View Full Version : Women should serve on subs

09-25-2009, 11:47 AM
Women should serve on subs

By William H. McMichael and Andrew Scutro - Staff writers
Posted : Friday Sep 25, 2009 11:15:28 EDT

Women should be allowed to serve aboard submarines, and the Navy is “moving out aggressively” to make it happen, according to the service’s top civilian.

“I believe women should have every opportunity to serve at sea, and that includes aboard submarines,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Thursday in a statement to Navy Times.

His comment comes one week after Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told congressional lawmakers that he thought it was time to end the ban against women on submarines.

Mullen’s successor, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, also said he is “very comfortable” addressing the crewing policy.

“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 in a statement. “Accommodations are a factor, but not insurmountable.”

Navy Times requested responses from Mabus and Roughead after Mullen called for ending the ban, which was part of submitted answers to written questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mullen was responding to a question on women in combat and whether any policy changes are needed. He zeroed in on women serving aboard submarines.

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

Roughead, in his statement, stopped short of announcing any major policy changes.

“Having commanded a mixed gender surface combatant, I am very comfortable addressing integrating women into the submarine force. I am familiar with the issues as well as the value of diverse crews,” he said. “The Navy has examined the feasibility of assigning women to submarines over the years, and I have been personally engaged on this.”

Roughead said the Navy must “manage the community as a whole, such as force growth and retention within a small warfare community.”

“The size of the submarine force is much smaller than the surface and aviation forces and personnel management is more exacting,” he continued. “This has had and will continue to have my personal attention as we work toward increasing the diversity of our Navy afloat and ashore.”

Mullen, who became chairman two years ago, had shown interest in a policy change during his 2½ years as CNO, and had asked the submarine community to look at the issue, said Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesman then and now.

That “look” was not complete by the time he was elevated to his present job, Kirby said, but opening the submarine community to women “is something he has maintained an interest in.”

Women, who make up about 12 percent of the 1.2 million U.S. service members on active duty, are by policy excluded from traditional front-line combat jobs. But combat roles have become blurred during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which irregular warfare marked by insurgent roadside bombs and a lack of the frontlines evident in traditional warfare have brought women assigned to jobs as corpsmen, military police and other “combat enabler” jobs into harm’s way, much as their combat brethren.

The Navy as of May had 7,900 female officers and 44,000 female sailors, comprising about 15 percent of officers and sailors in the 330,500-strong active component. But while women have been assigned to surface warships since 1993, they remain banned from submarine crews, naval special warfare teams and conventional riverine boat crews. Female officers and sailors can get qualified to work on nuclear reactors but are restricted to serving on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, not on any of the Navy’s 71 nuclear-powered submarines.

Submariners live in exceptionally close quarters, even taking turns sleeping in the same bunks on attack submarines. Officials have said the lack of privacy and the cost of reconfiguring subs already tightly packed with gear and crew members make it difficult to introduce female crew.

Mullen thinks those issues can be resolved.

“He believes that the physical barriers … can be overcome, as they have been overcome on surface combatants,” Kirby said.

09-26-2009, 12:03 AM
All right, Bob, I'll take the bait. My only question is this - are any of these guys who are making policy submariners?

I seem to recall the Brits trying this out in the 90s, with the end result of the ban remaining in place. Any Brit sailors are free to enlighten me on this one.

My concerns -

1. Do we really need diversity, Admiral Mullen? I mean, this word, I do not think it has the value attached to it that you think it does. Is it possible that we sacrifice operational readiness and combat effectiveness in the pursuit of this nebulous ideal?

2. Submariners whose wisdom teeth have not come in hot straight and normal get them pulled. I know, because while mine were not in yet, my panoramic dental x-ray clearly showed they were not causing any problems. Yet I got all four them yanked with just a local anesthetic. Why? No dentists on subs. No room to accommodate one if we wanted to. Any health problems resulting from a bad wisdom tooth could compromise the mission of the sub just to medevac me. Better to pull them now than send me to sea and hope for the best.

