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The changing face of war in the air

Earlier this week, Brian Micklethwait of this parish gave an excellent talk about sport and how it sometimes has taken the place of military activity as far as -mostly- men are concerned. Brian will want to perhaps go into this issue in a lot more detail on his own but one question that came up is how such an issue relates to women. Well, a recent trend has been the rising involvement of women in front-line combat operations. They are not yet doing so in the UK infantry, although that could change soon, but in the Royal Air Force of the UK, that is now the case:

A woman who has become the first to command an RAF fast jet squadron is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this summer.

​Wing Commander Nikki Thomas​, who took charge of the newly reformed No 12 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk​ ​yesterday (Fri)​, flew a daring low mission to help foil a deadly rocket attack on a UK base in Afghanistan.

​​The 36-year-old is a weapons system operator with extensive experience of combat operations, clocking up more than 35 missions in Afghanistan within three months alone.

This is a woman with a lot of guts. Consider the fact that she knows that, in the event of her aircraft being hit, she might have to eject over land run by Islamists who are not going to be amused at being bombed by Western, feisty women. But then women in the Kurdish regions have already been showing that when it comes to dealing with these thugs, there are no real differences between the sexes when it comes to courage and skill.

There is also a broader point. With professional, volunteer forces, there is a premium on young, fit, smart people who have the ability to do a challenging role. Flying a fighter plane is not the sort of thing anyone can do. Given the ruthless process of selecting for flight training, it is pretty clear that a person who can reach the rank of this RAF officer and do what she is doing must be top-class. The pool of talent is finite. So if a woman is good enough to do this, well fine by me.

And this has nothing to do with PC nonsense, by the way. There is no room for Political Correctness in flying a supersonic jet.

49 comments to The changing face of war in the air

  • It’s fine until one gets pregnant. Then you need a replacement pilot. Probably not an issue in low-intensity operations.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    She’s a WSO, not a pilot, so she won’t be “flying a fighter plane,” although she will be flying in one.

    That quibble aside, My own USAF job was similar and I never thought a woman couldn’t do it: staying calm and throwing switches doesn’t take a lot of strength. Even strength isn’t a requirement with the powered controls all modern military aircraft have.

    The only thing which disqualifies women from air combat is that the plane’s controls may not adjust far enough to accommodate smaller women, and it may not be economical to modify older aircraft where this is so. But that is, long term, a trivial problem.

  • Kevin B

    The kind of reflexes needed to fly a fast jet are extremely rare in the population. Fast jet pilots are regarded as the elite amongst pilots in any air force for that reason.

    It has long been thought that reflexes that fast were a male only attribute but if women can twitch that fast then it increases the size of the pool.

  • Pretty much a lot of high tech air ops are androgynous in nature. In some ways, a smaller framed woman is a better choice, as there’s less of her than there is of a 6′, 200 pound type. In fact, a disproportionate number of pilots and fast jet back seaters (WSO, RIO, ECMO) I’ve met have been small statured men.

    This is rather different than infantry combat, or the like.

    As for the pregnancy issue, I’d push for a lot of women to be in intensive reserve units where there are multiple aircrews per aircraft, so they can take time out with out being a drag on manpower requirements.

  • Paul Marks

    Interesting post J.P.

    Yes – if a woman can do the job and wants to do the job, she should be allowed to do the job.

  • D. Neilson

    Funnily enough my understanding was human women actually had a better fast twitch response.

  • Mr Ed

    Well long before this fine story, the RAF had its most distinguished Navigator in Flt Lt John Quinton GC DFC, a Bomber Command veteran, whose quick and noble thinking saved a cadet’s life in a mid-air collision, at the cost, or perhaps gift, of his own, his stomach churning story is here.

    To follow his example would be beyond most.

  • Regional

    Recently on Strayan Television there was a condensed program about recruit training for the Royal Marines. Two troops had to merged to give some semblance of a troop. At the end a Captain who was given the task of trying to save something said off hand that out an original starting 120 recruits only four should passed recruit training. This indifference by youth to toughen up is universal through out the West.

  • Regional

    The Strayan Air Force has very strict limits for body dimensions for pilots regardless of gender. It’s easier to find drivers to suit the vehicle than modify the vehicle to suit the driver. F1 racing, how many women drivers are there?

