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In first, female tank operators to be deployed along Egyptian border

Beginning next month, an all-female armored Merkava IV company will defend the frontier as part of the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion, commander says

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative image of a female IDF tank instructor during an exercise on January 1, 2013. (Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Illustrative image of a female IDF tank instructor during an exercise on January 1, 2013. (Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

NAHAL RAVIV BASE, western Negev — A company of all-women tank operators will be stationed along the Egyptian border next month for the first time in the military’s history as part of an ongoing pilot program to assess the feasibility of female armored crews, an Israel Defense Forces officer said Wednesday.

The female tank crews are currently completing their training at the IDF’s Shizafon Base in the Negev desert, which houses the military’s Armored Corps School. After a short break, they will then be sent into the command of the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion, which defends the northern portion of Israel’s border with Egypt.

According to the commander of the Caracal Battalion, Lt. Col. Erez Shabtai, in addition to being the IDF’s first active deployment of female tank operators, this will also make his the IDF’s first infantry unit to have tanks directly under its control.

“This is highly significant. Everyone is going to be watching us,” Shabtai told The Times of Israel, while driving along the Egyptian border.

Last year, the military launched a fresh pilot program to consider allowing women to serve in tank units, after an initial trial from 2017 to 2018 was deemed inconclusive.

After completing basic training with other troops bound for mixed-gender Border Defense units, the soldiers participating in the trial were sent to the Shizafon Base deep in the desert to learn how to operate and fight in tanks.

They were scheduled to complete this training shortly and after a few days’ leave, they will be sent to the Caracal Battalion to begin a full active deployment along the frontier, an IDF official said.

Part of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, north of Eilat. (Idobi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The armored company will initially be led by an infantry officer who underwent training to “convert” into a tank commander, Shabtai said.

In a significant change from the rest of the military, the tank company commander will answer 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. Not so in this case.

“We will be the first multi-corps unit in the IDF,” Shabtai said.

The armored company will operate Merkava IV tanks, outfitted with all the latest capabilities and technological systems that the military has to offer, he said.

“They are getting a proper tank,” Shabtai said.

Though he was responsible for many of the preparations ahead of the all-female tank company’s arrival, Shabtai will not personally command the unit as he is due to complete his tenure shortly. The lieutenant colonel, who has served in this position for nearly two years, is due to take over as commander of the Border Defense Corps’ training base.

The Caracal Battalion is one of four mixed-gender infantry units within the IDF’s Border Defense Corps, which is responsible for defending Israel’s borders with Jordan and Egypt. Though Israel maintains peace treaties with Amman and Cairo, these frontiers see regular smuggling attempts, as well as terror attacks, particularly along the border with the Sinai Peninsula, which is home to small but capable branch of the Islamic State terror group, known as the Sinai Province.

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 designed 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 long distances, something that men on average are physically better suited toward than women.

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

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 last January following multiple petitions to the High Court of Justice.

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)

At this stage, the military is only considering gender-segregated tank crews, in large part due to issues of modesty, as in some cases crew members must go to 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 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.

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