[Editor’s Note: This essay won first prize in the Naval Submarine League sponsored contest for the Submarine Officers Advanced Course at Submarine School.]
A basic fear pervades the submarine community and it has nothing to do with budget cuts or maintaining the industrial base. The fear is that some day women will infiltrate our ranks, operate our ships, and perhaps even one day command them. There is no other topic that yields a more emphatic and boisterous call to arms than the issue of women on submarines. Why is this? Is it because women really will degrade the morale of the crew or cause a loss of male privacy in a close quarters environment? Or is it really because we are scared? Scared of giving up our male ways, sexist innuendo and stories that can only be repeated when ship’s depth is greater than 400 feet for fear of retribution.
We claim to be visionaries, knocking down barriers between the Submarine Force and the surface and aviation communities, and shifting paradigms regarding the role of the submarine in this post Cold War era. However, we have failed to adequately address the very basic question of who can serve in our selective group. We have repeatedly heard over the years that the Submarine Force is made up of the top performers-the cream of the crop, yet we are only drawing from half of our population. If we instantly double the pool of available applicants then it only makes sense that a step change in the positive direction will follow.
There are a number of reasons why women do not currently serve on submarines. Following are the major issues preventing women from serving on submarines with a short discussion with regard to current and future fleet makeup.
- Privacy and habitability
- Pregnancy and family planning
- The silent issues
Privacy and Habitability
The submarine fleet consists mainly of SSN 688 class submarines and SSBN 726 class submarines. Since the vast majority of the 637 class is scheduled for decommissioning in the next few years they are not addressed. The 688 class has a small head (bathroom), complete with shower, toilet and sinks in the forward compartment lower level, and at the top of the adjacent ladderway is the nine-man (people) berthing compartment. This setup would allow for a women’s berthing area and head. No money is required to change the existing configuration or add any facilities. The 726 class similarly has nine-man berthing spaces and a head that can be converted to female use at no expense whatsoever.
Some people will be quick to point out that feasibility studies have already been done which have shown that significant redesign and costly reconfiguration would be required to satisfactorily place women on submarines. Like any military program there is a seller and a buyer in this issue. In this case the Submarine Force is the seller and the Congressional committees and the CNO are the buyers. However, the seller doesn’t really want the program sold so we voice very loudly all of the negative aspects of the program which are then confirmed by an independent committee. If, on the other hand, we lobbied the positive gains with even a fraction of the vim and vigor with which we lobby for such things as the third SEA WOLF and the new attack submarine (NSSN), women would surely serve aboard submarines today. And, if after a positive campaign the committees still decide that submarines are not suitable for women, then what about the NSSN? Numerous lists of requirements and new features of the NSSN have been promulgated but there has been no mention of an ergonomic design suitable for both sexes. This is the stage where we should be working most fervently. It costs nothing to put up a bulkhead or move a berthing compartment on a computer screen, however if we wait until designs are approved and plans are made, then it will be too easy to shift back to the proven argument of costliness for redesign. It is imperative that the Submarine Force be proactive on this issue now, so at the very least we are not forced to accept some future alternative that is not tolerable for the men or women involved.
Pregnancy and Family Planning
The issues surrounding pregnancy and family planning have already been discussed and resolved regarding women serving aboard warships. However, the argument has been made that since a submarine crew is so small relative to our surface counterparts that the loss of a single crew member could result in unacceptable attrition and countless emergent personnel shifts. The answer to this problem lies in the recruiting of women submariners. Potential recruits should be counselled and educated with regard to the Navy’s expectations of them in their upcoming sea tours. A logical family progression exists with the current sea to shore rotations. A certain amount of attrition will occur due to pregnancies but the key to minimizing it is to recruit highly motivated people who are provided with a clear and unequivocal picture of what lies ahead. Although these emergent losses will be painful for the executive officers involved, it certainly should not be the crux of the much larger picture. We only have to look to the surface and aviation communities to see that women have been deploying for years.
The Silent Issues
The silent issues are the issues which when examined carefully really don’t amount to valid concerns, but are clearly seen as protests. They include the possibilities of fraternization, the concerns of spouses and others. It should be clear that all of these potential problems, when handled with the responsible leadership that is the hallmark of the Submarine Force, are moot points in considering the underlying question of whether women should serve aboard submarines. We need to throw away our old cloaks of masculinity and join our counterparts in the civilian communities who have long since integrated women into previously male only professions.
The Submarine Force has had an important role in the shaping of our Navy and our nation, and we are continuing to improve the fleet through myriad positive changes. To continue on the cutting edge and to maintain our role as leaders in the Navy we must make room now for the great women leaders of tomorrow. The issue of women serving on submarines is really a simple one that only requires a small alteration in our thinking to yield large results. As the plans are approved for the New Attack Submarine, which will shape the face of the Submarine Force of the 21st century, we need to prove now that we are the visionaries that we have claimed, and to gain the other half of our population as future wearers of the gold and silver dolphins.