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Adapting Women to Subs

by christian on November 3, 2009

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The issue whether to include women in U.S. Navy nuclear sub crews has come up at every annual Naval Submarine League Open Symposium since I first began attending these great conferences in 1998. This year’s, on October 28 and 29 at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, VA, was no exception — except for one thing. Presentations by Commander, U.S. Navy Submarine Force (COMNAVSUBFOR) Vice Admiral John Donnelly, and by Commander, U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pacific (COMSUBPAC) Force Master Chief David Lynch, made it clear that America’s sub crews are indeed gradually going co-ed, starting soon.

Implicitly, everyone up and down the disciplined naval hierarchy has already been tasked with facilitating the initiative’s success. Director, U.S. Naval Reactors (DNR) Admiral Kirkland Donald noted that not enough male Naval Academy graduates are volunteering for the Sub Force to meet the demand there for new junior officers. It is well known that some top-notch female Midshipmen have long wanted to go into subs. An open poll on Military​.com about whether women should be able to serve on subs shows 78% of respondents say “No.” But while naysayer comments and dire predictions are numerous, I’ve not seen any objection to co-ed crews that hasn’t been voiced for more than a decade already.

The Powers-that-Be now demand that pragmatic solutions be devised and implemented for difficult morale/retention and logistical problems related to everything from the severe lack of mental and physical privacy on long submerged patrols, to harassment and fraternization, to differing hygiene and medical requirements and physical abilities between the sexes, to the vexing need to mitigate toxic occupational exposures for women who are pregnant while at the same time maintaining vital mission stealth and adequate watch-station manning levels. Drawing on analyses that go back to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) of the late 1990s, the Sub Force is not starting from scratch with these issues today. Recent submarine-medicine studies do show that first-trimester pregnancies are particularly vulnerable to contaminants such as carbon dioxide that tend to build up inside nuclear subs running deep for weeks at a time.

But — leaving aside the moral/religious implications — I do need to note that commercially available birth-control implants, some of which also suppress menstruation for months at a time, when combined with reliable pre-deployment pregnancy testing, might help limit the scope of this complication to manageable proportions.
       
At the concluding banquet of this year’s NSL Symposium, the guest speaker, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, praised in high terms the long and effective track record of adaptability of the Submarine Force. (He ended by stating that “fiscal constraints” might require that the construction rate of the Virginia-class fast attack subs revert to one per year for a while longer, further challenging Sub Force and submarine industrial base adaptability alike.) While UNDSECNAV Work made no specific mention of the issue of women on subs, I infer that senior leadership stands united in expecting to see this same adaptability exemplified as the Silent Service brings women onto its very exclusive membership rolls, beginning with a few crew assignments as early as 2010.

After all, the U.S. Navy’s surface warships have been co-ed since 1993. That change brought rough spots and ongoing complications, but the net effect was deemed by Navy leadership to be definitely positive: A larger pool of talent became available for a Navy that now much better represents the nation and way of life it is sworn to defend.

Even if having a co-ed Sub Force were a politically motivated social experiment, as some objectors contend, such experiments are not necessarily a bad idea. While foreign navies with co-ed diesel subs (such as Sweden and Australia) might not be good role models due to social mores and deployment profiles differing from those in America, relevant lessons learned can be found close to home at NASA, whose astronaut corps has been co-ed for years. Space Shuttle and International Space Station crews in orbit cope with strictures in many ways similar to those prevailing deep under the sea.  Some female American astronauts have completed six-month missions on the ISS — which has only one toilet.
 
In closing, I note that many millions of thriving families include high school or college age siblings of both sexes who while at home live cheek-by-jowl and have to share bathrooms.  Fraternization is avoided, of course, by the profound understanding shared by all of us in normal society that incest violates a heinous interpersonal taboo. Perhaps a culture needs to be engendered that a U.S. Navy co-ed sub crew is very analogous to a close-knit and overcrowded family trapped indoors for the winter by record snowfalls. Crewpersons have to see each other as united by figurative blood ties, making all be  brothers and sisters or parents and kids. This turns the mere thought of hanky-panky into an ugly place where no individual or pairing dare go.

Adjusting to co-ed crews, however precisely it’s done, has to call for a community-wide effort, including chaplains, detailers, medical staff, shore support personnel, and spouse organizations. Ongoing scrutiny seems likely by the media and by outside “watchdog” entities.  How difficult will it be for the elite ranks of the active duty qualified Dolphins-wearers themselves, already subject to tight psychological screening, to adjust to this quantum leap in diversity? Beyond the somewhat traditional and mostly harmless Sailor’s bellyaching about any big change, and the predictable added turnover of both some men and some women in the early stages, I think the Silent Service will likely adapt well to this internal challenge just as it has adapted to and helped win every mortally challenging global armed conflict during its very proud 100+ year history.

Joe Buff

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