The IDF has begun a pilot program of staffing tanks with women soldiers to study the possibility of expanding their service in the Armored Corps. For the past two weeks, 15 women have been participating in the program, testing their ability to operate tanks, including lifting shells, loading them, driving and firing, an army spokesman said on Tuesday. The soldiers, who are being trained in southern Israel, enlisted in March and have just finished their basic training. The focus of the program is to examine the physical abilities of these troops who are divided into teams, each led by a male soldier in command of a Merkava Mark III tank – the most numerous model in front-line service. Throughout all phases of the program, the women will be accompanied by experienced tank commanders, doctors, nutritionists and fitness experts.The tanks involved in the program will be staffed entirely by women. As with other IDF tanks, each normally has a crew of four (commander, driver, gunner and loader).The Armored Corps, in recent years, has become one of the least popular units for recruits because it is said to have the worst service conditions and fewer weekends off than other corps.With fewer recruits wanting to join the corps and a reduction in manpower due to the cut in the mandatory service period for men to 32 months from 36 as of July 2015, the IDF began the pilot program to examine the possibility of integrating women into tank crews.The concept had been criticized ahead of its implementation, with former OC Ground Forces Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yiftah Ron-Tal saying in November that further integrating women into the Armored Corps would do little for gender equality and put women’s lives at risk.“This balance included the conclusion that it would be wrong to extend the scope of women’s service in combat roles in the Armored Corps and infantry. Any different decision, if adopted, would undermine in a very dangerous way the delicate and sensitive balance in an already volatile area of the IDF and would fundamentally alter the status quo,” Ron-Tal said.Women soldiers have been involved in training male recruits in the IDF for decades but have not previously been part of a tank’s crew.Former IDF chief rabbi Yisrael Weiss also criticized the idea of female soldiers serving in tanks, saying: “If we put two people into a closed box, there’s no way something won’t happen. We can’t put a couple, a man and a woman, a male soldier and a female soldier, into a closed box for a week and expect that nothing will happen. You’ll get a little tank soldier in another nine months.”The IDF has responded to the criticism by saying there would be no mixed-gender tank crews, and female tank crews would not be part of battalions that would operate in enemy territory, but rather would be deployed at the borders.Thirty eight percent of female recruits ask to be evaluated for combat service, which is one of the reasons the army is opening new combat positions to them.While the most popular units for female combat soldiers are the Home Front Command and Border Police, many also join combat-intelligence units, the Artillery Corps and certain infantry units. The IDF expects that at least 2,500 women will join combat units in the coming year.