  • Chip

    As part of demonstrable need to thoroughly mock Islam I’d like to see more women running these missions, and the govt loudly declaring that x number of terrorists were killed by a female today etc etc.

    Our women fly fighter jets. Yours aren’t alliwed to drive a car. Losers.

  • Very retired

    The future of warfare in the next generation is robotic. Whether on land, sea, or in the air, remotely piloted vehicles will dominate, and sex, along with many other physical attributes, will be meaningless.

    There will always be a role for human soldiers, sailors, and pilots, of course, but humans are fragile, need large amounts of supply that machines don’t, and are physically limited in comparison.

    Those kids playing some complex video game online will be playing for keeps soon enough.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    Johnathan Pearce,

    But then women in the Kurdish regions have already been showing that when it comes to dealing with these thugs, there are no real differences between the sexes when it comes to courage and skill.

    At last! Everlasting proof that there “are no real differences between the sexes when it comes to courage and skill”

    Perhaps as a security consultant you could divulge this secret information with parties engaged in armed conflicts and accrue a rather handsome fee? Salva Kiir Mayardit would surely benefit from a more thorough understanding of how courage and skill are distributed among the human population and who better to enlighten him?

    If this prospect is less than appealing, it might be worthwhile to consult with reality. If you choose that route, mention to reality that Shlomo Maistre sent you and that you would like the surgery that relieves one of chronic sample selection bias.

    I’m sure Nikki is a genuinely impressive woman, but as Henry McCulloch pointed out at “The Thinking Housewife”:

    The RAF’s first lady fast-jet squadron commander is a navigator, who sits in the back seat (which in a Tornado has no flight controls) and operates systems.

  • I am moderately surprised at a WSO (not a woman) getting the job but I guess it reminds me of the memoir of Major Brian Shul USAF. He was an SR-71 pilot and joked Walter – his “back-seater” – was the real spy if they ever copped an unfortunate one.

    As to whether “death from above” at the hands of a woman is liable to generate more irateness amongst the ISIS sorts I must ask, “how?” They seem to be cresting that scale already. They are already very angry people. They never kick-back with a pint and a smoke or a bit of dinner but then I hardly suspect such nutters would recognise the character traits of Sam Gamgee.

    And Chip makes an excellent point. Women are BTW not banned from flying in Shoddy Absurdia. It never occurred to them to institute such a ban. Epic wankers.

  • Last time I saw the Red Arrows two of the pilots were female. Both had geography degrees. That was the puzzler.

  • Shlomo Maistre does not appear to actually have any argument to make. Actually I think Kobani has made a very public nonsense of argument against women in combat.

  • It depends. VR is probably correct to an extent that warfare in general is headed towards increasing use of robots, both in air and on the ground. But for now we are some distance away from that. In Israel there is considerable pressure put on the IDF by the usual suspects to employ women in all military positions traditionally occupied by men. Results on the ground are mixed, from what I’m told, unsurprisingly so. Just one example that comes to mind is in fields such as artillery, where soldiers are routinely required to carry heavy ammunition from place to place, and most women are simply not built for this kind of work (yes, some men are not either, but since we are into generalizations). Ideally, everyone should be able to apply for any kind of position regardless of their sex, with the full understanding that they may be politely told to go look for other opportunities, if not outright laughed off. Unfortunately, the aforementioned usual suspects seem to disagree.

  • George Atkisson

    There’s no room for Political Correctness When flying a supersonic jet.


    The U.S. Navy got two female pilots killed during carrier training a couple of years back. The review made it clear that neither pilot had demonstrated the requisite skills to even consider them for that assignment. They were pushed through under great pressure from senior authority to “prove” the Navy’s commitment to calls for more women in a combat role.

    So very, very stupid. It was also a demonstration of the cowardice of the admirals who got their people killed to prove that they had “gotten the memo”.

  • Mr Ed

    The argument against women in combat for countries in a situation like Israel might be that the number of women in a population ultimately determines the number of offspring for the next generation, so putting women into combat roles (assuming that leads to a higher death rate) before they have all their offspring, if any, ultimately reduces the scope for the next generation, whereas males are biologically more disposable, hence rams are rare and ewes abound in my neck of the woods.

