Submarine News: Women aboard!

Posted by Rebekah
Feb 24 2010

Well, this has been in the works for a long while, but the Navy  has announced the opening of the Submarine Force to women.  Providing Congress does not forbid it over the next 30 days, women will begin to be integrated into the Submarine Force.  This will take time of course, but women,beginning with officers (since they will have more privacy in cabins rather than the large crew’s quarters) may begin to serve on submarines as soon as 18 months from now.

I’m not a sailor, and certainly not a submariner, and am therefore unqualified to comment on whether or not this is a good idea or if it is being implemented in a good way, but I thought I’d reveal some of the reasons why women have been barred from submarine service until this year’s decree.

Back in WWII, women did not serve on any active warship or combat group, including submarines. In fact, when women were encouraged to join the military, it was more to take the shore-side office jobs releasing the men who would have taken those jobs to go to the front. There were a few times women were on board submarines in WWII, but in all cases, they were being evacuated from one point to another, and the submarine was the best transport available.  Like any civilian, the women were restricted to a cabin in officer’s country, escorted to the head a few times a day.  This is more a reflection of the world at that time, not outright discrimination as we would define it today.

The Norweigen and Danish submarine forces were the first to integrate women onboard submarines in 1985 and 1988 respectively, followed by the Swedes, Australians and Canadians.  In 1995, the first woman CO of a submarine took command of a Norweigen submarine.

This issue, however, is not as cut and dried as it would first appear.  The above mentioned navies only keep modern diesel electric boats, not nuclear boats.  This limits the time at sea to a few weeks, not the six to seven month patrols that American Nuclear Submarines routinely do.  They also, since they need fresh air every few days as opposed to never like a nuc sub, are limited as to where they can go.

The biggest objection to women on submarines has little to do with whether or not women are physically or mentally capable of serving aboard.  Most people, even submariners, agree they are.  It has more to do with potential problems to a woman and her unborn children should she be pregnant.  Right now, any woman who is serving on board a ship  and finds herself pregnant is removed to a shore station for her own and her unborn child’s protection

Despite what one may think, it’s not the radiation issue that’s at the core of the concern.  You absorb more radiation from the sun working in your yard for a day than you would working on a nuclear submarine for several days.  The radiation from the nuclear core is obsessively measured and tracked, and quite low.  It’s the air quality, believe it or not.  While the standards of sub air, which is manufactured and recycled, are well within the livable standards for adults, it’s known that higher CO2 levels such as is found in a submarine, can have detramental effects on a fetus.  How high those levels have to be has never been effectively studied on humans because there is no ethical way to test it.  There are also trace gases on a submarine that could have negative effects.   If there is going to be a negative effect, it’ll have the greatest impact during the first trimester, when a woman may go weeks before suspecting that they are pregnant.

Moreover, submarines are very, very, cramped.  Despite being larger than WWII submarines, at least in WWII, the subs were designed to have one bed per crewmember.  This is no longer true, the submariners “hot bunk”, meaning when you go on duty, you roll out of bed, dress, roll up your sleeping bag and your bunkmate takes your place on your bunk.  Dressing and undressing takes place in the open hallway of the crew’s quarters.  There are no doors to the heads (bathrooms).  When two people pass in the hallway of a submarine, they often have to turn sideways to pass each other.  So when does a guy in the hallways brush past a female and the line of “sorry, just passing by,” and potential problems get crossed?  It’s bad if someone is going to harass another crewmember, but innocent people could get caught in the crossfire as well.  This is one of the potential legal headaches involved.

Submarines could potentially be retro-fitted to accommodate a co-ed crew much like the surface ships have been and are currently designed to do, but to do so would be billions of dollars.  The new submarines being designed and built could be built to accommodate co-ed crews from the beginning, but that would mean women couldn’t be on submarine crews until 2015 or beyond.

Another option that was explored  in 2008 was instead of integrating submarines, putting an all-female crew on a submarine.  That would eliminate expensive retro-fitting, possible harassment, and allow women to serve.  The downside, of course, is for a while, everyone on that boat, from the skipper down to the new enlisted, would be new and have no to limited experience, but this would solve itself over time.

It will be interesting to see what will happen.  In an election year, I doubt any congressman would risk speaking out against this idea for fear of repercussions at the polls, but I could be wrong.

Incidentally, until this year, no nuclear submarine force allowed women on board.  In January, the British, facing a manpower shortage on submarines, floated the idea of women serving aboard. That idea, like the American idea, is still in planning phases.

For more information:

A submariner’s stance on women on submarines

Another submariner’s stance on women on submarines

A women’s group against women on submarines

The 2008 idea of crewing a submarine with an all-female crew

UK Submarines and women

One of the first articles after the announcement

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2 Responses

  1. […] more on the development of women in the military, you can read my previous post here. For more on the Smoking […]

  2. […] more on the subject, see my previous posts about the history of women serving in the military, and women on submarines worldwide as well as this article, released just a few days ago.  (I do […]

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