IDF’s pioneering all-women tank crews to protect Israel’s south

The new crews will serve in Israel’s main battle tank, the Merkava MK 4, which has active protection systems that intercept incoming anti-tank missiles and RPGs.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

The all-female tank crews that the Israel Defense Forces will create this coming year will have the mission of defending the Egyptian and Jordanian border against intrusion by terror squads.

The creation of the border-defense tank units announced last month also seems to reflect the IDF’s need to allocate additional numbers of male tank personnel to units that will have a very different task: crossing into enemy territory in the event of a land war.

The IDF’s Border Defense Array specializes in defensive operations, unlike the wartime divisions — dubbed the “spearpoint” divisions in the IDF — that must be able to move deep into the enemy’s territory and destroy numerous targets on the way while providing cover fire for the infantry in built-up areas.

The tank units in the wartime divisions train for combat against the well-equipped terrorist armies in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. In contrast, the Border Defense Array units help free up the wartime units for more training by permanently taking over border-defense missions in the south of Israel.

“The IDF does indeed require quality personnel in combat units, and it is always lacking in this respect,” Eitan Shamir, former head of the National Security Doctrine Department in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and a research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told JNS on Tuesday.

“It seems the IDF is trying to kill two birds with one stone — allocating quality male personnel to the maneuvering units that would move into enemy territory and showcasing gender equality, an important topic for the IDF in the context of military-societal relations,” he said.

However, he added that further clarification was needed to determine the precise roles of tanks in border-defense missions.

IDF Spokesman Lt. Col Jonathan Conricus told reporters by conference call last month that border defense is a paramount IDF operational requirement.

“We definitely need all of the qualified personnel that we can obtain, women included,” he stressed.

The new crews will serve in Israel’s main battle tank, the Merkava MK 4, which has active protection systems that intercept incoming anti-tank missiles and RPGs — just the type of weapons with which adversaries like ISIS are armed in the Sinai Peninsula.

They will serve under the IDF’s 80th Division, which protects Israel’s southern borders with Egypt and Jordan, in addition to the Red Sea city of Eilat.

“We are not talking about [placing] female soldiers in maneuvering armored brigades,” said Conricus. “We are talking about having female soldiers in tanks incorporated into the Border Defense Array.”

Entry-level requirements 

The IDF saw great value and importance in the broader goal of incorporating women into combat duty, stated Conricus, saying that the development has brought great benefit to the military.

There have been public controversies around the decision to incorporate women tank crews, with some critics challenging the idea that female operators would be as capable as their male counterparts in the heavy physical burdens that come with the unit, such as loading tank shells.

Conricus said that the IDF conducted in-depth medical studies and found no adverse effects on women personnel who took part in a previous pilot program, adding that physical criteria, based on weight and height, have been set as entry-level requirements for the new crews.

“We would not carry out a program that, from a medical perspective, would have adverse effects,” he said.

The final decision to move forward with the program was made by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi following a lengthy process of deliberations with military personnel, including medical officers.

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The pilot program, held in 2018, found that there is a potential for women tank crew members to serve, the IDF found, setting the program up for the next stage.

The pilot also found certain limitations in regard to the core capabilities of all personnel that “need to be addressed,” said Conricus.

“That is a focus of what we’re going to do in the next stage. In general, we’re going to continue with a plan that will start this year. The first recruitment will occur in August or November. In any case, the program will be implemented this year — an additional number of women soldiers will be recruited in order to undergo training, and as they have not done in the past, to be incorporated into combat duty in the south in the border-defense array.”

Training for the teams will take place at the Armored Corps’ main base as Shizafon, north of Eilat.