By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Indian Air Force (IAF) has recruited its first female fighter pilots, paving the way for more women to be given combat roles as one of the world's biggest military forces takes steps towards greater gender parity.

Flying Officers Mohana Singh, Bhawana Kanth and Avani Chaturvedi received their wings on Saturday when they were commissioned into the IAF at a graduation ceremony in the southern city of Hyderabad.

"It is a golden day as for the first time these women are going to join the fighter pilots," Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said at the ceremony.

"This will inspire more women to take up the most challenging task in the armed forces. Our long-term objective is to work towards gender parity in the armed forces."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated the women, saying it was "a matter of immense pride and joy" to have the first female fighter pilots. "More power to them," he tweeted.

Only a handful of countries such as Britain, the United States, Israel and neighboring Pakistan, have allowed women into the cockpits of fighter jets.

India had until now kept women out of that role, and away from frontline warships and ground combat, citing concerns over their vulnerability if captured and their physical and mental ability to handle the stress of such deployments.

The country's defense forces began recruiting women to non-medical positions in 1992, yet only 2.5 percent of its more than 1 million personnel are women - most of them administrators, intelligence officers, doctors, nurses or dentists.

In recent years, 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.

Modi's government announced last year it would bring women into fighting roles and approved IAF plans for women pilots to fly warplanes from June 2017 on a three-year experimental basis.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in February went a step further announcing the country would induct women in all fighter streams of the armed forces in the future.

Defense Minister Parrikar confirmed plans to extend combat roles for women in the army and navy, adding it would take time.

"There are still a lot of technical and administrative difficulties in several areas in taking more women. We need to create a lot of infrastructure for women, especially in air force and navy wings," he told reporters at the event.

"Yet, we will work towards creating more opportunities for them."

The three women, who are in their early twenties, will undergo training on Hawk advanced jets for a year, before they fly supersonic warplanes.

The new female fighter pilots told reporters they were excited about the opportunity, adding that they expected to treated on a par with their male counterparts.

"I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, but when we joined the option was not there," Kanth said. "So when it came to us in December 2015, I knew I was going to grab it with both my hands."

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)