Mr. Jackson is a former submariner who qualified on USS LOS ANGELES (SSN 688). He currently resides in East Lyme, CT.
Recent public statements by the leaders of American naval forces have signaled both their willingness and determination to gender-integrate the Submarine Service, one of the last remaining bastions of male-only populations in the American military. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead acknowledged women’s changing roles in the American military in an interview that appeared recently in The Navy Times. In another interview, this time with the American Forces Press Service, Admiral Roughead acknowledged that although there will be challenges, they are not insurmountable. He stated, “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.”1 Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed with Roughead’s assessment when he made the following statements in an address to the Senate Armed Services Committee in September, 2009. “I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women,” Mullen said. “One policy I would like to see changed is the one barring their service aboard submarines.” Admiral Mullen was also quoted as saying, ” … that having a military that reflects the demographics of the United States is ‘a strategic imperative for the security of our country.’ ” United States Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, was more definitive, but no Jess positive, on the issue. Following a tour the Newport News shipyard, a builder of nuclear submarines, he told
reporters, “I believe women should have every opportunity to serve at sea, and that includes aboard submarines.”
Since stationing women on submarines is being seriously considered, the Navy must also evaluate what effect introducing females into a formerly single-sex ship will have on the organization and effectiveness of the boat’s mission, on the male and female crew members themselves, and on the spouses that wait in anticipation for their return. However, the issue in 2010 might be more how can it be accomplished and not if it can it be done at all. Are there valid and insurmountable obstacles that would preclude women from effectively serving onboard undersea warships? Furthermore, if women are ultimately denied the opportunity to become a part of this technological frontier, will this be a just decision based on real military, physiological, and sociological impediments, or an expedient verdict derived from prejudice, apprehension, and devotion to custom? The arguments against gender integration on submarines can be condensed into four general areas: the suitability of females for this particularly arduous duty, the difficulty of creating and maintaining appropriate personal privacy zones, and the issue of pregnancy of the female crewmember, and the sociological effects of a mixed-gender crew. While the remedies for the first three can be at least easily conceived, the last issue will require a new and creative set of solutions.
Considering the first issue, women have demonstrated in virtually all navy occupations over the last fifty years, their ability to master complex training, endure the physical hardships, and excel at levels commensurate with their male counterparts. Clearly, as supported by the reality of the current state of naval forces and, with few exceptions, women can and do fill positions requiring the stamina for sustained arduous conditions, the demand for acute mental capacity and discipline, and the prerequisites of intense and thorough training.
Also at issue is the difficulty of creating and maintaining appropriate personal privacy zones and this is undoubtedly a valid concern. This concern, however, has available engineering and financially based remedies and, given the will to change, could be easily surmounted. Some options would require the patience to wait for a submarine class specifically designed to accommodate a mixed gender crew, but it also may be possible to modify existing boats for an integrated crew.
As on any mixed-gender military vessel, the issue of the possibility of the female crewmember becoming pregnant presents some clearly valid concerns. An unexpected pregnancy may challenge the viability of the continued mission of the submarine and creates the possibility of a medically truncated cruise.
The only concern that cannot be addressed by the appropriate application of financial, medical, or scientific resources are the sociological effects on shipmates and shipboard operations when women enter an exclusively male populated occupation. The potentially erosive effects on relationship matrices are complex. No doubt, living and working in a small space like a nuclear submarine at sea involves unique challenges not found on the significantly larger and more populous navy surface ships. Patty Marr, a female graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, who served two years at sea, spoke against attempts to assign women to submarines when interviewed by a Connecticut newspaper in 2000:
“I was the division officer for 60 people, of which six were women, and three of those were removed during deployment for pregnancy. Close quarters with mixed crews produce romantic relationships.”
While the relationships between men and women stationed on a submarine can become problematic, the relationship between the spouses of sailors on a mixed-gender submarine also could suffer. Currently, the wives that remain behind must accommodate themselves not only to absences, routinely longer than three months, but also to periods of sporadic or nonexistent communication with their husband, and the natural worry that go along with such extended deployments.
