June 23, 2011:
Britain has sent its youngest female RAF (Royal Air Force) pilot to Afghanistan, to supervise the initial instruction of four Afghan women selected to train to be helicopter pilots. Afghans are, in general, not enthusiastic about women joining the military, or piloting aircraft. The 24 year old RAF pilot instructor may not be able to get her four Afghan woman (aged 20-24) all the way through their training, but such training is succeeding in neighboring nations. And for good reason.
The Indian Air Force has plenty of female pilots, but does not train women to be fighter pilots. Neighboring Pakistan is not much better, even though it has some female fighter pilots. They fly F-7s, a Chinese version of the Russian MiG-21. None have been in combat yet, despite the heavy use of jet fighter-bombers in nearly a year of fighting in the tribal territories. There, the more modern F-16s are doing most of the bombing of Taliban targets. The Indian air force leaders believe that it costs so much (over $2 million) to train a fighter pilot, that the air force needs 10-15 years of active service to get that investment back. But women tend to leave the air force to have children, thus making them much more expensive fighter pilots than their male counterparts. So the Indian leadership is holding off on female fighter pilots.
Women flying Pakistani F-7s are a very recent development, part of a program that only began eight years ago. Pakistan is not alone using women as fighter pilots, with China graduating its first 16 female fighter pilots two years ago. There are already about a hundred women flying non-combat aircraft, and several hundred more in training. India has female military pilots, who only operate helicopters and transports.
All this began with the success of female military pilots in the United States over the last three decades. This led to an increasing number of other countries moving in that direction. 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.
There is one thing all the nations considering female fighter pilots have in common. They are all 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. Women may not be the solution. Currently, only about half of Indian female 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 expected to 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 all this because pilots are very expensive to train. Fuel costs are the same everywhere, as are spare parts. So what India may save in lower salaries, is not enough. A good pilot costs over half a million dollars for training expenses, and requires over five years flying experience to become effective in a first line fighter (the Su-30 for India). It's all that expensive aviation fuel that pushes the final "cost of a fighter pilot" to over $2 million. 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.
Worldwide, women are increasingly part of the military. In many nations, over ten percent of military personnel are female. A century ago, 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.
Islamic nations have higher illiteracy rates overall, and very high rates for women. This is especially true in Afghanistan. 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. So there's a need, and a solution 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 are needed. 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.
Allowing women to be combat pilots eventually leads to women commanding combat units. Once women were allowed to fly combat aircraft, it was only a matter of time before some of them rose to command positions. Several American female combat pilots have achieved command positions, and also managed to handle marriage and motherhood as well.