My point? Women have unique health problems, pregnancy being one of the most obvious, and submarines don't have doctors on board (we have a Corpsmen), nor can we just call for a helo to come and take someone to another ship/shore station when we are off on a mission or deterrence patrol (Stealth is our only defense, and we are only stealthy if we are submerged). Radiation limits for pregnant women are very very low. 50 millirem for the duration of the pregnancy. A female who stands a watch near the reactor, or who serves as an ELT drawing off primary coolant (water from the reactor) for analysis, or who sleeps or stands watch in proximity to nuclear weapons could conceivably run afoul of these limits. This means she must either be removed from the boat, or shunted to a watch away from these areas. If there isn't another female who can replace her, a man must do it. This may well cause morale problems, especially if the pregnancy precludes her from going to sea - there just isn't a lot of excess crew standing around to take up her slack, and let me tell you, six hours on six hours off for weeks on end gets old real fucking quick.

3. For many of the divisions on a submarine, the job entails brute force. Pipes and valves and air compressors and other machinery are heavy, and the best you can manage for tools are a porta-power or two, some chainfalls, and some come-alongs. Physical strength is a must just to get maintenance done. Me and the guys in M-Division used to speculate on the utility of a woman in the division. Sure she's easy on the eyes and she's reliable on watch, but if she's like most women, asking her to help with that 8 foot section of inch thick nickel-copper seawater piping or that four foot diameter main condenser access cover is a waste of time. (These things can weigh upwards of a ton or three - even with the weight taken up by a chainfall, that fucker has a considerable amount of inertia to overcome to move it where it needs to be moved.) Much of the work on subs gets done by the in port duty section. For M-Div, this could mean only 3 or 4 people at any given time. If one or more of them is physically incapable of some of the work, you're down to 2 or 3 people (or less). It's nice when you can have work scheduled during normal hours when the whole division is available, but the reality is that shit has to get done, and often that means the duty section pulling all-nighters.

Again, this is a morale issue. I acknowledge that a woman can be just as competent as a man as a watchstander. That's obvious. What I question is her ability to meet the very physical demands of maintenance. I've worked jobs where it took three very strong guys giving all they had to get something broken loose or moved where it needed to go. The female member of the division will get excluded from this kind of work for obvious reasons, and she'll end up getting shuffled off to paperwork jobs or stuck being the default shut-down roving watch while the guys get to do all the cool stuff. Her morale suffers. The guys get tired of busting their asses, ruining their uniforms, and generally transformed into filthy bastards while Petty Officer Femme keeps clean and neat and fresh as a daisy.

How do I know this? Because we are merciless in our scorn of the 'coners' and the 'twidgets' whose idea of maintenance is pulling out a jeweler's screwdriver and tweaking on some potentiometers. It's easy to compartmentalize the disparity of work effort when its 'us' and 'them', but what happens when 'them' happens to be us?

So, you say, why not move all big maintenance to the IMA (Intermediate Maintenance Activity, a shore based higher-level maintenance support group), where we can ensure that there will be enough beefcake to go around?

Answer: Doing maintenance is how we learn our jobs. The experience we gain from doing this work, and the tribal knowledge passed on from the senior guys to the junior guys about our equipment, is critical in a shit hits the fan moment like a casualty or battle damage. IMA doing all the work means a crew very light on level of knowledge, and I don't think anyone here will dispute the fact that training and experience is what separates the living and the dead in a crisis. It's not a solution, it's a bandage on a self-inflicted wound.

In conclusion, I feel that while the surface fleet has had the latitude to make the accommodations necessary for women on combatant ships, the fact that they have been (more or less) successful does not mean that they can simply apply the lessons learned to the submarine force and move on. Our leadership needs the courage to examine the real costs, the real difficulties involved with this idea, and exercise that courage in an honest analysis of what actual benefit is derived from mixed gender crews on submarines versus the penalties.

If we're doing it simply for 'diversity' (whatever the fuck that actually means), then the Admirals and the SecNav and the Joint Chiefs can all muster on the end of my meat torpedo.

09-26-2009, 12:11 AM
No bait, I have no Idea how life is on a sub and I know you do so I wanted your opinion .

09-26-2009, 12:15 AM
No bait, I have no Idea how life is on a sub and I know you do so I wanted your opinion .

I call that bait! :D