The Ambala based 17 Squadron will soon get its first woman fighter pilot. One of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) 10 current active woman fighter pilots is already undergoing Rafale conversion training. She was earlier fully operational on MiG 21 Bison. Women fighter pilots undergo an identical training regimen as their male counterparts. Rafale is a top-end, high-performance aircraft, and entry of women has crossed the last bastion. Indian Armed Forces have come a long way since it first inducted women officers in 1992. Today, all wings of the military allow women in some form of combat roles. IAF has had 13.09%. Indian Navy 6%, and Indian Army 3.80% of officers by end 2018. As of 2020, three officers have been granted the rank of three star general or above, all of whom are from the Medical Services. IAF inducts women in all roles, including combat and support roles. As of September 2020, there were 1,875 female officers serving in the IAF, including 10 pilots and 18 navigators.
Indian Air Force
In August 1966, Flight Lieutenant Kanta Handa, an IAF medical officer, became the first female IAF officer to receive a commendation for her service during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. In 1994, women joined the air force as pilots in support role; Gunjan Saxena and Sreevidya Rajan were among the first women to fly in a combat zone during the Kargil war. In 2006, Deepika Misra was the first IAF woman pilot to train for the Sarang helicopter aerobatics display team. In 2012, Nivedita Choudhary (Flight Lieutenant), from Rajasthan, became the first woman from the IAF to summit the Mount Everest. In 2015, IAF cleared women to become fighter pilots, adding to their role as helicopter and transport pilots earlier. On 22 May 2019, Bhawana Kanth became the first woman fighter pilot to qualify to undertake combat missions. The other two being Avani Chaturvedi, and Mohana Singh Jitarwal. On the International Women’s Day on 8 March 8, 2020 all three women fighter pilots were awarded Nari Shakti Puraskar. Wing Commander Shaliza Dhami became the first woman officer to be given a permanent commission in IAF. Radar controller Squadron Leader Minty Agarwal became the first woman to receive a Yudh Seva Medal for controlling Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on 27 February 2019 when he shot down a F-16.
Flt Lt Shivangi Singh will formally join the 17 ‘Golden Arrows’ Squadron of the 4.5-generation Rafales at the Ambala airbase. She is currently finishing her “conversion training”. A training, which is required when a combat pilot switches from one fighter to another.
As the Rafale squadron’s first woman fighter pilot Singh will make history by flying the multi-role air dominance aircraft. Singh was commissioned in 2017 as part of the second batch of women fighter pilots.
Indian Army cleared permanent commission in 2008 into Legal and Education corps. In 2020 permanent commission was cleared in eight more corps. Women are not yet allowed as combatant in the Parachute Regiment or other specialist forces, but they can join paratroopers wings of their respective arms like para EME, para signals, and para ASC etc.
Indian Navy inducts women in ATC, Observer, Law, logistics, Education, Naval Architecture, Pilot (Maritime Reconnaissance Stream only), Naval Armament Inspectorate. Permanent Commission is allowed in Education, Law and Naval Architecture branches on completion of SSC tenure depending on merit and vacancy. Effectively all branches of the Indian Navy except Submariners and Divers are open. Two women officers Sub Lt Kumudini Tyagi and Sub Lt Riti Singh have just been selected to join “Observers” (Airborne Tacticians) in Helicopter stream by Indian Navy, making them the first airborne combatants who will operate from warships.
It is interesting to compare the number of women in other armed forces. Israel (33%), France (19%), USA (14.6%), Australia (13%), Canada (12%), Russia (10%), Britain (9%), Germany (7%), China (7.5%), and Pakistan (1%). All countries went through an evolutionary approach while inducting women into the otherwise male-centric Armed Forces. India has been no different. The US employed nearly 40,000 women in Iraq, mostly in combat support tasks. In the USA women can serve on, and also Command a ship. In the Chinese Armed Forces, women serve mostly in military support roles, yet in 2009, they had their first batch of women fighter pilots. An Israeli Military report indicates that female combatants displayed higher levels of alertness, were more knowledgeable about the use of weapons and had better shooting abilities than men. On the other hand, studies in the West have indicated that women have 45 to 50% less upper body strength and are much more prone to fractures and bone injuries. Same has been proved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many men feel that the military women should be required to compete at same levels of fitness as men. Presently physical standards stipulated for women around the world are definitely lower. Interestingly a 2008 study by a female military student in the USA found that female cadets saw military training as an opportunity to be strong, assertive and skilful. Also, they had to constantly prove that they were capable.
The three women who rose to become three star officers were Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay (2003), Surgical Vice Admiral Punita Arora (2004), and Lieutenant General Madhuri Kanitkar (February 2020). The IAF’s 10 women pilots have flown a variety of jets so far, including the Su-30 MKI and MiG-29 UPG. Slow but steady change has been the universal approach, and the Indian Armed Forces are adopting the same.
This article is written by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd) and the founder of Air Power Asia. The views expressed are the author’s own.