HONOLULU — On the same day the Pentagon announced it is removing barriers to women in combat, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said steps have been taken to place women for the first time on its new Virginia-class attack submarines.
The move represents an expansion of moves made by the Navy three years ago to open positions to women on its ballistic- and guided-missile submarines.
Three 377-foot Virginia-class subs are based at Pearl Harbor, the only location in the Pacific with them, and more are expected to be home-ported here as they are built.
"I am pleased the Navy has completed an initiative I announced several months ago to open up one of the few areas not currently available to women, that of service on Virginia-class submarines," Mabus said in a statement Thursday.
Six newly commissioned female officers have been selected for assignment to Virginia submarines in fiscal year 2015 upon successful completion of the naval nuclear-powered training program required for that class of craft, officials said.
The Navy also plans to "include female enlisted sailors in this process," but did not specify how it would do so.
Along with the changes being made in the submarine force, the Pentagon's rescinding of prohibitions on direct-combat roles for women militarywide "allows the Navy to expand opportunities for women in our riverine forces and in Navy billets that directly support Marine infantry operations like hospital corpsman and chaplains," Mabus said.
"Women continue to serve bravely and honorably at sea and ashore," he said. "Drawing from their talent in additional assignments increases our ability to maintain readiness."
The USS Hawaii, Texas and North Carolina are the three Virginia-class submarines at Pearl Harbor. The Navy has nine Virginia-class subs in service.
A Navy official said the first six female officers — four nuclear-trained and two from the supply corps — would be split evenly between two subs. The subs to receive the female officers haven't been announced yet, the official said.
The Navy did not indicate that older Los Angeles-class submarines that still make up the bulk of the attack force would be opened to female crew members.
Fifteen of the 360-foot Los Angeles subs are based at Pearl Harbor, which has the largest concentration of submarines in the Pacific.
Opening Virginia-class subs to women has to do with berthing and habitability, an official said. The Virginia subs have berthing that is more modular and has three officers per stateroom, which is reflected in the initial assignment of two groups of three female officers.
The Navy said 24 women — 17 line officers and seven supply officers — are assigned to ballistic- and guided-missile subs in Bangor, Wash., and Kings Bay, Ga.