Although these concerns hold some validity in the naval community, the reasons supporting placing women on submarines are few and simple, but equally compelling. First, and perhaps most obviously, females represent a significant source of high-quality, expertly trained, and in many cases, well experienced, potential submarine sailors. At least since the 1970’s, women have been allowed entry into the most technical of enlisted rating training programs. There now exists a substantial pool of female naval personnel in all of the ratings needed at sea on submarines. Utilization of this resource could only lessen the problems of staffing these submarines, creating a better trained and educated submarine crew.
Further, assuming that the logistical issues can be addressed and that there are no overriding physiological or national security issues involved, the strongest case for allowing women to serve on submarines is that justice demands that these “free and equal” navy women be allowed a fair chance to compete for these positions. When considering the fundamental ideas of the twentieth century philosopher and noted Harvard professor John Rawls, the current navy policy toward women fails the tests presented by both of his fundamental questions concerning the principles of justice. First, Rawls wrote that:
Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all…
Clearly, women in the navy who can meet the physical and intellectual requirements for submarine service do not have an equal claim to a scheme of basic equal rights, especially if it can be ascertained that the gender prohibition has no real basis.
Rawls’ second principle seems to speak even more clearly and directly to the issue:
Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
The least advantaged members of this navy society, women, are in actuality experiencing the least benefit of the current policy. Additionally, if considering the positions and offices, in this case to be a position on a navy nuclear submarine, then the policy is again found to be unjust since the positions are not “open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” The current policy denies female officers opportunities for promotion and advancement in a large and increasingly important segment of the naval hierarchy. With the advent of the nuclear navy in the 1950’s and especially with the development of the Los Angeles class attack boat and the Ohio class Trident ballistic missile submarines, submarine service became a legitimate, and even sought-after, career path for officers desiring high rank and a long and fruitful career. To deny female officers the opportunity to serve on submarines is to cut them off from this vital, viable and flourishing naval career path. According to Rawls’ philosophy of justice as fairness, the policy prohibiting women from being assigned to navy submarines cannot be considered fair since it violates both of the fundamental principles of justice.
The sociological effects and challenges of a mixed-gender crew are, no doubt, the most difficult challenges facing the proposed integration. These intricate issues might be addressed by the modification of a single, simple, and currently existing sociological construct; the tradition of voluntary submarine qualification. Qualification is in effect a social contract that all members of the submarine crew must freely enter into of their own volition. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his book The Social Contract written in 1762, could have been describing the human organizational relationship at work within the submarine crew:
These articles of association, rightly understood, are reduced to a single one, namely the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community. Thus, in the first place, as each individual gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all, and precisely because they are the same for all, it is in no one’s interest to make the conditions onerous for others.
The submarine crew member, when he, and now potentially she, voluntarily joins the Submarine Force, enters into a contract, or pact, exactly as described by Rousseau. The individual must, without coercion, give themselves absolutely, agreeing to learn the unique regulations, the requisite skills, and pass the required tests that will qualify them in submarines. Certainly, the conditions of this qualification program are the same for every member of the crew and every person onboard has a vested interest in assisting every other member onboard in attaining and maintaining peak qualification because, literally, their lives depend on it. The new submarine crew candidate gives up some freedoms but finds, as Rousseau wrote, ” … a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each member, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.”
Most importantly, it would be crucial to have a Captain that was totally supportive, indeed a champion of the proposed change. The effect of attitude of a captain on the culture of the crew was succinctly described by Ronald S. Steed, former commander of Submarine Squadron Two at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, when he was interviewed concerning the collision of the submarine USS HARTFORD (SSN 768) with another Navy ship. Steed said, “People always ask why is the commanding officer almost always relieved when there is an incident, and the answer is that we hold him accountable for establishing a culture on a ship that is safe, efficient and capable of carrying out the mission.” The culture established by a captain that is supportive of establishing a well-functioning, mixed-gender submarine crew would be an essential component in successful submarine gender integration.