YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — As women move closer to changing the face of U.S. Navy submarines, several challenges lie ahead to fully integrate its fleet.
Questions remain among submarine advocates about health, living arrangements, boat design and promotion prospects for the first women who would serve as permanent crewmembers aboard U.S. Navy submarines.
Nevertheless, the Navy’s top military and civilian leaders have all publicly proclaimed their support within the past month for ending rules barring women from sub service.
“This is something the [chief of naval operations] and I have been working on since I came into office,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said Sept. 28, according to a Navy news release. “We are moving out aggressively on this. I believe women should have every opportunity to serve at sea, and that includes aboard submarines.”
In a coinciding statement, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said that the Navy has studied the issue for years and that he believes it is feasible.
“Having commanded a mixed gender surface combatant, I am very comfortable addressing integrating women into the submarine force,” Roughead said.
For now, the Navy is concentrating on offering submarine duty to women receiving their commissions after graduating from college in May, said Chief of Naval Information spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels.
The Navy has yet to announce a plan to transition enlisted sailors or current officers into the submarine community, he said.
Upon entering the Navy, the newly minted female ensigns would attend nuclear power school, then another school for training on a prototype nuclear reactor, Daniels said.
They would then enroll in the submarine officer basic course.
“The earliest you would see women aboard subs is 2011,” Daniels said.
Once sub school graduates join a crew, they begin studying daily to “earn their dolphins,” a rigorous process that ensures a submariner knows all of the boat’s systems.
That means the first submarine-qualified female officer probably wouldn’t be seen until 2012.
Women have been serving aboard submarines for years, though not as permanent crewmembers. And Naval Academy female midshipmen have served their summer tours aboard subs.
There were also 12 women currently qualified as undersea medical officers as of June, according to Navy personnel data.
The medical officers also learn about all of a boat’s systems, but their training is not as comprehensive as an officer of the line’s training.
One of those medical officers, Lt. Cmdr. Marilisa Elrod, told Stars and Stripes in July that she believed women would be well-suited to serve on submarines.
However, new instructions for medics would likely be necessary to take women’s health needs into consideration, she said.
Submarines and unexpected pregnancy
Health issues have long been one of the loudest arguments made by opponents of women serving on subs.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the nonprofit Center for Military Readiness, argued against allowing women on submarines about 10 years ago, after a civilian defense panel recommended it.
Donnelly remains opposed, in part because of “biological realities that pose a real threat to all crewmembers, and an unborn child, if a pregnancy is discovered while on an undersea mission,” she said in an e-mail to Stripes.
Donnelly points to a letter written to Congress in 2000 by Hugh Scott, a retired rear admiral and undersea medical officer.
The concentration of carbon dioxide on a submarine is 10 times greater than in the open atmosphere, Scott said.
While studies on adult males have shown no ill effects, Scott said no such studies existed on whether submarine atmospheres would affect pregnant women.
“Consequently, no categorical assurances can be provided regarding the safety of the fetus to exposures to carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other hazardous materials found in the submarine atmosphere,” Scott wrote in the letter.
Scott noted that congenital birth defects have been found on animals exposed to elevated carbon dioxide levels, although those levels were about 1,000 percent higher than those found on a sub.
Daniels said Thursday that he would check whether the Navy had data regarding any potential effects on women’s reproductive health, but that such information wasn’t immediately available.
“Of course, safety is everyone’s number one priority,” Daniels added.
Women have been serving aboard surface ships for the past 16 years. Ships don’t knowingly go underway with a pregnant crewmember; if one is found, she is medically evacuated from the ship.
Protocols exist for medically evacuating sailors from submarines as well, though at times, a submarine may be far from a port or unable to surface because of an intelligence mission.
Making room for women
Navy officials say that allowing women to serve aboard submarines expands the available talent pool.
However, when women first begin serving permanently aboard submarines, their choices will be limited.
They will serve on either the fleet’s 14 Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines, or one of the four Ohio-class submarines modified for added Tomahawk missiles and special operations.
The 560-foot-long Ohio-class submarines are packed very tightly, but they are spacious enough to accommodate women in junior officer staterooms and provide a limited degree of privacy.
The far more numerous fast-attack submarines are much smaller and could cost more to reconfigure to make room for women, Navy officials say. Privacy is extremely limited.
The Navy intends to eventually allow women on fast-attack subs as well. However, no timetable exists yet, Daniels said.
If it remains that way for long, it might cap a female officer’s promotion potential, said C. Michael Garverick, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Naval Submarine League.
Senior staff submarine officers are usually expected to have served on both missile and fast-attack submarines, said Garverick, a retired submarine captain.
“They would be somewhat limited in where they can go,” Garverick said. “If this is really going to happen, they’re going to have to figure out what to do about the fast-attack sub.”
That could mean costly modifications to existing submarines, or it could alter the design of future submarines.
The Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both voiced support for funding a replacement to the Ohio-class Trident submarines. Meanwhile, the Navy signed a $14 billion contract in 2008 with contractors to produce eight Virginia-class fast-attack submarines.
Navy officials say it’s still too early to talk about changes to either the proposed Ohio-class replacement or new Virginia-class subs.
But Garverick, whose submarine advocacy group has close ties to the Navy’s submarine contractors, believes design changes are likely.
“I would almost bet on it,” Garverick said.
Garverick said adding women to the all-male environment will require some transition for sailors; however, he believes that they ultimately continue to do their duty, as ordered.
“It will be a cultural change, but it won’t be the first one we’ve gone through,” Garverick said. “Certainly there will be some problems, but I can’t believe they will be insurmountable.”