Foreign and Military Affairs

Female soldiers march into history

Updated: 2011-08-17 08:07

By Li Xiaokun (China Daily)

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 Female soldiers march into history

These soldiers in the Second Artillery Force have completed 16 months of training to be missile launchers. Xinhua Photos

 Female soldiers march into history

Top: Soldiers of the Second Artillery Force install the empennage (the tail assembly) in the missile before launching it.

Middle: Chen Qin and her colleagues cheer after they launch a missile. The exercise was part of their final training test.

Above: Peng Zhidi is back with the troop after her wedding holiday.

Female soldiers march into history

Missile unit shows that women can defend the country as well as men, reports Li Xiaokun in Beijing.

But for the devastating earthquake, Chen Qin would not be part of Chinese military history.

Last month, Chen, 25, and her colleagues became the first female missile unit in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

"At first I just wanted to join the artillery troops to fulfill the dream of my deceased brother. But now I find I can do as well as the men, sometimes better," Chen, from the Qiang ethnic group, said last week.

Chen Qin's elder brother, Chen Dagui, served in the same division of the Second Artillery Force (SAF), which controls both nuclear and conventional missiles.

On May 12, 2008, when the 8.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Beichuan, near the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake, the lieutenant was home on leave. Chen Dagui helped many people escape from a mudslide, but he was engulfed in mud-and-rock flow, with his grandmother, parents and bride.

Chen Qin, then a high school teacher in Mianyang, Sichuan province, was the only survivor in the family.

At the end of 2008, she joined the SAF to follow her brother's footsteps. In March 2010, the young woman with a bachelor's degree in Chinese language was selected for the SAF's first unit of female missile-launching soldiers.

Looking at potential

Hu Huaiyu, political commissar of the regiment, said the unit set a relatively high standard when building the new team.

Applicants had to have at least a high school diploma, he said, "yet more focus was put on the quality and potential of the individual. She also had to be quick in learning new things and be determined to serve for national defense."

Thirty-one soldiers and four officers were chosen, and their average age is 23. All but three had at least a junior college diploma; one was a senior art major at Tsinghua University, one of China's best colleges.

Over the next 16 months, the young women went through tough days.

"We tried to pick those of good physical and psychological quality and designed a scientific training plan," Hu said. "Still, some of the women's hands trembled when they had dinner after rigorous training at the start."

Hu said he was impressed by their determination. The physical training was taxing and included running 3,000 meters every day.

"It was a difficult job, but my body got used to the challenge," said Wang Xiaoli, 23, the Tsinghua student. She joined the PLA in 2009, and can return to her studies after completing her enlistment period.

'Golden advantage'

Chen said her team received theoretical and skill training with a group of male soldiers, and found that in some areas the women learned more quickly and scored higher.

"Our lack of height and strength does not really hamper us doing our job, as missile launch does not demand much physically," Chen said. But to cover contingencies, the women and their tutors made three tools - a stool a half-meter high, an extended wrench and a hook that helps them during missile launching.

Zhang Fangfang, 23, a former SAF switchboard operator, devised methods based on her experience remembering more than 1,000 phone numbers to help her teammates recall figures such as launching specifications.

Hu, the political commissar, admitted that he had been unsure the women could fulfill the task, but he found "a golden advantage" in the group.

"They are very careful and stable compared to men of their age, who tend to act on impulse," he said. "What matters in missile launching is a mental and psychological situation. We need trustworthy missile launching personnel who make no mistake even in 10,000 launches."

In mid-July, the team traveled more than 1,000 km to get to the plateau in Northwest China and took every test needed to be qualified SAF missile launching soldiers, from disguising themselves to camping and hand-to-hand combat in the wild. Two missiles they launched there later hit the targets exactly.

Women's gains

The PLA did not provide numbers or percentages of women who serve in the military or in combat positions, although it said women on the front line have increased in its four branches - army, navy, air force and SAF.

The rate in combat lags that of many developed nations, said Chen Zhou, a research fellow with the Academy of Military Science and principle author of China's 2010 white paper of national defense.

The US Defense Department reports that women make up 14.5 percent of active-duty US military personnel and nearly 20 percent of the Reserve and National Guard. A wide range of combat positions are open to women. On the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, for example, about one-fifth of the crew of 4,500 are women.

In Canada, almost all fighting positions are open to women, while in Russia women have access to several hundred command positions in every part of the military.

In China, women have served in the military at the PLA's beginning, in 1927, but mostly in lower-risk positions such as communication and healthcare. The first female transport pilots flew in 1952.

"The young women are not simple. Look how high they are flying!" Mao Zedong marveled as he watched them fly over Tian'anmen Square. He also asked the young women "not to be performers but be pilots of the people".

In 1995, the South China Sea Fleet finished training the first batch of female marines. Two years ago, 16 women piloting fighter planes passed their final test. And last year, a woman from Jiangsu province became the first helmswoman in the PLA navy by safely steering a 14,000-ton hospital ship through 5-meter seas en route to foreign countries.

According to the PLA Daily, China is among the countries with the most female pilots, though it gave no numbers. The air force has said it will train female pilots for strike aircraft and bombers.

'They can do it'

Now Chen Qin and her teammates have added to the list.

Women perform as well as, or even better than, men of the same age worldwide, said Chen, the research fellow. "Besides, the forms of wars are changing dramatically. As it is often said, men are no stronger than women in front of screens. The increase of females in combat positions goes right in line with the tendency."

Yao Yunzhu, director of a military research department at the academy, becomes uncomfortable when reading reports that advocate women's role in combat should be "soothing and encouraging male soldiers mentally".

"I've read too many reports describing young women as 'flowers in the military' through the years. Why is that? The women are no amusement to male soldiers; they're not assigned there to improve men's living environment. It's humiliating," said Yao, a senior colonel with a high reputation in PLA's academic circle.

"They do the job just because they can do it, and even better than men."

She noted that the status of women was raised "overnight" with the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949, but some hiring companies still ask only for male graduates and some colleges demand higher entry scores for women. More effort is needed to produce gender equality in civilian China, she said.

The atmosphere in the PLA is much better, Yao said. She has spent 31 years in her career, starting as an ordinary soldier. She mentioned Rear Admiral Xu Lili, a 59-year-old vice-president of the academy, as another example of the military as a mature and healthy career path for women.

Still, she said, to succeed in the military, women should first forget their gender.

"Don't assume you have superiority because you are a woman. What you boast should be your capability but not your identity, and that is also the fundamental way for complete women's liberation."

Li Yongfei contributed to this report.

(China Daily 08/17/2011 page1)


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