India paves way for women in army combat roles

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Members of India's Border Security Force in the closing ceremony of the Women Camel Safari expedition at the Wagah Border post with Pakistan on March 22, 2015

Members of India's Border Security Force in the closing ceremony of the Women Camel Safari expedition at the Wagah Border post with Pakistan on March 22, 2015 (AFP Photo/Narinder Nanu)

The Indian government gave its nod Saturday for women to fly fighter jets, paving the way for them to assume combat roles for the first time in one of the world's largest militaries.

The federal defence ministry gave the green light to a proposal for recruiting female fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force (IAF), where women already fly transport aircraft and helicopters.

"With this decision to open up induction of women in the fighter stream, women have become eligible for induction in all branches and streams of the IAF," a defence ministry statement published on Saturday said.

"This progressive step is in keeping with the aspirations of Indian women and is in line with contemporary trends in Armed Forces of developed nations," it said, adding that after training, selected women "would enter a fighter cockpit by June 2017".

The latest move not only marks the maiden entry of women in combat roles in the IAF but in any branch across the Indian armed forces.

Many countries like the United States, Israel and even arch-rival neighbour Pakistan already allow women as fighter pilots.

But India has kept them out of such roles, reportedly fearing women would be more vulnerable to sexual attacks, and worries over lodging and physical fitness.

Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha expressed his reluctance to change tack last year when he said "women are by nature not physically suited for flying fighters for long hours".

Since then, increasing numbers of female officers have brought court cases demanding better work conditions and permanent commissions instead of temporary terms of five to ten years.

The ministry said it had carried out a review in connection with how to increase roles of women in the forces.

"Once finalised more and more branches would be opened up for induction of women to give them the space which they deserve in the Armed Forces of the country," it said.

Women form some five percent of around 1.32 million active personnel and 2.14 million reservists in the defence forces, according to government figures.