Who are the women of the Israel Air Force?

While many in Israel's new government oppose women serving in the IDF, women in the IAF are busy protecting the country.

 WHILE SOME 600 female cadets pass the preliminary tests of the pilot’s course, about two-thirds drop out in the first year of the intensive three-year course, and only 30 to 40 of those who remain successfully complete the course. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)
WHILE SOME 600 female cadets pass the preliminary tests of the pilot’s course, about two-thirds drop out in the first year of the intensive three-year course, and only 30 to 40 of those who remain successfully complete the course.
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

At a time when Israeli politicians, set to be key players in the government of incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are voicing strong opposition to women serving in the IDF, women in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) are busy protecting the country from its external enemies.

Lt.-Col. M has been protecting the skies of Israel for 22 years and is one of the highest-ranking women in the 122nd Nachshon Squadron of the IAF, currently serving as an Airborne ground-control interceptor.

M always wanted to serve in the IAF but was told when she was first drafted that she wasn’t needed, as there were already too many women who had been drafted in 2000. But she fought hard and, in the end, achieved the position that she wanted and more.

During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, M found herself in the Bor (“pit”), the underground command center, watching the Air Force carry out operational missions against Hezbollah. It was then that she signed on to be a career officer, a decision that would change not only her life but the lives of hundreds of other women across the country.

For Lt.-Col. M,  who is married and has three children, it was the first of many fights that she fought and won. During her military service, M has shattered many glass ceilings, something that has allowed other women to follow in her path.

 LT.-COL. M serves as an airborne ground-control interceptor, helping prevent infiltrations. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) LT.-COL. M serves as an airborne ground-control interceptor, helping prevent infiltrations. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

“In every place that I’ve broken that ceiling, it wasn’t easy. But afterward, I was treated totally equally,” she told the Magazine from the IAF headquarters in Tel Aviv. “But we, as women, aren’t equal yet.”

She said that women make up only 16% of the ground interceptor squadron. A figure far from the 50%-50% that she hopes to see in the Air Force.

M is responsible for the aerial picture of Israel’s skies – one of the busiest in the world. Unlike many other countries, all of Israel’s skies are under the control and supervision of the military, which ensures that there are no hostile infiltrations – a tough role when Israel’s enemies are constantly trying to penetrate the country. 

M was in the skies in a Shavit Gulfstream G500 when the two Hezbollah drones flown toward the Karish gas rig were identified this past summer.

“It was a very big event,” she said. “We understood right away that it could have a big impact on Israel’s security.”

The two drones were successfully intercepted, allowing Israel to not only avoid a full-blown war with Hezbollah but, several weeks later, to sign a maritime deal with Lebanon. 

In addition to her operational activities – both on the ground and in the air – M is busy working on bringing more women into her squadron. 

It’s yet another fight that she hopes to win, but it is a tough one, as all those who serve in her squadron need to have been accepted into the IAF’s prestigious Pilot Training Course.

“It’s something personal for me,” M said.

While the army has changed a lot since she was drafted, insofar as it’s far more equal and accepting, there are still a lot of obstacles for women in Israeli society in general.  And that is keeping many women from even trying out for the pilot’s course, she said. But “we can make big changes in society as commanders,” she asserted.

Though M will leave the military at the end of her current position, she hopes more women will take up the fight to get more and more women into the force and therefore into higher-ranking positions in the IAF.

CAPTAIN A is the head of advanced flight training at the IAF’s drone school based in Palmachim. She took the pilot’s course in 2016 and became a drone operator, following recommendations from others who had taken the course.

As with M’s squadron, all operators must first spend several months in the pilot’s course before they can try out for the drone squadron. And like M’s squadron, that makes it difficult for women to get in.

Of the 31 students in the advanced flight training course, only four are women.

“It doesn’t have to be a big deal” for women to be in the Air Force, she told the Magazine from her office. “But we aren’t there yet. There’s no reason why there aren’t more women serving as drone operators.” 

