the battlefield. For example, a lady officer commanding an artillery regiment of, say, Bofors guns, would be expected to illustrate the arming, targeting and the firing of the howitzers before commanding the men to do so. Another question, of physical strength in evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, is still to be resolved.

Perhaps, more important, a government and social decision on how to resolve risks associated with direct combat — such as surrender, being taken prisoner-of-war or being taken hostage — is still pending.

“There are certain vagaries of the battlefield. As far as the combat arms are concerned, the decision (to draft lady officers) will have to be taken over a period of time. Till then, there would be additional options for staff (appointments), including taking on some command portfolios at certain points of time,” the army chief said.

The opening of combat support wings potentially means that they will command artillery batteries, function as intelligence gatherers and fly recce and surveillance helicopters into hostile zones.