Submarines: Women Join The Crews Of U.S. Boats


May 18, 2012:  The U.S. Navy is half way through its program to begin adding women to submarine crews. After two years twelve female officers are serving on two subs, with female contingents for another two subs being trained. The current drill is to have one more experienced (on a sub) female officer (usually a lieutenant or O-3) serve as a mentor for two ensigns (O-1). The second dozen female officers will be integrated to sub life the same way.

Three years ago the Naval Academy was asked to survey its female midshipmen and see how many would want to join the submarine service. About two dozen said they were interested for one of the seven slots the academy has been told would be available. The navy is initially assigning the women to SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) and SSGNs (four SSBNs converted to carry cruise missiles), mainly because these larger boats have sufficient room to provide separate quarters for women. The Ohio class SSBNs also have hatches large enough to easily get in the equipment needed to build the separate quarters. SSBNs also have two crews, which alternate running the boats on their 77 day cruises. In between each cruise the boats are in port for about 35 days for maintenance and resupply.

One compelling reason for allowing women to serve is a growing shortage of men willing to do so. Four years ago the Naval Academy produced only 92 male officers for submarine duty that required 120. Submariners must be volunteers and satisfy strict physical, psychological, and academic qualifications.

This would not be the first time female naval officers have served on American subs. There were already twelve submarine qualified female officers in the navy when the navy decided to go forward with putting women on regular crew duty. That is, these twelve had taken all the training required for someone to serve on a submarine. There is a lot more training on the boat before you become part of a crew but these women are qualified to serve for short periods. These women were technical specialists and do serve for short periods on submarines, sharing a two person stateroom. The Other navies (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and Norway) allow women to serve on subs but not all of these countries have had many, if any, women actually volunteer for the service.

The U.S. Navy has a unique situation, however, mainly the length of the cruises (even the SSNs, or attack boats, go out for a month or more per cruise). The nations that already allow women on subs have non-nuclear boats that spend far less time at sea each time they go out. The women on these sub crews have got used to the lack of privacy and both genders have adapted, as has been the case with mixed crews on surface warships.

But the wives of American submariners have been openly hostile to the idea of mixed male/female crews and have not been reluctant to make their concerns known. What the wives worry about is, well, sex. They know that this takes place on surface ships with mixed crews and it has caused a few marriages to break up. Service on subs is even more claustrophobic and stressful. And there are far fewer places, compared to surface ships, for a couple to have some clandestine sex. But this sexual activity, even though banned on all USN warships, does happen.

The berthing problem seems to be overrated, as other navies have simply put a curtain or two up to separate the male and female berthing. The officers and senior NCOs have shared rooms, and if women are allowed to serve on American subs, it will be women officers at first because that's where the greatest shortage is. Not a lot of men are willing to go through all the training and tests to qualify for a job as an enlisted sailor on a nuclear sub and probably fewer women are interested.




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