Adapting Women to Subs


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 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

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    I like it, dt 2.0

    Byron Skinner

  • Agree with Byron, new look is terrific!

  • gsak

    More boat articles, Shipmate Buff. You do alright for not having fish.

  • gruntdoc91

    the pic says it all. its fun and games for them and they may not realize the serious nature of sub thenm its all about sticking it to the man so they can thump their chest and say look were equal to guys etc.etc. its funny outr last deployment we had women soldiers claiming combat stress and ptsd for working in a toc watching a computer screen or guarding the dfac or other non combat fobbit jobs. so whats going to happen when theyre stuck in a sub with no sunlight for a couple of months straight and nature being nature someones getting knocked up

    • paul.ehrlichman

      Hence there are all the more reasons to support more women and make sure that they serve! grunts like you is the reason for the backwardationist tendencies in US-military!

  • gruntdoc91

    yes my typing sucks im at working sneaking in my DT fix.

  • Tom Carney

    The article says 78% of those basically in the know thought it to be a bad idea, and have so deemed it since 1988 or so. This stat points to an ever-changing universe, not a collection of old men who cannot be convinced. As a matter of fact, it shows the new universe learns the lessons the old one did, by experience.
    By the way, anyone saying populating the fleet with women has been or is successful is disingenuous.
    And making change for any reason other than the mission is stupid.

  • Al Demarest IC2(SS)

    The USN cannot handle the sexual harassment problems they are faced with on shore stations and larger (carriers , cruisers etc) vessels. Now we are told
    to integrate crews faced with close quarter, long time submerged operations and expect it to be un- affected by this mandate . Welcome to added stress from wives of males , husbands of females, and suits from allegedly harassed individuals. Another side effect just may be an increased divorce rate lower rate of re-enlistment

  • STS3(ss) Filbey

    Women on subs! Thank God I got out 20 years ago!

  • gsak

    As a former submariner, I actually agree that is a bad idea to integrate women into the submarine service. However, it is not impossible to implement, and that fact will serve as the backbone to my comments on this subject in the future, regardless of my own opinion.

    Additionally, I’d like to see less talk from non-quals. If you’re wondering if this applies to you.. Yes, it does.

    • MM1(SS) USS Swordfish SSN579- Lets see’em survive on that old girl.

  • gsak

    One more thing:

    The course for women on the boats has been locked-in. Stop bitching and let the girls write their own history.

  • Jon

    Ohhhh – you were once in the Navy…
    Then I guess the rest of us should just read and not offer comments

    Can’t wait to see how this guy deals with the Ugg boots robot.

  • gsak

    Jon, you talking about submarines would be like you giving your opinion about life in a mining camp. One where the miners go to work for 3 months and don’t come out until then. You can’t do it.

    You could simply tell me that women don’t belong on submarines, and I’d agree. You could ask me how it would be possible to integrate women onto submarines, and I’d tell you. You don’t need to be retarded and post a lame comment, because that doesn’t benefit anyone.

    So yeah, we get it. Women on submarines are a bad idea. Now you get it: It’s going to happen, and you can keep your fingers on your mouse and let the qualified guys explain to you how it’s going to work.

  • Ex-STS1(SS)

    A kinder, gentler US Submarine Force of today can probably deal with women being on subs. Without a real enemy, the Submarine Force has lost it’s role of being a usefull commodity of projecting seapower and protecting sealanes. As with the naming of submarines, the issue of women on submarines is a political statement. The idea of women serving on US subs is created and pushed by individules with no concept of the real problems this so-called vision will cause.

    I agree with PO Filbey. Thank God I got out over 20 years ago!

    The hard charging US Sub Force of the Cold War era would not have tolerated the thought of having women onboard a deployed submarine. There was a job to be done and not a time for so-called political correctness and mandated equality.

    I served on a nuclear powered Fast Attack sub for 6 years and made 4 major deployments between 1981 and 1985. At that time, this idea would have been an absurd gesture, but times have changed. Who knows, maybe an injection of the female persuasion will help the US Submarine Force regain some of the luster and pride it seems to have lost in the last 20 years.

