Attrition: Women In Combat


November 18, 2018: When it comes to women in combat units, Israel appears to have succeeded where most other nations have failed or had a difficult time of it. Currently, over five percent of Israel combat troops are female. This includes four light infantry (border and internal security) battalions as well as many women serving in Iron Dome air defense units. Women have, for decades, served as instructors for combat jobs (pilots and tank crews). But there are several unique factors that enabled Israel to succeed where so many other nations had failed. The two main factors are Israel has always been threatened by hostile neighbors and, increasingly Islamic terrorism. For that reason, Israelis accept the fact that both women and men are subject to conscription. Both men and women went through basic training that included weapons training and learning how to safely carry loaded weapons even when off duty. For men service in combat units was common and getting into one of the elite combat units was much sought after. Women had to volunteer for combat jobs and meet the physical standards, which were higher than for service in non-combat jobs. Finding combat jobs women could handle effectively has involved decades of trial and error but because of the presence of so many women in the military and the very real threats Israel faced there were always women willing to volunteer for combat jobs.

Because of all this Israel has, for decades, been the leader in allowing women in combat jobs. Yet because such service is voluntary it has often been difficult to get many volunteers. In 2012 only 1.6 percent of Israeli combat jobs were filled by women but because of the growing threat from Palestinian terrorists and Iran that has more than tripled. This was especially the case after the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, in which the extent of Hamas efforts to build terrorist tunnels into Israel was revealed.

The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) always wanted to get more women into combat jobs, just not frontline ones. So the IDF encouraged women to serve in the new Iron Dome anti-missile units and formed more mixed (male-female) border security units. Israeli law forbids sending women into combat but does allow for giving them jobs that might lead to combat situations. Despite all this after 2006 fewer women volunteered for combat jobs. So the military experimented with new screening and training methods, to address common complaints among women inclined to volunteer for these jobs. These efforts led to a noticeable increase in volunteers and the growing danger posed by Palestinian terrorists, Islamic terrorists in general and Iran did the rest.

Israel has, over the last few decades, expanded the number of combat jobs women can volunteer for. Israel conscripts men for three years and women for two years. But women have more exemptions (especially marriage). Women who volunteer for combat duty are hardcore because not only will they have to undergo some strenuous training but will have to serve three years on active duty, plus several years as reservists. This is necessary to justify the longer training required. Like many other countries, Israeli military police units contain men and women. Same with dog handlers, border guards, artillery units, and some search and rescue units. Women have long served as flight instructors, as well as trainers for tank crews. Then there is the largely female infantry unit, the Caracal Battalion. The success of this unit made it possible to form many more units like it. Originally part of the 512th Brigade in Southern Command, the Caracal battalion was formed in 2000 (at first with only one company of troops), to provide a place for women who wanted to be in the infantry. It's a light (not mechanized) infantry unit that mainly served along the Jordanian or Egyptian borders. The battalion took part in safeguarding Israeli civilians and troops during the 2005 evacuation of Gaza. Initially, about half the troops in Caracal were female, as were most of the officers, NCOs, and, usually, the commander. By 2012 about 70 percent of the Caracal members are women, although it had been 90 percent in 2009. While many troops saw Caracal as a publicity stunt and a sop to the feminists, the unit has performed well and has a reputation as a no-nonsense and reliable outfit. But fewer and fewer men were willing to serve in the battalion. Over the last six years that changed and now there are four of these mixed battalions. While living quarters for men and women are separate, once on duty men and women work together. The only exception is the new all-female tank crews the IDF has created. The Caracal battalions sometimes have tanks attached if they are in an area where heavily armed hostiles might be encountered (like the Gaza border). Tank crews work best if they train and serve together for as long as possible and inside the tight confines of a tank, it was found that mixed gender crews were not the best way to go.

This is not the first time Israel has had female infantry units. During their independence war in 1948, Israel had some of them but these were withdrawn from combat. Not because the women couldn't fight but because Arab units facing them became more fanatical and less likely to surrender when they realized they were fighting women. Before Germany invaded in 1941 Russia had a number of all female tank battalions. Most of the Russian tank force was destroyed in the first months of the war and as the tank force was rebuilt the all-female units were not used as there were plenty of other combat and combat support jobs for women. In Israel, there has long been pressure from conservative Jewish clergy who wanted women to be barred from combat jobs, while Arab radicals are urging more women to get involved in terrorism operations, including suicide bombings. Most Israelis are not conservative Jews and more focused on survival not conservative interpretations of Jewish scripture. Moreover, female troops have an easier time dealing with Moslem women, many of whom consider it a religious obligation to avoid dealing men they are not related to.

