The Israeli Approach to Women in Combat

The American military and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have some things in common and differ in others. One current difference regards the integration of women into combat forces. Under the Obama administration the American military opened all jobs to female service-members, including combat infantry and commando units. The IDF has not followed suit. Combat infantry and commando units, as well as tank units, continue to remain off-limits to Israeli women, and the Trump administration might find the Israeli experience illuminating if it decides to roll back Obama’s policy.

Both militaries have moved in recent years to integrate women into the fighting forces, and generally have followed comparable paths. For example, female fighter pilots have operated successfully in both militaries for many years, women help crew naval fighting ships, and serve in virtually all combat support functions.   

Something the American and Israeli militaries do not share is a concern for border security. In the U.S. this is (with rare exceptions) a civilian function, and while we have problems, they pale compared to Israel’s. Israel is a tiny state with proportionately huge hostile borders, which are mostly a military responsibility. Historically, the IDF has had to divert immense resources just to keep the state’s borders secure from hostile raiders. Involving first line units in this task wears them down and detracts from combat training. As a result the IDF has used reservists, territorial troops, and home guards for this task whenever possible, but there are never quite enough troops.

In 2000, the IDF sought to partially alleviate this problem with the formation of the Caracal battalion, the IDF’s first all-female infantry unit. The creation of the battalion killed several birds with one proverbial stone. It provided additional troops for the border security mission, took pressure off the IDF to integrate women more fully into the ground forces, and provided a long-term practical testing ground for the viability of female infantry. The results are now in. Limited line of communication and security missions yes; full scale combat no.

That is not to say that the Caracal battalion has been a failure. Far from it. In 2009 it was reformed as a mixed gender unit, and since that time three other mixed gender infantry/security battalions have been added. On at least two occasions female troops have successfully engaged in border skirmishes.

Recently, the IDF decided to fully rationalize the process of training and staffing these units based on lessons learned over the years, and one of those lessons is that for all their spirit and willingness to serve, female troops are not capable of functioning as regular combat infantry.

Admitting that women are different allows the IDF to better equip and staff these units to maximize their effectiveness. So for example, mixed gender infantry battalions will no longer carry the FN MAG 7.62 mm machinegun (in U.S. service the M-240.) The weapon and ammo are too heavy for female troops, so instead these units will rely exclusively on the Negev light machinegun (the IDF equivalent of the American SAW.) Likewise, these units will only carry American M-4 carbines, which weigh less than the Israeli Tavor. Female troops also wear special flak jackets and load bearing gear to better accommodate ammo and equipment. These changes are designed largely to reduce the disproportionately large number of stress injuries suffered by female soldiers.

Another disproportionately large cause of attrition is the often harsh and demanding nature of infantry officers. In the IDF many infantry officers emerge from the elite paratroop and Golani brigades and are then distributed around other units. Such officers proved a poor fit for female infantry, and as a result the IDF redesigned its assignment policies to have more sensitive officers lead the mixed gender units.

This is an honest if accommodating policy, which seeks to maximize to contributions of female infantry troops, without pretending that they can do all the things that real combat infantrymen can do. This makes the IDF policy substantially different from the American.

The American military is pretending that women can do the same things men can do and is supposedly not lowering standards to accommodate them. Few really believe that this is the case, and even if it is, it seems hardly worth the disruption that opening combat infantry units to a few extraordinary women might bring. Plus adding a statistically meaningless number of female combat infantry and commandos to the ranks won’t satisfy feminists and culture warriors within and without the military, which means standards will inevitably be lowered.

The IDF policy offers a middle ground that could protect the integrity and quality of the combat infantry while at least partially satisfying feminists and particularly by opening up 11B infantry slots to ambitious female officers, who are the real constituency within the military pushing this issue. While the U.S. does not have the border security problems Israel does (and it is not a military responsibility anyway) we do have line-of-communication and rear area security problems whenever our troops campaign abroad. Military Police have sometimes performed this function and security operations in Panama in 1989 produced the first female officer to lead soldiers in ground combat. In Iraq, tank and artillery crews were sometimes pressed into this role (it’s how former artillery officer and Congressman Allen West came to prominence) without adequate equipment or training, and at the expense of practicing their own critical specialties.  

American mixed gender infantry battalions on the IDF model could fulfill this role, provide infantry billets to female troops (and especially officers), and actually meet a military need, rather than twisting the system around for political accommodations. Female troops could be trained and designated 11B with appropriate accommodations and the caveat that they would only serve in the security battalions. They could receive further training, be equipped and armed in accord with functional practicality and need. This would not satisfy everybody, but it would be a more honest and militarily sound solution than the current policy, and one the Trump administration’s new military secretaries should consider.

