At the end of November Israel formed a new infantry brigade containing two of the mixed (male and female) infantry battalions in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Thus the new Paran brigade will be the first IDF infantry brigade with only mixed battalions; 33rd (Caracal) and 227th (Bardalas). The Paran brigade will mainly serve along the Egyptian border (south of Gaza). This sees a lot of smuggling, usually by groups of armed men who are willing to fight rather than be captured or turned back. There are also Islamic terrorists operating in that part of Egypt (Sinai) and the border security forces on both sides coordinate their operations. There is not much shooting on the Israeli side of the security fence but on the Egyptian side, the Israeli troops can often hear gunfire and explosions. Occasionally the Israeli border forces come under fire. The battalions serving on the Egyptian border spend some time in the West Bank before moving back to the Egyptian border. There are two other mixed infantry battalions; the 42nd (Lions of the Jordan Valley) and 96th (Lavi) that are based along the Jordan border but in different brigades.
The 33rd battalion was organized first, in 2001 after a mixed infantry company formed in 2000 was a success and expanded into a battalion. Until 2014 the 33rd was the only mixed battalion but demand to serve in the mixed infantry units was so great that the IDF decided to create more “Caracal” battalions. The 42nd was formed in 2014, the 227th in 2015 and the 96th in 2016. All were at least 50 percent female (and often as much as 70 percent). All of these units are technically light infantry that specializes in border security. But the troops train with infantry weapons and sometimes have to deal with armed groups looking for a fight. Since the Caracal battalions have been around there has been one female battalion commander and several female company commanders. About half the officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers or sergeants) in the Caracal battalions are female. Israel has also formed three all-female tank crews that will be assigned to a tank battalion that works with the Paran brigade on the Egyptian border. It the female tank crews are successful there will be more of them.
When it comes to women in combat units, Israel appears to have succeeded where most other nations have failed or had a difficult time of it. Currently, over five percent of Israel combat troops are female. Most of these women are in the four light infantry (border and internal security) battalions as well as many women serving in Iron Dome air defense units. Women have, for decades, served as instructors for combat jobs (pilots and tank crews). But there are several unique factors that enabled Israel to succeed. The two main factors are Israel has always been threatened by more numerous and hostile neighbors and, increasingly Islamic terrorism. For that reason, Israelis accept the fact that both women and men are subject to conscription. Both men and women went through basic training that included weapons training and learning how to safely carry loaded weapons even when off duty. For men, service in combat units was common and getting into one of the elite combat units was much sought after. Women had to volunteer for combat jobs and meet the physical standards, which were higher than for service in non-combat jobs. Finding combat jobs women could handle effectively has involved decades of trial and error but because of the presence of so many women in the military and the very real threats Israel faced there were always women willing to volunteer for combat jobs.
Because of all this Israel has, for decades, been the leader in allowing women in combat jobs. Yet because such service is voluntary it has often been difficult to get many volunteers. In 2012 only 1.6 percent of Israeli combat jobs were filled by women but because of the growing threat from Palestinian terrorists and Iran that has more than tripled. This was especially the case after the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, in which the extent of Hamas efforts to build terrorist tunnels into Israel was revealed.
The IDF always wanted to get more women into combat jobs, just not frontline ones. So after the 2014 war in Gaza, the IDF encouraged women to serve in the new Iron Dome anti-missile units and formed more mixed (male-female) border security units. Israeli law forbids sending women into combat but does allow for giving them jobs that might lead to combat situations. Despite all this after the 2006 war with Hezbollah fewer women volunteered for combat jobs. So the military experimented with new screening and training methods, to address common complaints among women inclined to volunteer for these jobs. These efforts led to a noticeable increase in volunteers and the growing danger posed by Palestinian terrorists, Islamic terrorists in general and Iran did the rest.
Israel has, over the last few decades, expanded the number of combat jobs women can volunteer for. Israel conscripts men for three years and women for two years. But women have more exemptions (especially marriage). Women who volunteer for combat duty are hardcore because not only will they have to undergo some strenuous training but will have to serve three years on active duty, plus several years as reservists. This is necessary to justify the longer and more expensive, training required. Like many other countries, Israeli military police units contain men and women. Same with dog handlers, border guards, artillery units, and some search and rescue units. Women have long served as flight instructors.
