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Navy Brass Open to Women on Submarines

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 a week after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told congressional lawmakers that he thought it was time to end the ban against women on submarines.

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," Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations (CNO), 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 answers submitted to written questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mullen was responding to a question on women in combat. He took the opportunity to zero in on women on 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 to Navy Times, stopped short of announcing any major policy changes.

"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.

Mullen, who became Joint Chiefs chairman two years ago, had shown interest in a policy change during his 2 and one-half years as CNO and had asked the submarine community to look at the issue, said Capt. John Kirby, Mullen's spokesman.

That "look" was not completed by the time he was elevated to his present job, Kirby said, but opening the submarine force 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 front lines have brought women assigned to jobs as corpsmen, military police and other "combat enabler" jobs into harm's way.

As of May the Navy had 7,900 female officers and 44,000 female sailors, comprising about 15 percent of its 330,500-strong active force. While women have been assigned to surface warships since 1993, they remain banned from submarine crews, naval special warfare teams and conventional river patrol boat crews.

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.

1 Responses »

  1. How absurd for women to serve on submarines. By nature, the submarine corps is top secret. They are out on deployment for months at a time without means to communicate with the outside world. Even with the internet, only emergency messages can be sent through official channels. Not very many men can endure the close quarters of submarine duty for long periods of time. I question whether women possess the internal discipline necessary to remain pure in such tight quarters. I hope the highest echelons of the Navy will think long and hard before taking such a drastic step of allowing women to serve in the submarine corps.