  • It may well be the argument, but not a good one IMO, as the value of population is not so much in numbers, but in quality (as Israel has arguably been proving since its existence), and so the counterargument may be that too many children who grow up without fathers may be worse than too few children.

    That, assuming the initial argument is even valid: far fewer Israelis of any sex die in wars than in road accidents, just as one example.

  • Regional

    The women fighting in the IDF are fighting on Israeli soil.

  • pete

    It is becoming ever more obvious that women and men can do most things equally well.

    How odd then that our society’s judicial and legal systems still cling to the outdated idea that women should be given custody of children after a divorce.

    Is this sexism?

  • Errolwi

    our society’s judicial and legal systems still cling to the outdated idea that women should be given custody of children after a divorce.

    My cousins were among the first NZ children who ‘went with’ their father after a separation. This was some forty years ago. What’s this ‘our’ that you speak of?

  • Barry Sheridan

    Should the aircraft with this officer develop problems over IS territory the she had better die with the aircraft. Falling into the hands is such people would be worth than death.

  • Barry Sheridan

    Apologises for the typos. Need to put my glasses on.

  • Maximo Macaroni

    Ayn Rand said that a woman could be President but should not want to be. The same applies to fighter pilots. Young women need to be with their children, not commanding troops. Will modern life never stop tossing up utter absurdities as obvious truths?

  • Mr Black

    Every time I see a “women in the military” story I just assume she was put there by altering the training standards to permit a lower grade for females. Once duty leaves the comfortable confines of the base I have a hard time believing that a woman can meet the physical strength and endurance requirements that men in combat must attain.

  • Again, Mr. Black, it depends on the unit and the type of requirements. And yes, the lowering of physical standards is not unheard of.

  • Mr Ed

    The argument for lowering physical standards is based on the concept of indirect sex discrimination, in that by imposing a criterion,mthe passing of a physical test, to be in a unit, you impose a barrier that excludes a greater proportion of women than men. In the UK, that is lawful only if it is ‘objectively justified’, the onus being on the imposer of the requirement to justify it. E.g. Repeatedly lifting a shell into a breech under combat conditions is effectively replicated by this test.

    On a strict reading of the law, there should be no need for tests to be fudged, but should reality dawn, and the minority candidates who happen to put themselves forward tend to fail, the ‘Zampolit*’ mentality may kick in and the tests might get fudged so that the politicians and activists are kept happy.

    *Zampolit = The Political Officer in the Red Army, there to ensure that the Party maintains control.

  • Cynwulf

    Once duty leaves the comfortable confines of the base I have a hard time believing that a woman can meet the physical strength and endurance requirements that men in combat must attain.


  • Joseph Siddall

    NickM, the fact that two of the “Red” pilots were female and had Geography degrees is hardly of any account. Some professions require topic-related degrees but flying isn’t one of them. Aptitude, attitude and the ability to absorb, and act upon, knowledge are much more important. F1drivers don’t do degrees in driving yet seem to be fairly proficient.

  • bob sykes

    From comments re the recent film about Alan Turing, who was treated with a form of estrogen,

    “We know from the medical evidence that if you castrate a man then you change his ability to think and his ability to concentrate.  And if you take testosterone away, then the brain will become muddled.”


    Crime-think, of course.

  • Castrating a man does not make them a woman, so I do not see how that is relevant to women in the military.

  • Joseph,
    I was not trying to make any point. I was merely observing. Any point at all.

  • Tarrou

    I’ve been through this argument many times, and likely will do so again. There is no way to get women into the more physically demanding areas of military service without drastically reducing the physical requirements. In the US Infantry (where my experience is) for instance, the official minimum requirement for push-ups was 44 in my age group, but units all have higher individual standards. I was never in an Infantry unit that would accept less than 75. At this time, the official minimum for women was 12 reps, and according to the Army Times, over 80% of women were failing to hit that standard with regularity.

    Pregnancy is another issue. When a unit gets orders to deploy, it always sends an avalanche of shitbags trying to get themselves out of it, psych evals, minor injuries, etc. There aren’t any women in the Infantry, but when I was in a mech unit, there was a large contingent in our assigned mechanics. When we got orders, all but one of the female mik-a-nicks came down with a harsh case of the preggos. The mechs deployed at nearly half strength and the entire deployment was a nightmare trying to get vehicles.

