Women Service Officers as Defence or Military Attache`s: Government has to do more to Ensure its Success
Gautam Sen

India`s defence minister has recently declared that the government has decided to appoint Women service officers as defence or military attaches in the Indian missions abroad. Though this decision has been hailed from many quarters and is being touted as another case of womenfolk `breaking the glass ceiling`, it is doubtful whether this can be implemented successfully and soon. Though a superficial view may be that this is a move towards women’s empowerment in the Services, there are many institutional hurdles in executing this reformist measure.

A view has been prevalent within and outside the Services, that there was case for the women service officers to be given this opportunity once their engagement on long-term commission was sanctioned by the government. With the opportunity for long-term service for this category of service officers, it was expected that they would develop adequate maturity and perspective on our defence forces and establishments, the forces` profile, postures as well as their operational and logistical imperatives over a 15-20 year service. In such a backdrop, there was a reasonable expectation that, India`s women service officers would get an opportunity to adorn the posts of defence advisers or military attaches.

In the case of male defence or military attaches, the pattern has been to mostly appoint service officers from the combat arms like infantry, armour, artillery, engineers, air-defence etc. in the case of the Army, and similarly from the executive branches of the Navy and Air Force. Besides merit based selection, this has more to do with the requisite ground experience, and therefore officers from the supporting arms and services are only seldom appointed as defence or military attaches. As women service officers serve in support arms and services, they would normally be at a disadvantage in the selection process for attaches. Therefore, under the new institutional arrangements, women service attaches are expected to be few and far between, and in fact, it may take quite some time for the first lady attaché to be appointed.

To make a success of the new opportunity for women service officers, it is essential as a sine qua non to carefully modify the ambit of their deployment within the Services establishment. The objective should be to ensure that they develop a wide strategic perspective on their and the sister Services, their practical needs, and the country`s security profile. Then, while all the women officers may not be suitable for such a role beyond the realm of their arm or service, a sizable number would be. For example, the military intelligence directorate of Army Headquarters which administratively and functionally controls the deployment of military attaches, may have to work out a specific mentoring responsibility in this regard. Army Headquarters may therefore, devise organizational strategies which inducts suitable women officers from their parent corps into the military intelligence directorate or fighting arms controlling directorates, for a specific period, before subsequent posting as military attaches.

The functions of defence or military attaches are quite unique and different from those in the arms to which the prospective attaches were recruited for. It may be also advisable to work out a system under which prospective women service officers get to serve for a reasonable period in either Ministry of Defence or Ministry of External Affairs before being posted abroad. Though there may be resistance to such an arrangement as a consequence of institutional rivalries, in the overall interest of the country,that may be permitted in reckoning of prospective advantages likely to accrue with mature women service officers as our attaches.

A fundamental constraint in the appointment of women defence advisers or military attaches would be the fact that such officers do not have the opportunity of commanding an unit. Without the experience of unit command, it is very difficult for an officer to be reckoned for consideration in the selection process for defence attaché. In the case of male service officers, the unit command attribute is an important reckoning factor in the selection process. It is not clear whether the Ministry of Defence or the Services HQ have considered institutional arrangements which will enable women service officers to imbibe the characteristics of a commanding officer without performing command functions as a unit commander, and also ushering them as unit commanders within the Service by suitably tweaking the placement procedure.

It is not clear whether, the defence minister and her ministry have undertaken the requisite preparatory measures to enable the institution of women service advisers and attaches to take off successfully in the near future. There would be psychological bias and institutional impediments in the process, as already mentioned above. However, the change can be effected provided the present system of appointment of service officers primarily from fighting arms and executive branches is reoriented to enable the selection process to be wider and also open up the feasibility of inducting women service officers after some period of functional experience at policy making echelons in the ministries.

It may also be worthwhile to consider positioning women service officers in appointments a stage below the defence adviser or military attaché, say as a deputy attaché in countries with whom India`s Service-to-Service interaction is at a high threshold involving a relatively large Service component in the mission. This is however, not to preclude appointment of women defence attaches in such countries. The moot point is that though women service officers may have all the intrinsic qualities to perform adequately as a defence adviser or military attaché, the present organizational limitations seem to weigh against their selection process. Both Ministry of Defence and the Services headquarters have to adopt an innovative approach to facilitate the women service officers to be duly considered for these posts without compromising their respective Services` needs and promotion of the country`s security interests and fraternal relations with the Services in friendly countries. At least on a trial basis, providing for wider experience of such women officers in the Services establishments and the ministries, command opportunities or substitutes thereof, and earmarking some posts in selected mission may be attempted.

In the ultimate, the lady Service officer selected as a defence or military attaché should have the calibre and performance ability required of officers appointed to such posts, and the government should ensure that this is feasible.

(The author is retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments in Defence and Civil Ministries. The views are personal.)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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