Israel's First Would-be Female Tank Troops Start Their Arduous Training

If the pilot program is a success and women begin serving toward the end of the year, there could eventually be all-female tank crews.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Israeli soldier inside an Merkava Mark III tank
Israeli soldier inside an Merkava Mark III tankCredit: Moti Milrod
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

Israel’s first women seeking to become tank-crew members started the process this week as Israel strives to join countries like Norway, Canada and Australia on the short list of states with women in tanks.

At the end of their basic training in mixed-gender battalions, 15 of the women will be selected for a pilot program to see if they are fit to serve in tanks. Selection will be based in large part on motivation and physical fitness.

In light of certain rabbis’ and reserve officers’ wariness about women serving in the military and/or the Armored Corps, the army’s pushing of the process seems to be sending a message in support of women in combat.

The head of the Armored Corps, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, told reporters Thursday that the integration of women into the corps will be a long process.

“When the trial period is complete, we will have something clear to say about it. Right now we are giving it a chance,” Hasson said.

The training of the 15 women will be different than that of male tank soldiers and will be adapted to the assignment – serving on Israel’s borders. The first female tank-crew members will start serving on the Egyptian border toward the end of the year.

The 15 women will serve in three tank crews; if the pilot program is deemed a success, there will eventually be all-female tank crews.

A tank drill during a press tour, Rishon Lezion, March 9, 2017. Credit: Moti Milrod

But in the first stage, the men and women will serve under Israel’s rules for joint service for example, male and female soldiers will not have to remain together in a tank for a week.

Initially, the Armored Corps proposed that the initiative be postponed so that female tank commanders could be trained first. But the top brass sought to start the pilot program this month so that conclusions could be drawn by the end of the year.

According to the Armored Corps, the main question will be whether the women can perform all the necessary roles in a tank – driver, gunner, loader and eventually commander. Also, like the men, the women will have to do all the regular tank-maintenance work.

If it turns out that women can only be integrated as tank soldiers under certain conditions for example, if extra equipment is needed to make it easier to replace treads or carry shells the army will reconsider whether women should be in tank crews at all.

Women would be integrated into just two companies; in the Armored Corps there is both support for and opposition to the program. Some soldiers and officers see it as a natural process given the growing number of female combat soldiers in units once considered for men only.

Others say that, given the drop in the number of young men seeking to join the Armored Corps, the new program could dampen demand for service in this segment even further if it is considered less serious.

Some soldiers in the Armored Corps are skeptical about the pilot program’s chances of success, noting both the physical and mental challenges. But some in the corps’ middle ranks, including former battalion commanders, believe the project can be a big success. Some senior officers speaking to Haaretz sounded optimistic about the move, though they noted that the main test will be the physical demands.

Meanwhile, the army has offered a glimpse into a classified unit known colloquially as the Lion King armored vehicles using radar and advanced sensors. A senior Armored Corps officer said this unit was “expert in locating an enemy before he does anything.”

Only officers command Lion King tanks, and the soldiers are selected at the end of basic training before being trained for their specific roles in the tanks. Each tank brigade has one such company, and the unit has many soldiers from the reserves required to maintain their fitness accordingly.

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