On February 22, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a letter to Congress, notifying it of the Navy’s desire to permit women to serve aboard its submarines.
The House and Senate had 30 working days to pass a law barring the move.
According to the Kitsap Sun, the Brementon, Washington, newspaper (the nearby Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor is home to 10 of the Navy’s 18 Ohio-class SSBN/SSGN nuclear-powered submarines), Congress only has a “few more days” to reject the changed policy, “otherwise women will be serving beneath the sea within two years.”
Already in September of last year, top Navy brass, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, came out in strong support for the policy change. At that time, Mabus said, “I believe women should have every opportunity to serve at sea, and that includes aboard submarines.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has also expressed his support: “One policy I would like to see changed is the one banning their service aboard submarines.”
During a visit to the Kitsap nuclear submarine facilities, Mabus reiterated his support for integrating women onto submarine crews as “absolutely the right thing to do.”
According to the Kitsap Sun, Mabus says that he’s gotten nothing but positive response from Congress and the community.
And it does look like—barring unforeseen developments—that Congress will approve the new policy.
The Navy is already studying how it plans to implement the change.
The study will probably be completed later this month.
However, one change—whether related to women serving in submarines or not—is already in the works.
About a week ago, I mentioned the Stars and Stripes’ report that the Navy was considering a ban on smoking aboard submarines, in order to help clear the recycled air for crews who spend months at a time aboard submerged vessels.
Well, that change is official now.
Last Thursday, the Navy announced that a smoking ban will go into effect on submarines no later than December 31.
According to the Kitsap Sun,
Vice Adm. John J. Donnelly, commander of Submarine Forces in Norfolk, Va., said in a press release that the decision was reached to protect non-smoking sailors from secondhand smoke.
“Recent testing has proven that, despite our atmosphere purification technology, there are unacceptable levels of secondhand smoke in the atmosphere of a submerged submarine,” Donnelly said. “The only way to eliminate risk to our non-smoking Sailors is to stop smoking aboard our submarines.
During his visit to Kitsap, Mabus made it clear that cigarettes were out and women were in: “Women have a place on submarines, cigarettes do not.”
As I mentioned, there may not be a connection between the two changes. However, on a related health issue, a retired admiral and a former undersea medical officer, Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, is warning Congress about his “serious concerns about the risk to the safety and normal development of an embryo-fetus in the submarine environment…”
According to Adm. Scott, a certain percentage of female sailors embark on deployments pregnant or become pregnant during the cruise, and “Unlike surface ships, the sealed environment of the submarine atmosphere poses an increased risk to the normal development of a woman’s embryo-fetus.”
In my post on this issue, I said:
While so many other arguments against women in the military serving to their full potential are based on flimsy, oftentimes intolerant and chauvinistic arguments, this is one that, in my opinion, merits further debate and investigation.
For more on this, please click here.
Studies, investigations and physical changes—possibly interior modifications—aboard the submarines need to be completed fast because the first female submariners—all of them officers—could be those women who will be “graduating this spring from the Naval Academy and college ROTC programs,” after an additional 18 months of training.
Again, the Kitsap Sun:
They’d start out on Ohio-class subs…because the boats wouldn’t need to be modified. There’d be a minimum of four women per sub. A senior female officer would probably transfer from the surface nuclear fleet to mentor the young officers, Mabus said. It’s been 20 years since women began serving on surface ships, and the experience can be a road map for a smooth transition.
Women would join smaller attack subs later. Existing ones would be modified for them, and new ones would be designed for coed crews.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.