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Women should be allowed to serve aboard America’s fleet of nuclear submarines, the nation’s top military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, quietly has told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If the Navy agrees to it, this would be a huge policy change and potentially a significant expansion of career opportunities for female officers and sailors.

Women have been barred by Navy policy from submarines, even as the sea service began 15 years ago to integrate females into other combat roles including aboard surface warships and in fighter jets.

Mullen made his position on submarines known in written responses to questions from the committee in preparation for Mullen’s confirmation hearing to serve a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“As an advocate for improving the diversity of our force, I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women. One policy I would like to see changed is the one barring their service aboard submarines,” Mullen told senators.

Opponents of lifting the ban have argued for decades that space is at a premium on submarines. To accommodate privacy needs of females, including separate berthing and “heads” or toilet/shower facilities, would be “prohibitively expensive,” Navy has argued. Watch duty, bunk management, extra supplies and incidents of fraternization and harassment would complicate submarine life, according to one study done for the Navy in 1994.

No senator actually raised the female submariner issue with Mullen during his Sept. 15 confirmation hearing. The focus was Afghanistan and Iraq. And Navy officials had no immediate comment on Mullen’s position.

Mullen’s spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said the chairman did tell Adm. Gary Roughead, current chief of naval operations, what position Mullen was going to take on women submariners in comments back to committee.

In response to Mullen’s comments, Roughead said in a statement that he has been personally involved in the issue of assigning women to submarines.

“There are some particular issues with integrating women into the submarine force, issues we must work through in order to achieve what is best for the Navy and our submarine force,” Roughead said.

Mullen had focused some attention on this issue in the past, Kirby explained. While serving as CNO, Mullen had asked Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, and other submarine community leaders to “take a look” at ending the ban on women in the “silent service.” That review was still underway when Mullen stepped down in 2007 to become chairman and, as such, senior military adviser to the president.

Allowing women on submarines, Kirby said, “was something he always had in his mind and still believes in.”

But Mullen doesn’t intend to hold “meetings or discussions with the Navy on this,” Kirby added. “As a former CNO, he understands the Title 10 responsibilities that the CNO has. I don’t think he is keen to be too deeply involved in what is clearly the Navy’s responsibility to manage the force.”

As to why Mullen even raised the issue, Kirby said, “He was answering a question honestly about women in combat, and that’s how he really feels.”

Among the dozens of written questions posed to Mullen was this: “Does the Department of Defense have sufficient flexibility under current law to make changes to assignment policy for women when needed?”

Mullen answered that the department has all the flexibility it needs. But he referenced military women’s “tremendous contributions to our national defense. They are an integral part of the force and are proven performers in the operational environment and under fire.”

He noted too that DOD policies “fully recognize that women are assigned to units and positions that are not immune from the threats present in a combat environment. In fact, women are assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions – actions for which they are fully trained and prepared to respond and to succeed.”

More than 100 U.S. service women have been killed since 2001 while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait.

One Capitol Hill source said he was told by a submarine community officer that the Navy had readied plans at one point to allow women to serve aboard Ohio-class strategic missile submarines. Kirby was asked if Mullen had these larger boats, nicknamed “boomers,” in mind for gender integration as opposed to the smaller attack submarines.

“I don’t believe he’s made that distinction in his mind yet,” Kirby said.

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