  • Designer

    Shoot! I KNOW I would have a dirt-eating grin on MY face, that is IF I ever had the opportunity to drive a multi-thousand ton, billion-dollar boat (even if it is just the rudders and not the planes).

    You would or did too… The joy of experience is part of why we serve, unless you strove to be a nuclear monk.

    Why take one photo of exuberance and twist the mid into a foolish “girl”. As she gets older she will get the hang of it. As a woman, she statistically might even have a better attention span, with less interpersonal aggression in confined situations, then you and others as typical males.

    To be fair, statistically she may also have more difficulty pounding in a bung overhead in a flooding compartment, but then how many dolphins standing watch after chow have the rippled steel bellies of SEALs?

    Trust me, if there are dominant, experienced older women on the boat, they will police their “girls” in ways that as a male you may never perceive much less comprehend. There is a substantial sub-language among women to which men are generally oblivious.

    Further, every Captain and Admiral will be watching the behavior of the lowest female (and male) seaman, along with Congress and the world. I have much anticipated sympathy (and respect) for the first female CPO aboard.

    • VCS Shipbuilder

      Thanks for the only opposing view on this issue. It has been my experience (as a sailor, enlisted, officer (yes mustang!) that the majority of our sailors can get used to anything given enough time. (I once saw a third class walk into the prop arc of an E-2 while staring at the posterior of a new female plane captain aboard the newly integrated USS Lincoln. He was summarily tackled by a shipmate.) The point is: the biggest weapon in any warfighter’s arsenal is the ability to adapt to change. We do it better together like we do everything else. I have known too many brilliant submariners to believe that this is an insurmountable challenge. This is the Navy’s elite fighting force. It can get over an integration of the sexes just as easily (if not easier) than the rest of us.

    • Been there, done that. Trust me these gals had better be tough as nails and good at their jobs, if they aren’t the crew with drive them out or drive them crazy. Bubbleheads play rough and god help any one of those ladies who can’t make the cut.

  • Zandor

    Dear Designer;

    It is somewhat strange that the German Armed forces seemed to not have it’s submarine forces staffed by females.

    The Germans are efficient, so how could they have missed out on this opportunity to increase efficiency?

    Not only that, but as well, the Whermacht’s SS Panzer Divisions were notibly defficient in Female tank commanders.

    In fact, there was not even one single female Field Marshal in the German Army.

    Is that the reason that the German’s lost WW 2?

    Fems Uber Alles.

  • Designer raises a real interesting point. Nazi Germany was very sexist. They resorted to young boys and old men as soldiers when they got desparate, but not women soldiers, yet some good proportion of draft-age women do make very good soldiers. [Does anyone out there have a good estimate what that proportion might be in today’s volunteer U.S. Army?] The Soviet Union had lots of women soldiers, partisans, commissars, and so on. The USSR whupped Hitler’s ass. Mayhap this is some cause-and-effect?

  • gsak

    I guarantee that having a bad skipper, bad chiefs, bad LPO etc. would be worse than having a handful of women onboard.

  • vincemv

    Sorry crock of crap!! We continue to destroy the effectivess of the armed forces in the name of political correctness and “diversity:. God help us, when need is and we have to face a determined, capable and well organized enemy the whole rotten ediface will come tumbling down around our ears- but by then it will be too late and those who die to actualize some idiots vision of “the way things ought to be”. What a freakin’ joke!

  • Joe Buff

    To Vincemv and anyone else who wants to weigh in: I haven’t yet seen someone who is against women on U.S. sub crews because “a co-ed military is an ineffective PC military” put that in a perspective relative to how Soviet Russia, and also the State of Israel, have taken for granted women in the military — and USSR beat Nazi Germany and Israel’s armed forced are world class, co-ed or not?

  • Good, we’ll see how well this works out. In the past Bubbleheads were known for playing a bit rough, these gals with orders to the boats better have a steel backbone and cast iron nerves. Hey this means new snivel gear, rubbers!