    There are many other issues, from morale to sexual harassment, but they can all be dealt with. The basic issue is that women by and large don’t want to do the job and aren’t capable of it if they were. I look to other nations who integrated their military years ago. Canada did in the early 80s, and while they have had a couple dozen women make it into artillery and armor units, not one has made infantry. France integrated everything around that time too, and even with massive double standards on fitness, a total of seven women in roughly thirty years made it into the infantry, none into their marines. Israel removed women from Infantry and Paratroop units after allowing it for many years, mainly because of physical requirements. Women still serve in armor and artillery roles there.

    The physical requirements of Infantry life are far beyond the imagining of civilians, trust me on that. And the lives of your fellow soldiers depend on everyone pulling their weight. If women want “equality”, I am all for it, but let’s keep the standards the same. That is true equality. When women successfully lobby the Army to do away with lower standards for female fitness, when women abolish Title IX and compete in male sports, when the WNBA is gone and women go out for the NBA, and the first woman makes it through OSUT on her own merits? I will pack my ruck, walk to Ft. Benning myself and pin her blue cord on.

  • Tarrou, not that it should detract from the thrust of your comment, but the bit about Israel is for the most part incorrect.

  • Error 404 World Not Found

    By most accounts about 25% of the infantry defending Kobani during its long ongoing siege are women. None of the arguments against woman in combat come even close to trumping that.

  • Mr Ed

    By most accounts about 25% of the infantry defending Kobani during its long ongoing siege are women. None of the arguments against woman in combat come even close to trumping that.

    The example of Kobani may show that women can and do fight as infantry, but that is not quite the point. The point is whether or not they can fight to the same standards as men, and whilst the women infantry of Kobani are clearly capable of fighting and more capable than many men, the question is whether or not modern army infantry standards are being diluted to let women join units that they would not, on the basis of performance, be permitted to join if they were men. It might well be that in Kobani, the women fighting are the best available soldiers, and if no men show up, however fit they might or might not be, or otherwise qualified for the task, at least the women are doing the fighting.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    NickM, why the surprise? I would have thought that any air force would want pilots who knew where they were, hence the Geography degrees.

  • Mr Ed

    NickG, the days are long gone when a Geography degree necessarily included knowledge of the Earth, for that is what geography is. There are Social Science geography degrees as well as those based on the physical Earth, the former described to me by a student of the latter in the 1980s as having students asking ‘Where do you buy your bread?’.

  • Mr Ed

    And over in Germany, the Defence Minister is thinking about giving orders.



    An armed forces report to the Bundestag revealed that only 42 of Germany’s 109 Typhoon fighters are available for immediate use, alongside 38 of its 89 Tornado bombers, because of maintenance issues.
    Only 280 of the army’s 406 Marten tanks are operational.

    If only she had been in charge in 1939, not that she could cause or reverse the inevitable bureaucratic sclerosis of today.

  • Watchman

    There seems to be a worrying groupthink viewpoint from many commentators here.

    This is that some people think women are not physically able to be soilders (not that I’ve heard any actual evidence for this point). Women are normally pound-for-pound stronger than men remember, so any normal distribution of strength and ability across the sexes will surely imply that there is a certain number of women who meet the required standards? A man is not automatically stronger, quicker or better with technology or spatial awareness than a woman: the distribution of all of these favours men, but to assume on the basis of averages that no woman can do the job is not only ridiculous, it is using exactly the same tendency of thinking in terms of labels rather than individuals that the statists use.

    The question is not one of male versus female, but simply one of is the individual in front of us up to the job? If so, great; if not, they can’t do it. This will most likely mean the military remains male dominated, but should not stop any job being occupied by a female, transexual or any other category you care to mention – because the individual right to be anything they can be (and want to be) should trump any attempt to tell them what they can or cannot do because of a biological division. It would be equally ridiculous to exclude people from the military for being naturally blond or having a different skin colour – you are picking on something that has no relation to the individual’s ability as a reason to exclude them.

    And as for the comment above about women not fighting to preserve the breeding stock – how far from the world of eugenics and purity of the race have you come?

  • Mr Ed

    Well Watchman, you probably have already won the 2015 prize for reading your own misconceptions into others’ comments on a thread, by a country mile.

