Reprinted with permission from the June 2000 issue of the Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS.
Whatever he did wrong, Richard Nixon got it right in his 1982 work Leaders. “Of all the changes taking place in the new world,” he wrote, “one that will have a particularly dramatic impact on future leadership is the crumbling of those barriers that in the past have held women back. The woman candidate for a top executive office still has to overcome a residue of the old presumption that such positions are a male preserve. But as more move up, the presumption will fade.” Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig’s October 1999 rebuke of the “white male preserve” that bans females from U.S. submarines echoes Nixon. As the ban on women in professional baseball, the Navy’s is an arbitrary rather than a skills-based policy. Nevertheless, the Navy’s uniformed leaders retain all the gender cards. Admiral Jay Johnson, Chief of Naval Operations, sets the stage for rapprochement with the Tailhook Association while opposing women on submarines under any conditions. The Navy’s military leadership is keeping the Silent Service a male preserve by banning women outright.
What female submariners really threaten is existing power relations. While top admirals and their horse holders maintain that putting women on submarines constitutes an insurmountable logistical challenge, many women possess just those attributes submariners actually seek: sociability, high emotional development, lower aggression levels, compliant physical features (i.e., height, build, etc.), and acute common sense. It is not sexist to posit that many women possess these qualities. Ablution, bunk and watch assignments, and risks of fraternization and harassment can be managed by Navy leadership under orders to make it work. But overcoming those hurdles would be a dress rehearsal for the ascension of the female into some of the most important operational positions in the Navy. The fundamental issue is less about managing privacy in the head and more about keeping everyone at the top male.
The U.S. Navy’s difficulties with females on submarines might be solved with all-female crews, were it not for the Catch-22 used throughout the armed forces: women can’t have the job without experience, and because they are barred from the jobs, they cannot gain the experience. The result is that there is no prospect for a woman to command an Army division, a Navy submarine, become a Commander-in-Chief (CinC) of a combatant command or a service chief of staff -let alone Chair(person) of the Joint Chiefs.
The Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) recognized the potential contribution of women on submarines and recommended the “assignment of the most highly qualified personnel regardless of gender.” Critics decried the cost of modifications to accommodate females-ignoring that changes to current nuclear-powered attack (SSNs) and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) would cost $3 to $5 million each-fractions of the costs of the submarines. The same critics also dismiss the European submarine fleet experience-where minimum accommodation alterations have been made and women work alongside men without degrading operations. The crews simply have adapted.
In the Royal Swedish navy, women have been serving on submarines for more than ten years and have had no significant problems. Privacy issues are managed by discipline rather than by reconstructing submarine space; women and men make do with the available room. And in the Royal Norwegian Navy, a woman already has commanded a submarine. In all cases, going co-ed has not reduced operational effectiveness-quite the reverse.
In the Pacific, while Australia has used women to support combat operations in the past, only with its emerging policy of tolerance of females aboard submarines is it fully recognizing its debt to female warriors. In 1998, ten women sailors and one officer commenced Collins-class submarine training and qualified during the spring of 1999. Australian government policy discriminates against servicewomen, however, by barring them from direct combat-when the Israeli Anny has opened all positions, regardless of gender.
President Bill Clinton has opened tens of thousands of previously restricted jobs to servicewomen. In the case of integrating crews on submarines, the place to start would probably be SSBNs, which typically provide each sailor with a private bunk. Gender integration could be accomplished either permanently or temporarily with an eye toward training all-female crews. This latter solution might placate those who object to women serving on submarines-the combatants still barred to women. While women have trained on ballistic missile submarines, Admiral Johnson will not permit women to be assigned to them, ostensibly because of fears of male crew reactions to women aboard.
Life in America is replete with double standards. Females can engage in combat as law enforcement officers, but in the ultimate law enforcement institution, the military, they are restrained from combat by law. Even so, 13 American women were among the 375 U.S. service members who died during Operations Desert Shield-Desert Storm in 1991. Enjoining servicewomen from combat did not keep combat from them. In the U.S. military and the society it reflects, women are both openly and subtly dissuaded, even legally restricted, from work they can do.
The idea that submarines cannot accommodate females is an all-wet red herring, as several allied navies have demonstrated. Once women have put themselves through the most vigorous, combat-related, red-badge-of-courage situations, there can be no rationale to restrain them from the highest levels of command. It is time to allow qualified women to serve in all capacities for which they have both the aptitude and the interest.
If trends in allied submarine forces are an indication, gender-neutrality aboard American submarines is the wave of the future.