Widows of military personnel doing smart drills at passing out parades of the Officers Training Academy make for compelling headlines. In the past few years, India has seen many women who lost their husbands in action join the military, ostensibly as a tribute to their departed spouses. The act not only attempts to bring emotional closure – with the advent of a new life – to the newly commissioned woman officer, but it also showcases the Indian armed forces as a caring, embracing ‘family’.

However, women’s participation in the forces ought to avoid precisely these tropes and cliches of sentimentality when it comes to the discourse on modernisation. Nor should policy decisions be informed by self-perpetuating myths about the suitability of women soldiers in a tradition-driven military.

The argument for a more gender-balanced military should also not be approached merely through the prism of equal opportunity – though equality remains the centrepiece of our national aspirations – but by taking a hard look at the urgent need to build more efficient, economically smarter and sustainable forces.

India needs a dramatically overhauled security structure in terms of both acquisition and organisation of resources. In this schema of India’s long-awaited military modernisation, the importance of women’s increased participation cannot be stressed enough.

India’s armed forces have been tackling, since Independence, significant and continual challenges of internal security, apart from two hostile armies at the borders. With assimilation being the stated political policy with respect to internal security threats from insurgencies – there’s no indication of any policy change in future either – the Indian military ought to see itself in a peacekeeping role even without wearing the blue helmets.

Ashley Tellis notes that handing over the counter-insurgency role entirely to the paramilitary forces is not going to happen anytime soon, and even if there is a drastic change in the allocation of these responsibilities, Indian armed forces will likely stay engaged for training purposes. He also observes that at present, almost 60 per cent of the defence budget is ‘eaten up by pay and pensions, a testament
to the steady increase in size of India’s personnel under arms over the last three decades – during which the 10 biggest defence spenders have done exactly the opposite’.

Despite its mammoth size, the Indian military is spread out thin owing to the twin challenges of guarding its borders and dealing with internal security. This is why the chorus for a military that looks and acts smarter is growing in India. Can women’s increased participation achieve it?

Perhaps yes, but even raising such a question can put one at loggerheads with scholars, such as Sylvia
Chant and Caroline Sweetman, whose idea of ‘smart women in the armed forces economics’, which ‘rationalises “investing” in women and girls for more effective development outcomes’, can be comfortably extended to the military modernisation discourse. They propose that instead of being the goals per se, women’s empowerment and gender equality become tools to make better economic sense. For a country that is staring at growing security challenges along its borders while the economy struggles, thanks to flaws in policymaking and the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, choosing economics over sociology looks like a wise thing to do.

Let us try and argue for greater participation of women in the Indian armed forces from a purely utilitarian standpoint: increased participation of women is about an improvement in security outcomes. The next few thousand words seek to explain why and how.

In their iconoclastic research on the Israeli military’s mixed-gender training bases, Orna Sasson-Levy and Sarit Amram-Katz demonstrated that there is rarely any difference in operational suitability of men and women in the time of hi-tech warfare.

On the whole, though, the quantitative data from the studied training courses indicate that the functioning of men and women was relatively similar and, more important, that differences within each gender group were greater than differences between genders. Age differences, prior military experience and education seemed to be more indicative than gender in their chances of graduating with high grades.

The authors, however, state,

  The military schema, in contrast, positions the masculine body of the warrior as a universal military ideal. This is an androcentric rule demanding that all soldiers, men and women alike, shape their bodies and behaviour in accordance with the warrior model, and the closer one gets to the core of the military, the more crucial is his or her resemblance to the combat soldier.  

India’s military also seems to be stuck in worshipping the masculine body as the gold standard for soldiering, ignoring all other aspects of warfare. At a time when all the three arms, especially the Air Force, are seeking to build intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, this insistence on superhero-like physical ability to preclude women from combat formations is counterproductive.

At this point, let’s look at what scholar Chris Dougherty recommended to Indian strategists and force planners in light of emerging threats from China. To buttress my argument, these recommendations are worth quoting in toto.

  • Offensive cyberattacks to disrupt networks and exfiltrate information;
  • Information operations to confuse Chinese ISR and feed bad data into Chinese targeting processes;
  • Camouflage, concealment and deception;
  • Constant movement of forces to interfere with Chinese operational planning;
  • Jamming/dazzling of overhead sensors;
  • Exercising emissions control to negate China’s electronic intelligence capabilities.
Hard Times: Security in a Time of Insecurity

Excerpted with permission from the essay ‘Beyond Equal Opportunities: Women in the Armed Forces’, by Nishtha Gautam, from In Hard Times: Security in a Time of Insecurity, edited by Nishtha Gautam, Praveen Swami, and Manoj Joshi, Bloomsbury.