The Israel Defense Forces declared its pilot program of all-female tank crews a success on Thursday, hours before four of the participants were due to complete the Armored Corps’ tank commanders course.
“The training process was a success, from both an instructional and an operational perspective. The soldiers achieved all the goals set for them,” said Lt. Col. Benny Aharon, the head of command training in the Armored Corps.
The pilot program was designed to see if women could make up the four-person crews necessary to operate a tank in “routine security operations” within Israel’s borders or just beyond them if necessary — not in wars or in fighting behind deep enemy lines.
Until now, women have been barred from serving in the tank brigades as it was believed that they could not physically handle the rigors of the Armored Corps. Female soldiers have, however, served as tank instructors.
“The question was, can four women serve in a tank in routine security missions? The answer is yes,” Aharon told reporters in a phone briefing on Thursday.
The pilot program has faced considerable criticism since it was announced in November 2016, with former commanders of the IDF’s Armored Corps railing against the plan and calling it a conspiracy by left-wing “freaks” to weaken the military. Others, however, have lauded the program as a necessary corrective.
The trial began last year with a four-week selection process, pulling candidates from a crop of recruits who came into the military looking to serve in a mixed-gender combat unit.
The soldiers needed to show “high levels of motivation to serve in combat roles,” Aharon said.
Fifteen soldiers were chosen. Two of them dropped out during the eight-week basic training they performed with other recruits for mixed-gender combat units.
The remaining 13 were sent to the Armored Corps’ Shizafon base deep in the Negev desert. There they performed six weeks of professional training, learning to operate the Merkava Mark 3 model tank, followed by 14 weeks of advanced training.
The advanced training for the female recruits was somewhat different from that of their male counterparts, Aharon said.
As the pilot program was designed to test only their ability to perform routine border security, their training did not include all-out war exercises, he said.
During this training period, three more soldiers dropped out of the program. According to Aharon, the five soldiers who washed out were either found to be incapable for medical reasons or were found to be unfit “professionally.”
Throughout the training, they were monitored by nutritionists, doctors and exercise instructors to determine if they could handle the challenges of the position. The army also routinely gave them and their commanders questionnaires to determine their levels of motivation.
The army determined that “the percentage of soldiers who didn’t complete the program is reasonable considering it was a pilot,” the lieutenant colonel said.
The remaining candidates were then deployed to the army’s 80th Division, which is responsible for the southern Negev and Arava deserts, and guards the southern borders.
The female recruits were not formally integrated into the Armored Corps combat brigades — like the 188th, 7th and 401st Armored Brigades — but instead served under the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion.
Four of the soldiers were then chosen to take part in the Armored Corps tank commanders course, a grueling training program that teaches soldiers about the larger strategies of using armored vehicles in warfare.
During that course as well, some slight changes were made to account for the different types of missions the female tank commanders would be given compared to their male counterparts, Aharon said.
The other six female tank operators were sent with the rest of the Caracal Battalion to a deployment in the West Bank, the tank officer said.
On Thursday, the Armored Corps will hold a graduation ceremony for the tank commanders course, presided over by the head of the corps Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, who initially expressed misgivings about having female tank crews.
“Becoming one of the first female tank commanders in the IDF means not only do I get to fulfill my role of defending the country, but I also get the opportunity to bring women forward in combat and open up chances for future generations to defend their country just like their male counterparts,” said Sgt. Charlotte Feld-Davidovici, one of the four women to complete the course.
For now, the army’s 10 first female tank operators will be absorbed as regular infantry fighter into the Caracal Battalion, “until our general decides how to continue,” Aharon said.
While the pilot program was deemed a success, Aharon stressed that it was a trial with a limited scope.
For instance, he said, there is a disadvantage to using all-female crews, namely that if one or two of the members are injured, they can only be replaced by other women, not by male tank operators, of whom there are far more.
“We practiced if one of the female soldiers is injured or killed and how they will deal with it. And they did it well,” he said.
However, he said, if the program goes forward to full implementation, the military would have to consider how to ensure having not only enough crews to fill the tanks, but enough replacements in the case of casualties or other extreme circumstances.
“It’s only a pilot. If we want to make it a regular thing, we’ll have to make some decisions, make a tank unit of all women,” he said.
This pilot program is part of a growing trend of women filling combat positions in the IDF. Over the past five years the number of female combat soldiers has increased nearly fivefold, from 547 in 2012 to 2,700 last year.
Critics of gender integration often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders generally trumpet it as a long-needed measure, one that has already been implemented in many Western countries.
Detractors note that some requirements for the female combat soldiers have been lowered — which they say is 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.
The tank pilot program in particular has met considerable resistance.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, a famed commander of the IDF’s 7th Armored Brigade, told the Galey Israel radio station that tanks were not the right place for women.
“The role of a woman is to be a mother, to bring children into the world,” he said.
Former IDF general and current head of the Israel Electric Corporation Yiftach Ron-Tal claimed the proposal to allow women to operate tanks was a “scandal,” and part of a conspiracy by far-left “freaks” to debilitate the army. He later retracted the comment and apologized, amid backlash.
Within the Armored Corps, there has also been some opposition voiced to gender integration.
Before the army announced its plans to consider allowing women to serve in the tank brigades, head of the Armored Corps Brig. Gen. Hasson told The Times of Israel he was concerned that such a move would harm the “image” of the unit.
“We’re fighters. We’re trying to keep an image as fighters,” he said.
“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.