Submarines: More Women Join Crews


August 16, 2023: South Korea is the latest country to accept women on submarine crews. Nineteen other nations already allow women to serve on submarine crews. These nations include; Argentina, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal. South Africa, Spain, Sweden, United States and Venezuela. Women are in submarine crews because service in submarines requires volunteers with technical skills and there are not enough qualified men volunteering. As a result, only fourteen nations actually have women on submarine crews. Several South Korean women have volunteered for submarine service and the first of them will complete her training and join a crew in 2024.

In 2010 the U.S. Navy decided to allow women to volunteer for submarine service, but it wasn’t until 2014 that women completed their training and joined crews. The navy decided 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 into sub life the same way. Enlisted women for submarine crews came later.

In 2009 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 in one of the seven slots the academy has been told would be available. The navy was 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 was the growing shortage of men willing to do so. In 2008 the Naval Academy produced only 92 male officers for submarine duty versus the requirement for 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 did serve for short periods on submarines, sharing a two person stateroom. Other navies that allow women to serve on subs but not all of these countries have had many, if any, women actually volunteering 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 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 American 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 when women began serving on American subs, it was 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 while fewer women were interested, there were some volunteers.

Many more nations allow women to serve as officers or enlisted sailors on surface ships. The trend of women serving in the armed forces on an equal footing as men began over a century ago. At first it was medical personnel but after a few decades women were serving as pilots for helicopters, transports and eventually combat aircraft. As with submarine crews, there was a chronic shortage of qualified pilots and even Moslem majority nations welcomed qualified women to serve as pilots. It was either that or have expensive combat aircraft grounded because of a lack of qualified pilots. As those female pilots remained in the service they rose in rank to become squadron commanders. There are no women commanding subs yet but give it time.




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