  • Watchman, I don’t think that anyone here actually put forward the notion that women are not physically able to be solders as individuals – what most here are saying is that as a group they (we, I should say) are less able than men as a group. There is nothing collectivist about stating the facts of reality. There certainly are women who are more able than the average man or woman to be a soldier (again with the caveat of asking ‘what sort of soldier?’), but they tend to be a minority. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t see anyone here arguing for excluding women from combat positions on the mere grounds of them being women.

    Women are normally pound-for-pound stronger than men remember, so any normal distribution of strength and ability across the sexes will surely imply that there is a certain number of women who meet the required standards?

    Maybe, but still there are usually less pounds per woman than per man, so on the whole women tend to fall short when it comes to lifting heavy items, such as artillery ammunition.

    On Kurdish women fighters: good on them and more power to them, but unfortunately this bears almost no general evidence on combat capabilities of women vs men: the Kobani Kurds are simply not in a position to be too picky and choosy about their recruits, and so I imagine they simply make do with what and who they have.

  • Tarrou

    Women are pound for pound stronger than men? Of course! This would be why all weight-lifting records are held by women, and there are so many female world champion boxers. What a laughably wrong assertion.

    As to the rest, I do not deny for an instant that there are women who can fight. And in some nations and specific situations, they may be the best thing available. In any nation with a choice in manpower, they do not by and large meet the physical requirements for professional soldiery on the ground, in close combat. There are no doubt a few exceptions to this rule, as with any. The numbers are so infintesimal that they are unworthy of structuring a military force around. Look to France. Even with lower physical standards and a complete lack of major combat in the past thirty years, seven women total. Seven. This is what feminists and idiots are blathering on about, restructuring an entire organization to serve the desires of .000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of the population. Yes I made that percentage up.

  • Tarrou

    I should tell a tale from my days as an 11-B. I had the opportunity to attend Air Assault school in a class that was for deployment reasons 2/3 female. Two companies of women, one of men. As military schools went, this is probably the easiest in terms of physical requirements of the majors (Airborne, SERE, etc. range from slightly harder to monstrously more difficult).

    Roughly two hundred women, carefully selected from around the military as the top prospects in their units, came to learn how to rope out of helicopters. The first test was the first day, a PT test, and since the cutoff was low and everyone had to pre-qualify to even get to the school, only two men were cut for failing to reach the standard. One hundred and eighty-six women failed that morning. The remainder held high attrition until the final day, there were only three women left. There were still over ninety male soldiers hanging on. Final test is a road march, by infantry standards a ridiculously easy one. Small ruck, twelve miles, three hours. A stroll. None of the women passed the three-mile mark.

    Now, there are women who have passed that school (at a lower physical requirement than the men, of course, but they made it through). But the percentage of women capable of even that is vanishingly small. And keep in mind, an infantry unit does longer marches than that, with three times the weight in less time every Tuesday. The target PT score was 160 in AA, in an Infantry unit anything less than 300 gets you sent to remedial PT.

    And yet I say, make the standards the same and let them try. But no one will even suggest that women be held to the same standard! In my state, a firefighter is required, as part of his final exam, to carry a 180lb dummy down three floors of smoke-filled building. Well, if its a man he’s required to. If it’s a female firefighter, the dummy is forty pounds. And even with that, guess the percentage of firefighters that are female? Being that they are “stronger pound for pound” than a man, and have to carry something less than a quarter as heavy, 50%? 30%? Try four percent.

  • Look to France. Even with lower physical standards and a complete lack of major combat in the past thirty years

    Huh? Say what?

  • Rich Rostrom

    The blurring of combat and support missions in asymmetrical warfare, and the intense political pressure to include women in every possible duty, has resulted in the U.S. armed forces putting a small number of women into de facto ground combat roles. Some of them even succeed, but at a terrible personal cost. They overload their bodies to keep up with their comrades, resulting in permanent damage and lifelong health issues.

    There are several documented cases of this. Women can and should serve in the armed forces, but they are not the equivalent of men, and the present insistence on pretending that they should be is destructive.

  • Tarrou

    Thanks Perry, I was afraid someone would remember that a hundred or so French stood around in the Green Zone for a few months before taking themselves back to the Continent. Come on dude. Have you no concept of what “major combat” means?

  • Watchman
    January 12, 2015 at 10:36 am

    What matters for combat is the tails of the distribution.