This is not the first time Israel has had female infantry units. During their independence war in 1948, Israel had some of them but these were withdrawn from combat. Not because the women couldn't fight but because Arab units facing them became more fanatical and less likely to surrender when they realized they were fighting women. Before Germany invaded in 1941 Russia had a number of all female tank battalions. Most of the Russian tank force was destroyed in the first months of the war and as the tank force was rebuilt the all-female units were not used as there were plenty of other combat and combat support jobs for women. In Israel, there has long been pressure from conservative Jewish clergy who wanted women to be barred from combat jobs, while Arab radicals are urging more women to get involved in terrorism operations, including suicide bombings. Most Israelis are not conservative Jews and more focused on survival not conservative interpretations of Jewish scripture. Moreover, female troops have an easier time dealing with Moslem women, many of whom consider it a religious obligation to avoid dealing men they are not related to.
In the past religious differences were much less of a factor. During World War II over five million women served in the military worldwide. Although they suffered fewer losses than the men, several hundred thousand did die. These women were often exposed to combat, especially when fighting as guerillas or operating anti-aircraft guns and early warning systems in Russia, Germany, and Britain. Russia also used women as traffic cops near the front line, as snipers, and as combat pilots. They (especially the Russians) tried using them as tank crews and regular infantry, but that didn’t work out, a historical lesson lost on current proponents. Women were most frequently employed in medical and other support jobs. The few who served as snipers or pilots were very good at it. Israel has learned from that and the men who comprise half the strength of the Caracal units tend to agree that the women volunteers are more eager and into their jobs than the male conscripts.
During past wars, most of the women who served in combat did so in guerilla units, especially in the Balkans and Russia and later in the Middle East (Kurdish combat units always had a lot of female volunteers). The women could not haul as heavy a load as the men but this was often not crucial, as many guerrillas were only part-time fighters, living as civilians most of the time. Full-time guerilla units often imposed the death penalty for pregnancy, although the women sometimes would not name the father. That said, guerrilla organizations often imposed the death penalty for a number of offenses. The guerillas had few places to keep prisoners and sloppiness could get a lot of guerillas killed. The women tended to be more disciplined than the men and just as resolute in combat.
In the last century, there have been several attempts to use women in ground combat units, and all have failed. When given a choice, far fewer women will choose combat jobs (infantry, armor, artillery). But duty as MPs does attract a lot of women, as do jobs like fighter, bomber, helicopter pilots and crews, and aboard warships. That works. It’s always big news when women do serve in a ground combat job but there are never going to be a lot of them.
Yet there are still a lot more women coming under fire. Under the new conditions, more women are killed or wounded by (and often in) combat. For example, the casualty rate for women in Iraq was over ten times what it was in World War II, Vietnam, and the 1991 Gulf War (where 30,000 women served). A lot of the combat operations experienced by women in Iraq involved base security or guard duty. Female troops performed well in that. These were jobs that required alertness, attention to detail, and ability to quickly use your weapons when needed. Carrying a heavy load was not required. In convoy operations, women have also done well, especially when it comes to spotting, and dealing with, IEDs (roadside bombs and ambushes). Going into the 21st century, warfare is becoming more automated and less dependent on muscle and testosterone. That gives women an edge, and they exploit it, just as they have done in so many other fields. What women continue to avoid is traditional infantry jobs, which are less needed but not going away.
For most nations, the experience with allowing women in the infantry has been quite discouraging. For example, Canada has allowed women in combat jobs for over a decade. Even though Canada dropped most physical standards to make that possible (something commanders are still complaining about) fewer than one in 200 Canadian infantry or combat engineers are women. From the beginning, there have been few volunteers (the Canadian military is all volunteer). Male and female Israeli officers both report that it is not a good idea to put men and women together in observation posts or other isolated situations that require sustained concentration and alertness. This is nothing new, as NCOs and officers learned when more women were recruited for more different jobs after 1972 (when the U.S. dropped conscription). Officers and NCOs who were managers in their civilian jobs had fewer problems as most had been managing men and women on the job for years. But for the military, it required a decade or so to adapt all the civilian experience to the military.
Israel found solutions for many of these problems. First, they established one physical standard for combat jobs and accepted the fact that not enough women would qualify for regular infantry jobs but that there were other infantry type jobs (like border security) that women could handle. All female tank crews can work if you establish and enforce the needed physical standards. In Caracal units men and women serve together on patrols and observations posts with the understanding that diligence and not flirting will keep you alive.
Modern infantry combat is intensely physical, and most women remain at a disadvantage here. There are some exceptions for specialist tasks that do not involve sturdiness or strength, like sniping. Then there is the hormonal angle. Men generate a lot more testosterone, a hormone that makes men more decisive and faster to act in combat. It was long believed that testosterone makes you more aggressive. When examined carefully it was found that the effect was to make you more aware and decisive. That can be seen as “aggressive” but it is being more aware and decisive that makes a difference in combat. Aggressiveness alone will just get you killed sooner.