IDF to deploy all-female tank crews after two-year trial deemed a success

Merkava IV company will defend Egyptian frontier as permanent part of mixed-gender Caracal Battalion; Kohavi hails successful pilot enabling more combat roles for women

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Female soldiers operate a tank in the Negev Desert, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
Female soldiers operate a tank in the Negev Desert, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday declared the success of a two-year pilot program for a company of all-women tank operators, and said the role would become permanent in the military.

The company, in the Caracal mixed-gender light infantry battalion, operates along the Egyptian border — not in wars or in fighting deep behind enemy lines.

The pilot was launched in 2020 after an initial trial that saw women serving in tank units from 2017 to 2018 was deemed inconclusive.

The IDF said Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi accepted recommendations made by Tamir Yadai, head of the Ground Forces, who termed the trial a success, “and from now on they will be permanently assigned to the position.”

“The decision was made in light of professional and operational considerations and in accordance with the needs of the army, after the female troops met the predefined criteria,” the IDF added.

“We are successfully concluding a professional and in-depth process, as part of the concept that the IDF is opening up more and more combat roles for women,” said Kohavi in remarks published by the IDF.

“I trust that the female tank soldiers will carry out the task of defending the borders professionally and with great success, and will be a significant part of the IDF’s operational effort,” he added.

Female soldiers operate a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The armored company operates Merkava IV tanks, outfitted with military’s most updated capabilities and technological systems.

In a significant change from the rest of the military, the tank company commander answers directly to the head of the Caracal Battalion. Elsewhere in the IDF, while Armored Corps units and Infantry Corps units often serve closely together, they are kept separate, with distinct hierarchical structures.

The incoming commander of the Caracal Battalion, one of four mixed-gender infantry units within the IDF’s Border Defense Corps, is a female officer, for the first time in the corps’ history.

Maj. Or Livni, who was wounded during a gun battle with smugglers in 2014, was nominated as the next head of Caracal in July, and will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel upon entering the role.

The Border Defense Corps is responsible for defending Israel’s borders with Jordan and Egypt. Though Israel maintains peace treaties with Amman and Cairo, these frontiers see frequent smuggling attempts and, on occasion, other violent incidents.

The Sinai Desert is home to a small but capable branch of the Islamic State terror group, known as the Sinai Province, which has committed terror attacks in the area in recent years.

Illustrative: Male and female combat soldiers of the Caracal Battalion train to fight an Islamic State assault on southern Israel in late March 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

In an effort to free up heavy infantry units — the Paratroopers, Givati, Golani, Kfir and Nahal Brigades — which once served on these borders, in recent years the IDF has swapped them out with the Border Defense Corps’ light infantry units: Caracal, Bardelas, Lions of the Jordan Valley and Lions of the Valley Battalions.

Unlike the heavy infantry brigades, these mixed-gender battalions are not considered “maneuvering units,” meaning they are not trained to enter deep into enemy territory, but rather to stay largely within Israel’s borders and relatively close to their home bases. This means that the soldiers serving in these units do not need to meet the same physical requirements as troops in heavy infantry brigades, who must be capable of carrying heavy gear across long distances, something that men on average are physically better suited for than women.

Critics of female combat service often point to these lower standards as evidence of the dangers of gender integration in the military, while proponents maintain that these benchmarks are not significant in themselves but are determined by operational needs.

Head of the IDF Armored Corps Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, center, poses on a tank with the army’s first female tank commanders, who graduated their course on June 28, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF’s 2017-2018 pilot program for all-female armored crews was officially deemed a success, but was seen within the military as having been deeply flawed, failing to account for all aspects involved in operating a tank.

The military halted the integration of armored units following that initial trial, but agreed to restart it in the beginning of 2020 following multiple petitions to the High Court of Justice.

The military is only moving ahead with gender-segregated tank crews, in large part due to issues of modesty, as in some cases crew members must use the bathroom and perform other bodily functions within the confined space of the tank.

Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders generally call it a long-needed measure in line with the policies of many other Western countries.

Detractors also note the lowered requirements for female combat soldiers — which they say are a sign that effectiveness is being sacrificed — and that servicewomen suffer stress injuries at a higher rate.

The army insists that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a social agenda, saying it requires all the woman- and manpower available to it.

In recent years, there has also been a growing trend of women serving in combat units and in other roles previously held by men, with the IDF having opened up more combat positions to women in June.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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