While the drones aren’t manned, it’s always the man or woman on the ground who makes the final decision. A growing trend, the world of remotely piloted aircraft has a constant dilemma of collateral damage while preserving the safety of the mission.

According to A, drone operators have one of the most interesting positions, not only in the IAF but in the entire military. And while they may be located far from the enemy, “you do feel as if you are on the frontlines. You see everything.”

Over the past decade, the operational use of drones by air forces around the world, including the IAF, has increased dramatically, with almost every operation now seeing the use of these platforms. 

Though the majority of operations are reconnaissance and surveillance of targets, Israeli drone operators are involved in carrying out deadly strikes against terrorists and destroying enemy targets that pose an imminent threat.

There are hundreds of drones in IAF hangars across the country, from commercial DJI drones and the Skylarks (which are notorious for crashing in Gaza or in the North) to the larger Shoval, known around the world as Heron, and the Eitan. During the advanced training course, cadets fly the Zik.

IAF drone squadrons fly about 80% of all IAF flight hours. With four drone squadrons based at the Palmachim Airbase, 70% of all IAF flight hours take off from the base just south of Tel Aviv. 

“There is always a drone in the sky, 24/7,” said A. 

FIRST LIEUTENANT R serves as a weapons system operator in the 119th Atalef Squadron. Flying in an F-16 Sufa, she is on the frontlines of some of the most complex operations deep behind enemy lines.

She never dreamed of joining the Air Force. Instead, she thought about serving as an instructor for simulators or in intelligence. But when her friends began to apply to the course, she began thinking that maybe she too would make the cut.

And she did. 

She finished the course last year alongside four other women, including another weapons systems operator. R has been flying operational missions since then, side by side with her male colleagues. 

“The missions are becoming more and more complex, so someone needs to operate all the things at the same time – this basically means managing the mission and also the weapon systems,” she said.

It wasn’t until she was drafted that she experienced such challenges as those she’s had in the IAF. “The best way to learn is to just find your way out of the problem. That’s how you move forward and not feel like a failure,” she said. “Sometimes what happens during a flight is not what you plan; it could be 180 degrees different. But in life, you need to make decisions and you need to deal with changes and handle them in the best way.”

For her, being one of the only women to have graduated from her course is not something to be proud of. R believes that there should be more and more women in her role.

In 1951, Yael Rom became the first female graduate of the prestigious pilot’s course; Rina Levinson-Adler also blazed the trail as one of the first Israeli-born women pilots. Rom trained in Israel, but Levinson went to the US for training and received a civilian pilot’s license.  Upon her return to Israel, she was accepted by the IAF. 

Today, Yael Rom has a street named for her in Petah Tikva, with the sign referring to her air force career. But back then, shortly after those achievements, not only were women barred from combat positions, they were also blocked from becoming pilots.

In 1993, South African immigrant Alice Miller successfully sued the military for her right to enlist in the IAF. While she was declared medically unfit for the role of a pilot, her actions shattered the glass ceiling in the IAF and opened up the pilot’s course to women. Five years later, Sheri Rahat graduated from the pilot’s course and became the first weapons systems operator on an F-16 fighter jet.  In 2000 Lt. Roni Zuckerman, the granddaughter of two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, became the first woman to graduate as a combat fighter pilot. 

Despite the Air Force encouraging women to enlist since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Miller in 1995, only 73 have completed the course.

While some 600 cadets pass the preliminary tests of the pilot’s course, about two-thirds drop out in the first year of the intensive three-year course, and only 30 to 40 of those who remain successfully complete the course.

“I’m waiting for the day when the Spokesperson’s Unit doesn’t ask for a woman from the squadron to be interviewed because in the squadron itself, everything is equal,” R said. “In my head, I want it to be the norm and that they don’t make an issue of female pilots. But we’re still not there yet, and certain things need to be done, whether it’s interviews or whether it’s encouraging recruitment.”

Encouraging other women to try out for the course, R said that she is proud of herself for getting where she is. “Women in general can do any sort of position,” she said.

Lt.-Col. M agrees with that statement. For her, it’s about professionalism; if you are professional in everything that you do, everything will work out afterward.

