Leadership: Persistent Pilot Shortage Solution


February 14, 2021: The Indian Army will begin, in 2022, accepting women as candidates for flight school to become helicopter pilots. The reason is a familiar one, there are not enough qualified men willing to take these jobs. The Indian Navy already has women pilots for their twin-engine fixed-wing transports. The Indian Air Force has 121 female pilots. Ten are fighter pilots while the rest operate helicopters and fixed-wing transports. The army has women in their air service, but only in ground support jobs. Many other nations have already gone this way, including Afghanistan and the United States, where women have proved capable of handling helicopters, including during combat situations. The Americans have women flying all types of aircraft, including carrier fighters.

In addition to piloting transport helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, a growing number of nations are allowing women to be combat pilots and women are qualifying, but not in the numbers needed to make up for the overall shortage of these specialists. The problem here is that other factors are limiting the number of qualified women willing to be combat pilots. In more affluent nations the birth rates have declined to below replacement rate, meaning the population is shrinking. The most obvious example of that in Asia is Japan, the first Asian nation to modernize and achieve a Western level of affluence. It followed that in 2018 Japan had its first female fighter pilot (for F-15s) and is striving to increase the number of women in the military from 6.4 percent to 9 percent by 2030. The Japanese government also provided all manner of incentives for women to marry and have children. The growing population shortage has made it more difficult to get anyone to join the military and, with the growing threat from China, Japan is trying to expand its armed forces and finding there are not enough Japanese for that, as well as much else in the country.

There is a similar situation in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Even China is now suffering from low birth rates among the several hundred million well educated and highly skilled people in its new (and growing) middle class. China is now facing, for the first time in its history, a declining population caused by low birth rates rather than war or pandemic disease.

All women fighter pilots face another unique obstacle; the need for upper body muscle mass. Fighter pilots have long been seen as “chick magnets” because they were in good physical shape. That physical fitness was not a preference for fighter pilots but an essential job requirement. While the flight controls have been powered for decades, there was no technology to deal with the “g (for gravity) force.” When maneuvering a jet fighter in combat you will often have to take turns at high speed and at that point you increase the gravitational force (you feel much heavier) and you need lots of muscle power so you can keep operating the flight controls and avoid blacking out. That is pretty much guaranteed if you hit 9 (nine times the normal gravitational force) Gs. Female, as well as male, fighter pilots have to spend a lot of time in the gym doing their weight training. Men have a natural advantage as they normally have more and larger upper body muscles than females. This requirement can also run into cultural obstacles as gyms for women have been a thing in the West for thousands of years but are a relatively new concept in many other cultures.

Communist China noted this unique aspect of combat flying early on and when they began recruiting female pilots in the 1950s for air transport units. When many more helicopter pilots were needed after the 1950s, there were few problems recruiting and training women for the job. While most male military fliers aspired to be fighter pilots, women saw transport pilot jobs as a more sensible goal, especially when commercial aviation eventually turned to female pilots to solve pilot shortages.

Meanwhile it has become something of a status symbol for nations to have female fighter pilots. In 2018 India joined the growing number of nations that allow women to take those jobs when three female fighter pilots completed their training. At the time the Indian Air Force had 1,600 women in uniform and about a hundred were pilots. Like many other nations India has had women flying helicopters and transports since the 1990s. Over 40 nations have women in the military and most allow female pilots for non-combat aircraft. But a growing number are allowing women to fly jet fighters. Even Moslem nations are doing this. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has had women flying F-16s since 2007 and in September 2014, as Arab warplanes joined in the air attacks on ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq, it was revealed that one of the Arab pilots was a woman, a UAE F-16 squadron commander. This sort of thing is becoming more common in Moslem countries, and has long been customary in non-Moslem nations.

