They want to be, under the sea

The U.S. Navy may soon allow women to serve on submarines

They want to be, under the sea

Photograph by George Ruhe/Associated Press

For as long as the U.S. Navy has had submarines, women have been banned from serving on them. Now, it looks like one of the last great bastions of U.S. military discrimination will fall. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a letter to Congress, detailing his intention to phase in women’s submarine service.

Though women have been serving on navy warships since 1993—they make up 15 per cent of navy personnel—the navy’s 71 in-service submarines have always been off limits. Many have defended that gentlemen-only code. Some voiced concern that because of the notoriously close quarters, women would arouse underwater sexual tensions. Others made economic arguments, claiming it would be too expensive to retrofit subs with co-ed facilities. Elaine Donnelly served on a 1992 presidential commission on the issue. She has explained: “The passages are such that it would be impossible to pass without touching.” Donnelly also cited poor air quality aboard subs, which she says could pose a risk to the embryos of pregnant women.

Today, those views are being pushed aside by some loud voices—like that of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who thinks “women ought to have full career choices for a range of careers in the navy and that includes serving on submarines.” Indeed, the submarine issue has become part of a broader reassessment of women’s combat roles. “I think it’s time,” said Gen. George Casey last month, “that we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then we look at our policies.”

Assuming that Congress does not object, vessels will soon be modified to include separate women’s quarters. It is expected to be about a year before the first female reports for submarine duty.

Ahoy, matey!


They want to be, under the sea


    First, female officers, after psyc and medical/physical screening, will go through about 18 months of training, This includes intensive nuclear power training, submarine and sub officers training, etc.

    In late 2011, and once aboard submarines (two females in tandem), it will require up to nine months to a year for them to qualify for the coveted Dolphins insignia. This means they'll know how to operate all sub systems, including covering all submariners' backs in case of internal emergencies such as fire and flooding, and those from the outside perils of the sea.

    Second, the 18 SSBNs and SSGNs will NOT have to modified for female officers. They will sleep, like other junior officers, in "staterooms" — the size of large walk-in closets — and alternately share the head and shower with the men. It's yet to be determined how future women enlisted will be accommodated, especially for racks, heads and shower privacy.

    Third, SSNs on the drawing board will require expensive redesign to accommodate both female officers and enlisted. It's highly unlikely the two SSNs scheduled to be completed next year will be modified. This might occur in 2012,

    Fourth, the Royal Navy is following in the US Navy footsteps. It has announced a study, to be completed by year's end, of putting women on its Vanguards, the largest subs in its fleet. The RN report noted that studies have shown no ill medical effects to females who would serve aboard.

    Fifth, while they are aboard diesel/electric powered subs and are at sea for shorter times than our nuclear-powered subs, women are crew on the boats of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Canada and Spain. The men haven't jumped ship.

    Sixth, and last, private nuclear industries are grabbing up the Navy's qualified nuclear engineers. While the Submarine Force is maintaining retention levels for officers and enlisted (partly due to the poor economy), it's looking to future staffing.

    Viola, female submariners! They'll have hard oars to row. However, as women trailblazers, I'm certain the vast majority will succeed.

    Nancy Subsister, Medina, OH

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