NEVERTHELESS, IT’S hard for women to be pilots in the IAF, as they are pulled from the skies while pregnant. And once they return, sometimes over a year since their last flight, they need to do several months of refresher courses before returning to the skies.

While M isn’t a pilot, she was not allowed to be in the air even in her first trimester, as the Nachshon can fly deep behind enemy lines. 

The Defense Service Law states that every man and woman has the right to serve in any position in the military unless the inherent nature of the position requires otherwise. 

In 1949, Israel’s army became the first in the world to introduce mandatory military service for both men and women but shortly after, women were once again barred from combat positions. 

Women have fought for years to have the combat doors opened once again for them. Now an estimated 90% of the positions in the IDF are open to women, such as combat roles in the Navy, Home Front Command, Artillery Corps, and Military Police in the West Bank. 

In recent years, the IDF has increased the recruitment of women to combat units like the Caracal and Bardelas mixed-gender border defense battalions. Another mixed-gender infantry battalion, the 41st Panther battalion, was opened this past week. This battalion will be stationed along the West Bank security fence to help prevent Palestinian terrorist infiltrations into Israel. 

The Air Force has also been seeing more and more women get accepted to the pilot’s course, and the IAF has promoted more women to senior positions, such as deputy combat squadron commander.

The IDF began, for the first time last month, to draft female recruits into a number of elite units, such as the Israel Air Force’s 669 Search and Rescue Unit, after it announced in June that it would open more combat roles to female fighters.

The Navy’s new Sa’ar 6-class corvette missile ships have female sailors making up 25% of the crew, marking the first time that women are serving on missile ships in Israel. The ships have been custom built to accommodate female sailors, with separate bathrooms and bunks for the female crew.

But women are still barred from serving in infantry brigades, armored brigades, submarines, and certain elite reconnaissance units like Sayeret Maktal and the Navy’s Shayetet 13.

According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, a majority of Jewish Israelis, 54%, said that all elite units should be open to women, while 35% disagreed. 

The survey of 800 people, which also analyzed the results according to religious beliefs, found that 72% of secular Jewish Israelis support women in elite units, while 19% of National Religious and 17% of ultra-Orthodox agree.

The army insists that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a social agenda.

Who is against women serving in IDF combat roles?

But critics of gender integration in the military say it is a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, as the requirement for female combat troops has been lowered, as women tend to suffer from stress-related medical conditions at a higher rate than men.

Rabbis have also criticized the integration of women into combat positions. In several cases, officers have made excessively strict interpretations of the rules so religious male soldiers are comfortable.

AVI MAOZ, the head of the far-right homophobic Noam party, who will be a deputy minister in Netanyahu’s government, has also spoken out against women in the military, saying that their place is at home.

“The greatest contribution to the country is for the women to marry, God willing, and raise a healthy family.”

Avi Maoz

“The greatest contribution to the country is for the women to marry, God willing, and raise a healthy family,” he said, adding that women could consider civil National Service instead.

Maoz, who will also control the Education Ministry department in charge of external programing for public schools, has called for “immediately” canceling the role of gender affairs adviser to the IDF chief of staff.

Speaking to Channel 12’s Meet the Press in late November, he said that the unit “inserts values that are foreign to the IDF.”

MK Simcha Rotman of the ultra-conservative Religious Zionist Party, has also voiced his opposition to female soldiers in combat roles, saying their service “does not serve operational needs.”

“We are fooling ourselves. Equality in [military] service causes damage and lowers combat fitness standards. The considerations are everything but operational needs,”  he said at an Israel Democracy Institute conference.

“We are fooling ourselves. Equality in [military] service causes damage and lowers combat fitness standards. The considerations are everything but operational needs.”

Simcha Rothman

The “mixing of women fighters harms the IDF, the women and the men who serve there,” he added.

But the women flying for the IAF are far from their kitchens. They are serving and protecting the State of Israel on a daily basis, sometimes thousands of kilometers away, deep behind enemy lines. 

So that the people of Israel can sleep safely. ■