Reversing course, IDF relaunches all-female tank crew trial program

Facing petitions to the High Court, military announces it will recruit female soldiers to Armored Corps, allow them to deploy along Egyptian, Jordanian borders

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

A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday announced it was restarting its pilot program to allow women to serve in tanks, reversing its decision to freeze the trial last year and expanding it to include some actual deployments.

In 2017-2018, the military conducted a trial program to assess the viability of all-female tank crews. Though officially deemed a success, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi froze the initiative, sparking significant criticism from progressive groups and multiple petitions to the High Court of Justice by women demanding that the freeze lifted.

On Sunday, the IDF said it would be restarting this pilot program later this year, allowing female soldiers to both complete the training necessary to serve in an armored unit and — for the first time — to actually deploy in tanks inside Israel along the borders with Egypt and Jordan.

“This decision was made by the chief of staff after a long process of deliberation and evaluations based on a few factors, most importantly the recommendations from the pilot program from 2018,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Conricus added that “naturally [the petitions to the High Court] were also a factor.”

Israel’s 13 first female tank operators, who completed their training on December 5, 2017, pose for a photograph at the Armored Corps’ monument in Latrun, outside Jerusalem. (Israel Defense Forces)

A final decision on the future of female service in tank units is slated to be made after the pilot program concludes in 2022.

The proposal to create all-female tank crews faced considerable criticism when it was announced in November 2016. One former general called it a “left-wing” conspiracy to weaken the military. Others, however, lauded the program as a necessary corrective. Until the 2017-2018 pilot program, female soldiers had only been permitted to serve as trainers in tanks, not to operate them on actual missions.

According to Conricus, the military would begin recruiting female soldiers for this new pilot program in either August or November — a specific date has not yet been set.

While the military considered the 2018 pilot program successful, the IDF found that not all women were able to lift the heavy equipment inside a tank.

“There were some limitations in terms of core capabilities that we need to address in the next stage,” Conricus said.

That being the case, the IDF would also be setting “certain physical criteria in terms of weight and height [for the recruits] to make sure they have the physical ability to lift and carry [shells and other equipment] and perform the tasks necessary to be a tank crew member,” he said.

This is both to ensure that the cadets will be able to fully carry out their missions and to prevent injury and protect the “physical health of the female soldiers.”

A group of female soldiers take part in a training exercise in the tank commanders’ course, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military is only considering gender-segregated tank crews, in part due to issues of modesty, as in some cases crew members must go to the bathroom and perform other bodily tasks within the confined space of the tank.

The recruits will perform training at the IDF Armored Corps’ Shizafon training base in the Negev Desert, and, “as they have not done in the past, will be incorporated into combat duties in the south, in the Border Defense Array,” Conricus said, referring to a unit tasked with serving within Israeli territory along the country’s border.

The army spokesman stressed that unlike the rest of the military’s armored brigades, the female teams were not considered a “maneuvering unit,” which could operate within enemy territory.

The recruits will train on the IDF’s Merkava Mark IV tanks and will serve within them as well.

The graduates of the 2018 pilot program, particularly the four women who completed the additional tank commanders course, would likely be brought back to assist in the new trial in some way in order to “make the most of their knowledge and experience,” Conricus said.

“Those who have more experience and valuable insight will be invited to participate in the training, some in a reserve capacity, some as professional staff. The details remain to be determined,” he said.

Last week, two members of the 2018 pilot program, Osnat Levy and Noga Shina, filed petitions with the High Court of Justice asking to be allowed to perform their reserve service as tank commanders, arguing that they are entitled to do so having completed the necessary training.

Their petition was the second one filed on this issue. In September, two female recruits — Or Abramson and Maayan Halbershtat — appealed to the court to allow them to serve as tank crew members when they are due to join the army in March 2020.

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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