IDF Plans to Begin Enlisting Female Soldiers to Serve in Tanks

Army to launch fourth mixed-gender battalion next month, in continuing effort to integrate women into combat units.

A female soldier trains in a tank in southern Israel in 2008.
Assi Meidan, IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The proposal to integrate women into tank crews generated a host of insulting comments by former senior army officers that the move was meant to weaken the Israel Defense Forces, and claims by rabbis that as a result “little tank crew members” would be born.

Three months after that public storm, and despite the criticism, the army is moving ahead with the plan. The Armored Corps plans to draft women who want to serve as combat soldiers and examine their suitability for service in armored vehicles. It will not be an official Armored Corps enlistment track, but a pilot project to see if women can serve in tanks from a physiological, technical and professional perspective. No date has been set for launching this pilot program.

The army made it clear after the first report on the plan in Haaretz in November that women tank personnel will serve along the country’s borders and not in battle. If the pilot project is deemed successful, there will apparently be only two Armored Corps companies in which women will serve.

Senior IDF officers sounded cautiously optimistic about the move. “It’s being considered seriously,” said a military source. “There will always be comments on either side; in the end it’s a social issue, but we are trying to remain above that. It’s true that the average performance of most men is better than that of women, but the question is whether there are women who can do it. That’s what we’re looking at.”

According to IDF figures, 38 percent of women in the draft pipeline have asked to be evaluated for combat service, which is why the army is opening new combat frameworks to women. Next month the fourth mixed-gender battalion will be launched, to be stationed in the Jordan Valley. The mixed-gender battalions are to be united in a professional division that will be entrusted with defending the country’s borders.

The army admits that until now the handling of women’s combat training hasn’t been optimal, which is why the training of all combat companies is going to be moved to a single base in around six months, and soldiers to be stationed at the borders will undergo dedicated training. They won’t need to carry six cartridges in their webbing, only four, and they’ll be given M-16 rifles, which are lighter than the Tavor model found in some infantry brigades.

“We decided this not because of the women, but in accordance with operational necessity,” stressed a senior Ground Forces officer responsible for women’s training in the mixed companies. “In integrating women combat soldiers there are two approaches; that of the American military, in which male and female fighters are treated equally, and as a consequence there are few female combat soldiers, or a different approach in which we adapt the training to the women because we want a lot of girls. We’re going in that direction, toward the mass, which why every training course needs to be examined for how it can be adapted.”

Brig. Gen. Merav Kirshner, head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, attributes the rise in women’s desire to serve in combat roles to changes in public attitudes. “What beats everything is the success of these [mixed] units. The fact is that today one can say that these are excellent battalions doing an important job, and that have achievements to their credit over the years, including in combat,” she told Haaretz. “Besides, there are changes in Israeli society that have created more of a desire for equal opportunities, and we welcome this. The army has to be a place of equal opportunities.”

The service of women, religious men and women, and the ultra-Orthodox have all had their turn at being the focus of public controversy. During the coming draft cycle the IDF will, by law, have to draft 3,200 Haredi men, and Kirshner believes it will meet that quota. According to the army, there are 6,200 Haredim currently serving, and another 400 in the career army. “We say this as clearly as we can – Haredim contribute a lot to the IDF,” Kirshner said.

The IDF is also proud of having this year broken another record for drafting religious girls, some 2,160 of them. Kirshner, who is generally cautious and measured in her responses, was infuriated by a video clip posted by the Hotam organization last month that warned religious girls against enlisting.

“In the end the test is what the female soldiers who are released say, not videos that border on incitement,” Kirshner said. “When we ask, we see that 90 percent of religious women soldiers say ‘yes, I would tell my friends to enlist.’ We have no goal of changing the way of life of those who enlist in the IDF, and we really think that the right thing is that everyone should serve, side by side.”