Israel Pulse

Women revolutionize Israeli air force

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Article Summary
Together with the Mossad, the Israeli air force leads a female revolution, appointing women to senior command posts.

For the first time in the history of the Israeli air force, a woman was appointed commander of an operational squadron. On Aug. 7, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, Israeli air force commander, appointed Major G. to command the air force’s espionage squadron and promoted her to the rank of lieutenant colonel.  “I am happy about the appointment,” Major G said in a statement issued by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “A great privilege alongside a great responsibility. The real work is still ahead. I am proud to serve in the air force.” G., a mother of two whose husband is also an officer in the air force, is the first woman pilot to be promoted to that rank during her service. She is also the first woman to command an operational squadron (although another woman was previously appointed commander of a maintenance squadron).

The systems with which the Israeli air force gathers intelligence and conducts espionage operations are considered among the most advanced in the world. They are now overseen by a woman. According to one senior air force officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, data and experience alike both prove that the results of appointing women commanders are “no less professional, and perhaps even more professional than if these jobs were being done by a man.”

The Mossad, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the air force are three of the strongest Israeli brands in the world. As conservative and religious forces in Israel gain strength, more and more attempts have been made recently to exclude women from public and military spaces. The air force is moving in the opposite direction and at a dramatic pace. The very fact that the air force, like the Mossad, is a closed system and an almost isolated bubble in the larger IDF allows its commanders to make decisions based on relevant, professional considerations, while ignoring all the background noise. The air force has pushed the envelope to the edge. So has the Mossad.

As of now, the air force is almost entirely open to women. No gender distinction is made between the people serving in it, giving the air force the luxury of selecting candidates for different positions from a much bigger pool than is currently available to the IDF. After all, the air force pool includes women, who make up some 51% of the total population. Apart from certain extreme posts (such as combat positions in the air force’s elite Shaldag Unit, where candidates are expected to be able to carry heavy weights that most women might find hard to lift), almost all positions are open to women, and, in fact, have been filled by women over the past few years. “It’s simple,” a senior officer in the air force explained to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The more we increase the number of candidates, the more likely we are to get the best people to fulfill them, since we can choose from a much richer pool.”

Many dozens of women have already been trained as fighter pilots and navigators, transport and supply chain pilots, and helicopter, espionage and aerial refueling pilots. But this is just the beginning. It is only natural that the media would be attracted to the sight of women in flight suits, with sophisticated pilots’ helmets, but the revolution in the air force extends to other positions too. Few people know that the air force recently appointed a woman to head the branch charged with investigating performance. This is one of the most sensitive and critical systems in the air force, known for the high level of its research. It conducts precision studies of the performances of just about every one of the air force’s sophisticated pieces of equipment. This is the first time that a woman has headed this important department.

Furthermore, for the first time, the head of the operational control staff in the air force’s operational headquarters (the “Pit”) is a woman officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In practice, she serves as the duty commander of the air force, in charge of air traffic. The chief medical officer of the air force is also a woman, as is the commander of the maintenance squadron. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of women serving in different capacities throughout the air force and making up the spine of what is commonly perceived as the “insurance policy of the Jewish people.”

No matter where you turn in the air force, you will find women in senior and subordinate roles. In addition to the posts already listed, the air force also has a female deputy commander of a fighter squadron; a human resources commander with the rank of colonel; a woman serving as deputy brigade commander in charge of aerial defense; a woman commanding a sky rider drone unit; and women in many other senior positions. Over the past few years, the air force has doubled the number of women in combat positions throughout its aerial defense system and increased the number of women technicians from hundreds to thousands. It has also doubled the number of women serving as warrant officers and continues to train women for many other positions.

This is a thorough process that reaches across the entire air force. It starts at the bottom, during the enlistment process at the IDF’s induction center, and is already starting to trickle to the top, with the first appointment of a woman to command an operational squadron. Since the number of women technicians has grown significantly, it was only natural that a woman commander of the maintenance squadron would be appointed, as happened recently. If the revolution continues at this rate, disregarding the background noise resulting from the spread of conservatism across Israeli society, it is quite possible that a woman will be candidate for commander of the Israeli air force in five or 10 years’ time. Is it conceivable? Maybe.

When it comes to the integration of women, as far as is known, the Israeli air force is at the forefront of all Western air forces around the world. This is true about the proportion of women pilots, but also with regard to the participation of women on a macro level. A senior air force commander insisted, speaking on condition of anonymity, that “this makes it a much better fighting force. Once the general pool of candidates increases, their level increases too. It’s axiomatic.”

The air force is accustomed to visits by senior officers from parallel branches of the IDF. They inevitably end up staring in amazement when they run into two 19-year-old technicians preparing an F-35 “stealth fighter” for takeoff or doing maintenance work on a Yasur helicopter.

Particularly interesting is the integration of women into the roles of fighter pilots and navigators. They complete their regular service and then continue on to career service, as pilots usually do, stopping only when pregnant, since flying fighter jets while pregnant is forbidden. Since the air force relies on its reserve forces, women also continue to serve in the reserves upon their discharge, just like their male counterparts. The only difference is the absence of women from the service for a set period of time when they are pregnant and after giving birth. All of this follows a series of predetermined rules. As a result, the air force is one big family in every sense of the term.

It is also worth noting that a similar revolution is taking place in the Mossad. This has been taking place under the impetus of the agency’s director, Yossi Cohen, for the past few years. Overall, 40% of Mossad agents are women, compared to 60% men. The problem is that the percentage of women declines as they move up the ranks. Cohen has been behind an enormous initiative to attract women to continue serving in the Mossad and to make their way up through the hierarchy of Israel’s clandestine espionage organization.

According to sources in the Mossad, the number of women serving as department heads has doubled in the past few years, from 12% to 25%, while the number of branch heads has risen from 17% to 29% in that same time. Similarly, the Mossad’s most recent command course had 12 participants, half of them women. Furthermore, the Mossad has launched a mentorship program for women who are hesitant to continue serving and advancing through the ranks when faced with the usual dilemma of how they might still raise a family and children. In some cases, the Mossad “waits” for these reluctant women, keeping them in their manpower reserves and then restoring them to the ranks after they have established a family and their children are a little older. Only recently, a woman aged 42 participated in the command course after taking just such a “break” to raise her family.

Like the air force, the Mossad takes pride in the growing number of women in its ranks, boasting that this improves the organization and its operations. It can only be hoped that this much anticipated revolution will trickle down to the somewhat less liberal bastions of Israeli society, particularly when it seems that the conservative forces are actually growing.

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Found in: Women’s rights

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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