The American military and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have some things in common and differ in others. One current difference regards the integration of women into combat forces. Under the Obama administration the American military opened all jobs to female service-members, including combat infantry and commando units. The IDF has not followed suit. Combat infantry and commando units, as well as tank units, continue to remain off-limits to Israeli women, and the Trump administration might find the Israeli experience illuminating if it decides to roll back Obama’s policy.

Both militaries have moved in recent years to integrate women into the fighting forces, and generally have followed comparable paths. For example, female fighter pilots have operated successfully in both militaries for many years, women help crew naval fighting ships, and serve in virtually all combat support functions.   

Something the American and Israeli militaries do not share is a concern for border security. In the U.S. this is (with rare exceptions) a civilian function, and while we have problems, they pale compared to Israel’s. Israel is a tiny state with proportionately huge hostile borders, which are mostly a military responsibility. Historically, the IDF has had to divert immense resources just to keep the state’s borders secure from hostile raiders. Involving first line units in this task wears them down and detracts from combat training. As a result the IDF has used reservists, territorial troops, and home guards for this task whenever possible, but there are never quite enough troops.

In 2000, the IDF sought to partially alleviate this problem with the formation of the Caracal battalion, the IDF’s first all-female infantry unit. The creation of the battalion killed several birds with one proverbial stone. It provided additional troops for the border security mission, took pressure off the IDF to integrate women more fully into the ground forces, and provided a long-term practical testing ground for the viability of female infantry. The results are now in. Limited line of communication and security missions yes; full scale combat no.

That is not to say that the Caracal battalion has been a failure. Far from it. In 2009 it was reformed as a mixed gender unit, and since that time three other mixed gender infantry/security battalions have been added. On at least two occasions female troops have successfully engaged in border skirmishes.

Recently, the IDF decided to fully rationalize the process of training and staffing these units based on lessons learned over the years, and one of those lessons is that for all their spirit and willingness to serve, female troops are not capable of functioning as regular combat infantry.

Admitting that women are different allows the IDF to better equip and staff these units to maximize their effectiveness. So for example, mixed gender infantry battalions will no longer carry the FN MAG 7.62 mm machinegun (in U.S. service the M-240.) The weapon and ammo are too heavy for female troops, so instead these units will rely exclusively on the Negev light machinegun (the IDF equivalent of the American SAW.) Likewise, these units will only carry American M-4 carbines, which weigh less than the Israeli Tavor. Female troops also wear special flak jackets and load bearing gear to better accommodate ammo and equipment. These changes are designed largely to reduce the disproportionately large number of stress injuries suffered by female soldiers.

Another disproportionately large cause of attrition is the often harsh and demanding nature of infantry officers. In the IDF many infantry officers emerge from the elite paratroop and Golani brigades and are then distributed around other units. Such officers proved a poor fit for female infantry, and as a result the IDF redesigned its assignment policies to have more sensitive officers lead the mixed gender units.

This is an honest if accommodating policy, which seeks to maximize to contributions of female infantry troops, without pretending that they can do all the things that real combat infantrymen can do. This makes the IDF policy substantially different from the American.

The American military is pretending that women can do the same things men can do and is supposedly not lowering standards to accommodate them. Few really believe that this is the case, and even if it is, it seems hardly worth the disruption that opening combat infantry units to a few extraordinary women might bring. Plus adding a statistically meaningless number of female combat infantry and commandos to the ranks won’t satisfy feminists and culture warriors within and without the military, which means standards will inevitably be lowered.

The IDF policy offers a middle ground that could protect the integrity and quality of the combat infantry while at least partially satisfying feminists and particularly by opening up 11B infantry slots to ambitious female officers, who are the real constituency within the military pushing this issue. While the U.S. does not have the border security problems Israel does (and it is not a military responsibility anyway) we do have line-of-communication and rear area security problems whenever our troops campaign abroad. Military Police have sometimes performed this function and security operations in Panama in 1989 produced the first female officer to lead soldiers in ground combat. In Iraq, tank and artillery crews were sometimes pressed into this role (it’s how former artillery officer and Congressman Allen West came to prominence) without adequate equipment or training, and at the expense of practicing their own critical specialties.  

American mixed gender infantry battalions on the IDF model could fulfill this role, provide infantry billets to female troops (and especially officers), and actually meet a military need, rather than twisting the system around for political accommodations. Female troops could be trained and designated 11B with appropriate accommodations and the caveat that they would only serve in the security battalions. They could receive further training, be equipped and armed in accord with functional practicality and need. This would not satisfy everybody, but it would be a more honest and militarily sound solution than the current policy, and one the Trump administration’s new military secretaries should consider.