In the past religious differences were much less of a factor. During World War II over five million women served in the military worldwide. Although they suffered fewer losses than the men, several hundred thousand did die. These women were often exposed to combat, especially when fighting as guerillas or operating anti-aircraft guns and early warning systems in Russia, Germany, and Britain. Russia also used women as traffic cops near the front line, as snipers, and as combat pilots. They (especially the Russians) tried using them as tank crews and regular infantry, but that didn’t work out, a historical lesson lost on current proponents. Women were most frequently employed in medical and other support jobs. The few who served as snipers or pilots were very good at it. Israel has learned from that and the men who comprise half the strength of the Caracal units tend to agree that the women volunteers are more eager and into their jobs than the male conscripts.

During past wars most of the women who served in combat did so in guerilla units, especially in the Balkans and Russia and later in the Middle East (Kurdish combat units always had a lot of female volunteers). The women could not haul as heavy a load as the men but this was often not crucial, as many guerrillas were only part-time fighters, living as civilians most of the time. Full time guerilla units often imposed the death penalty for pregnancy, although the women sometimes would not name the father. That said, guerrilla organizations often imposed the death penalty for a number of offenses. The guerillas had few places to keep prisoners and sloppiness could get a lot of guerillas killed. The women tended to be more disciplined than the men and just as resolute in combat.

In the last century, there have been several attempts to use women in ground combat units, and all have failed. When given a choice, far fewer women will choose combat jobs (infantry, armor, artillery). But duty as MPs does attract a lot of women, as do jobs like fighter, bomber, helicopter pilots and crews, and aboard warships. That works. It’s always big news when women do serve in a ground combat job but there are never going to be a lot of them.

Yet there are still a lot more women coming under fire. Under the new conditions, more women are killed or wounded by (and often in) combat. For example, the casualty rate for women in Iraq was over ten times what it was in World War II, Vietnam, and the 1991 Gulf War (where 30,000 women served). A lot of the combat operations experienced by women in Iraq involved base security or guard duty. Female troops performed well in that. These were jobs that required alertness, attention to detail, and ability to quickly use your weapons when needed. Carrying a heavy load was not required. In convoy operations, women have also done well, especially when it comes to spotting, and dealing with, IEDs (roadside bombs and ambushes). Going into the 21st century, warfare is becoming more automated and less dependent on muscle and testosterone. That gives women an edge, and they exploit it, just as they have done in so many other fields. What women continue to avoid is traditional infantry jobs, which are less needed but not going away.

For most nations, the experience with allowing women in the infantry has been quite discouraging. For example, Canada has allowed women in combat jobs for over a decade. Even though Canada dropped most physical standards to make that possible (something commanders are still complaining about) fewer than one in 200 Canadian infantry or combat engineers are women. From the beginning, there have been few volunteers (the Canadian military is all volunteer). Male and female Israeli officers both report that it is not a good idea to put men and women together in observation posts or other isolated situations that require sustained concentration and alertness. This is nothing new, as NCOs and officers learned when more women were recruited for more different jobs after 1972 (when the U.S. dropped conscription). Officers and NCOs who were managers in their civilian jobs had fewer problems as most had been managing men and women on the job for years. But for the military, it required a decade or so to adapt all the civilian experience to the military.

Israel found solutions for many of these problems. First, they established one physical standard for combat jobs and accepted the fact that not enough women would qualify for regular infantry jobs but that there were other infantry type jobs (like border security) that women could handle. All female tank crews can work if you establish and enforce the needed physical standards. In Caracal units men and women serve together on patrols and observations posts with the understanding that diligence and not flirting will keep you alive.

Speaking of physical standards, this has become a problem for European countries now seeking women for the infantry because it is a known and accepted fact that women suffer more injuries in physically stressful activities. Proponents of women in combat (none of them combat veterans) dismiss these issues as minor and easily fixed but offer no tangible or proven solutions. By European law allowing women in jobs that lead to more injuries than men would suffer is illegal. No one has gone to court over this yet but it is only a matter of time. First, you have to wait for enough women to join to get a statistically valid number of injured female infantry.

Because the risk of injury and many other reasons, most countries found that over 90 percent of women in uniform did not want to serve in any combat unit, especially the infantry. Those women (almost all of them officers) who did apply discovered what female athletes and epidemiologists (doctors who study medical statistics) have long known; women are ten times more likely (than men) to suffer bone injuries and nearly as likely to suffer muscular injuries while engaged in stressful sports (like basketball) or infantry operations. Mental stress is another issue and most women who volunteered to try infantry training dropped out within days because of the combination of mental and physical stress. This is all a matter of sturdiness because men have more muscle and thicker bones. This makes men much less likely to suffer stress fractures or musculoskeletal injuries than women. Modern infantry combat is intensely physical, and most women remain at a disadvantage here. There are some exceptions for specialist tasks that do not involve sturdiness or strength, like sniping. Then there is the hormonal angle. Men generate a lot more testosterone, a hormone that makes men more decisive and faster to act in combat. It was long believed that testosterone makes you more aggressive. When examined carefully it was found that the effect was to make you more aware and decisive. That can be seen as “aggressive” but it is being more aware and decisive that makes a difference in combat. Aggressiveness alone will just get you killed sooner.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close