The Modi government on Saturday approved an Indian Air Force plan that would allow women to fly combat aircraft. Seven women currently undergoing flying training at the Air Force Academy near Hyderabad stand a chance of becoming the country’s first women fighter pilots in June 2017, a watershed in the air force’s 83-year history.
“You never know our fighter aces may face stiff competition from women as they settle into the new role,” IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha told Hindustan Times. Raha said the women were about to set out on an exciting journey and he was hopeful that they would turn the challenges they faced in the combat environment into opportunities.
Opening traditionally closed doors for Indian women, the defence ministry described the departure from a rigid combat exclusion policy as a “progressive step” that mirrors “contemporary trends” in militaries of developed countries. The announcement comes barely a fortnight after Raha revealed a plan on October 8—IAF Day—to induct women as combat pilots.
Women will not have to wait too long to break into fighter cockpits. India’s first women fighter pilots will be selected from the seven cadets training at the AFA and assigned to the fighter stream in June 2016. The lucky ones will then undergo one year of advanced training at Bidar before they can take a shot at flying supersonic warplanes.
Flying fighters would offer them opportunities to prove their mettle in combat roles, said a South Block spokesperson. “Women’s performance in a combat role will be tested for the first time and I am sure they will measure up. It’s not about gender here, it’s about commitment,” said Vice Admiral Punita Arora (Retd), the first lady doctor in the military’s history to reach the three-star rank.
Pressure may now grow on the army and the navy to allow women to serve in combat. The head count of women in the military adds up to nearly 3,300, but combat roles were off limits to them until the IAF took the lead in crushing internal resistance to induct them into the fighter stream. Warships, tanks and combat positions in infantry are still no go zones for women, who were allowed to join the armed forces outside the medical stream for the first time in 1992.
The armed forces began inducting women by granting them short-service commission for five to 10 years before the government came out with a new policy in 2008 to give them permanent commission in a few arms and services. More than 340 female officers have opted for permanent commission during the last seven years, allowing them to serve their full term till at least the age of 54.
The spokesperson said the ministry had ordered a comprehensive review of inducting women in both short-service and permanent commission, a step that would eventually lead to opening more career avenues for them.
“The men should get the crew rooms ready for the girls. I plan to celebrate it with a Scotch and raise a toast to the men,” said 47-year-old Wing Commander Anupama Joshi (Retd), from the first batch of women officers commissioned into the IAF in the early 1990s.