The Israel Defense Forces is reviewing the possibility of female soldiers serving in tank brigades, a brigadier general told a Knesset committee, though the head of the army’s Armored Corps has voiced hesitation, if not outright opposition, to the notion.
Speaking before the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday about the prospect of shortening the required service time for male soldiers, Brig. Gen. Eran Shani mentioned the army was also conducting research to see if positions for women could be expanded, including in the Armored Corps and elite 669 rescue unit.
Shani, the head of the army’s Human Resource Planning and Management Department, noted that opening additional positions to women could further increase the motivation for them to serve in combat units and relieve some of the burden on male soldiers.
Today, some 92 percent of army positions are available to women, according to the IDF. The remaining eight include the tank and infantry brigades, which the IDF Medical Corps determined had physical requirements that female physiology simply could not handle.
The heavy infantry units, which require the highest physical profile, are considered a long way off for female soldiers, but the notion of women serving in the tank brigades has come up before. After some initial moves to advance the prospect of female tank operators — and not just instructors — in late 2014, the army determined in May 2015 that women could not physiologically handle the role and that practical issues of co-ed tank units proved too difficult to resolve.
But while the army may be looking into the matter once again, one opponent may be the current head of the Armored Corps, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson.
In a recent conversation with The Times of Israel, conducted prior to Shani’s talk with the Knesset committee, Hasson indicated that the fundamental issues preventing integration of tank units — the physical requirements and social concerns — had yet to be addressed. However, he also noted that even if they were, he would oppose such an effort on the grounds that having female soldiers would harm the “image” of the corps — unless women were also introduced into the army’s infantry brigades.
“There’s another issue, an issue of image,” he said.
In recent years, the Armored Corps has become one of the least popular units for recruits. In 2016, just 0.7 percent of drafting soldiers requested a spot in the IDF’s tank brigades, Hasson said.
Hasson, who became head of the Armored Corps earlier this year, attributed this lack of interest in the tank corps to people’s view that it’s not as tough as the more sought after infantry brigades: Golani, Givati, Paratroopers, Nahal and Kfir.
(Though, in fact, the Border Police, not the infantry, was the most requested unit for new recruits in 2016, likely because they dominated headlines in the months prior due to the numerous terror attacks in the areas where they serve.)
“There are still people who look at us and say, there’s infantry and then there’s armored. You’re less ‘fighters.’ You’re less,” he said.
“There are stigmas that we can’t destroy, until once you get into the corps. But once you’re in the corps, it’s already too late. I want someone who chooses me, not someone who falls in love with me once he’s with me,” he said.
‘I’m not sure I want to be trailblazer in that regard’
In Hasson’s view, adding female fighters to tank units would further establish this impression that the armored corps is supposedly less tough than the infantry, which he fears would turn off prospective recruits.
“If they decide that female fighters are going into all the Ground Forces, then okay. I’m ready. Tomorrow, if Golani drafts women, and the Paratroopers draft women, I will too. But note that I put us third. I didn’t start with us,” he said.
“I’m not sure I want to be trailblazer in that regard,” Hasson said. “We’re fighters. We’re trying to keep an image as fighters.”
Over the past decade, the number of female combat soldier has increased four-fold. From 2004 to 2012, the number stood at approximately 500. But in 2013, it jumped to nearly 900. It passed 2,000 in 2015, and is expected to soon surpass 2,100.
Though Hasson opposed the integration of his Armored Corps, he recognized that it has been successful elsewhere.
“I can’t say it’s not succeeding. It is succeeding. Everywhere you have women, it’s working,” he said.
In the meantime, however, Hasson’s view that bringing women into the Armored Corps would make it appear less tough is immaterial, as the practical concerns of physiology and logistics still bar integration.
“You need to be at this weight; you need to be able to run such and such a distance at a specific speed; you need to be able to evacuate a wounded soldier to such and such a distance; your muscle power needs to be that,” Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Yuval Heled, head of the Institute for Military Physiology at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel last year.
For now, those weights, distances and muscles are considered too heavy, far and weak for the women who want to serve in the Armored Corps and infantry brigades.
But even if they weren’t — if the equipment were made lighter, for instance — the IDF would still have to deal with the logistical questions raised by a mixed-gender tank crew.
Sometimes forced to stay in the vehicles for days at a time, the crews share a tight space, where they eat, sleep and “relieve themselves,” Hasson said.
There is no privacy in a tank, making mixed-gender crews something of a non-starter.
All-male and all-female crews are one solution, but that too comes with its drawbacks, as it would create two equal, but entirely separate forces.
Today, in a pinch, Hasson could swap Soldier A from Tank Crew A with Soldier B from Tank Crew B. Not so, if Soldier A is from a male crew and Soldier B is from a female crew.
While in training or routine guard duty that’s not much of an issue, in war-time it could become an issue, Hasson said.
“If someone’s injured, and I need to swap them?” he asked, rhetorically.
However, some of these issues — including the “image” objection — may fade away in time, especially if the IDF’s human resource demands turn gender integration from a desire for greater equality into a full-blown necessity.