India's air force opens the way for women to pilot fighter jets

Indian Air Force soldiers march as Mil Mi-35 gunship helicopters fly during Indian Air Force Day celebrations at the Hindon air force station. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India is opening the way for women pilots to fly fighter jets in combat, its air force chief said, as one of the world's biggest military forces shakes off its reluctance to give greater responsibilities to women.

Several countries, from the United States to Israel, and even neighbour and arch-rival Pakistan, have women flying their fighter planes, but India's military has kept them out of that role, as well as frontline warships and ground combat.

In recent years, however, Indian courts have pushed the military to widen opportunities for women, by giving them permanent commissions, for example, instead of limiting them to five-year terms.

Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha said he expected the first women pilots to be commissioned within the next two to three years, following an air force proposal to the Defence Ministry.

"We have women pilots flying transport aircraft and helicopters," he said at a parade on Thursday to mark the 83rd anniversary of the Indian Air Force. "We are now planning to induct them into the fighter stream, to meet the aspirations of the young women."

The step comes just a year after Mr Raha turned down the possibility of putting women in that role, newspapers said, quoting him as having said women were unfit to fly fighter aircraft for long stretches.

But the air force now faces a shortage of pilots, at the same time as it struggles to modernise its Soviet-era fleet. In April, a parliamentary defence panel urged the government to tackle the IAF's problems.

"Our squadron strength is already short of what has been authorised, and moreover, insufficiency in the number of available pilots further deteriorates our operational capabilities," it said in a report.

India's army, with 1.1 million troops, ranks among the world's largest. Its air force is around 120,000 strong, with just 1,500 women, of whom 108 are transport and helicopter pilots.

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