Because of that, in 2013 it was no surprise when Pakistan revealed that it had a female fighter pilot, flying a Chinese F7 (MiG 21 clone) jet. She was one of 316 women in the air force, which is more than three times what there were in 2008. But she is the only fighter pilot, one of the few in the Moslem world. Only about .7 percent of Pakistani military personnel are female, compared to 10-15 percent in most Western nations. The differences say a lot about the much greater effectiveness of Western armed forces.

Many countries have cultural problems with women in the military, and particularly with female pilots. But there is a growing demand for female military pilots mainly because there are not enough qualified men. India and Pakistan, which graduated its first female pilots in 2009, are both having a hard time keeping male pilots in uniform. Too many of the men depart for more lucrative, and less stressful, careers as commercial pilots. But in these two countries women may not be the solution. Currently, only about half of women officers stay in past their initial five-year contract. Indian women, even military pilots, are under tremendous social and family pressure to marry. Those that do may still be pilots but married women are urged by family and ancient traditions to quickly have children. The Indian Air Force provides its female officers with ten months leave for this, six months during pregnancy and four months after delivery. The air force does this because pilots are very expensive to train. Fuel costs the same everywhere, as do spare parts. What India may save in lower salaries is not enough. A good pilot costs over half a million dollars for training expenses and takes over five years to fully complete the process. India is betting a lot of money and time on keeping their female pilots flying. Many women are willing to take up the challenge. But they have already heard from their peers in Western air forces that motherhood and piloting can be a very exhausting combination.

Islamic nations have higher illiteracy rates overall and even higher rates for women. Because of that these nations have a severe shortage of technically trained people. Those women that do get an education in Islamic cultures tend to be very bright and able. There long been a need and a solution was close at hand. But because of those religious restrictions, and the generally very macho attitudes in Islamic nations, there will never be as many women in uniform as there could be. This means that Islamic armed forces will continue to come up short when it comes to maintaining and using military technology. The future of military operations is more technology, so you can see where this is leading. No wonder Islamic radicals want to go back to the past. Unfortunately, the non-Moslem world is not inclined to join them. Taking a knife to a gun fight doesn't work and many Moslem military leaders are taking note.

American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 have had a tremendous impact on Moslem attitudes towards women in the military. Moslems seeing so many American women serving in the military and being competitive at it had a big impact. Some 300,000 American military women served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 700 were killed or wounded in action. Moslem women and men were impressed with these infidel (non-Moslem) women who were real soldiers. They wore the uniform, the body armor, carried weapons, and could fight. Despite resistance from many men, there is more pressure in Moslem countries to let women serve in the local military.

One technical specialty that even Moslem nations turn to the women for is pilots. Noting the success of female military pilots in the United States since the 1980s, an increasing number of other countries are moving in that direction as well. The reason is simple, many of the women who go through flight training turn out to have better flying skills than the average male pilot.

American use of female military pilots goes back a long way. During World War II (1939-45) the United States used women pilots to ferry military aircraft around, including bringing them to the airfields where combat missions were flown from. These female pilots were considered civilian contractors but some male pilots could not help but notice that many of these women were very good pilots.

In Russia the need for good pilots led to hundreds of women being put to work flying bombers and fighters in combat during World War II. But in Russia, as elsewhere, the women were removed from airplanes when the war was over. It took another three decades before the women regained in peacetime the jobs they had in wartime. Now over 40 nations, most in the West, employ women as military combat and non-combat pilots. But while the number of nations with female military pilots increases the actual number of pilots is not growing as fast.

Worldwide women are increasingly part of the military. In many nations over ten percent of military personnel are female. In the U.S. military it’s now 15 percent and that is where it is headed for many other nations. In the early 20th century it was under one percent (and most of those were nurses and other medical personnel. More women are in uniform now because there aren't enough qualified men, especially for many of the technical jobs armed forces now have to deal with. Being a fighter pilot is one of the most demanding, physically and mentally, military jobs ever. Nations with lots of jet fighters and aircraft in general have to use what flying talent they have or greatly reduce their capability for success in the air.


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