It’s Official…Bring on the Women…and put out those cigarettes!

Posted by Rebekah
Apr 29 2010

There have been two large developments with the Submarine Force recently!

The first is, cigarette smoking, something which, until now has been the domain for the individual captains of the various submarines, has officially been banned from all submarines from the higher ups.  For the smokers left on the submarines and their crewmates…good luck, God Bless and try not to kill each other while having to quit cold turkey in a stressful situation.  Remember, the enemy is outside the submarine!

There is actually an interesting history to this.  Smoking bans for inside the military bases, below decks on surface ships and inside heavy artillery like tanks began in 1994, predating the no-smoking ban in federal buildings by three years.  Sailors on surface ships were allowed to smoke out in the open air of the deck which of course raised the question of submarines:  There is no deck, and for months on end, there is no open or fresh air or air of any kind.  A submariner who loses his head and tries to get outside to get some will be generally tackled and, if necessary, shackled to their beds until they can be safely evacuated.

Seriously, I’m not joking.

So the smoking ban had a built-in loophole for submariners.  They could continue, to smoke at sea, though the biggest loophole of all still applied:  the CO could ban smoking on his boat if he wanted.

During WWII, it was very common for many people to smoke and several photographs taken of the interior of submarines show men smoking cigarettes or cigars while underway (Remember, this is before submarines could recycle air: the oxygen you had when you went down was all the oxygen you were going to have until you surfaced and could exchange air.)  Some non-smokers recall taking up the habit suddenly during depth charge attacks, others, giving it up entirely.  During a long depth charge attack, smoking might be banned because the burning matches and cigs would deplete the oxygen faster.  You knew you were really in trouble if you couldn’t LIGHT a match or cig because the oxygen was so low!

This photo, taken from inside the USS Silversides, shows men at leisure and cards inside the Crew's Mess. You can clearly see the cigarette hanging from the left-hand man's mouth. This photo was pulled from USS Silversides: An Illustrated Record of Silversides' War Patrol Record December 1941-August 1945 available from the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum.

A couple decades later, following the introduction of the snorkel and several other technological achievements, submarines manufactured and recycled their own air, allowing them to stay under for months at a time.

Now this is not to say that every submariner smoked.  Many didn’t.  Above all, each submarine had a Commanding Officer whose word was just short of law when out at sea.  If the CO of a sub said there will be no smoking on this boat, or smoking will be confined to these compartments, or  anything else he wanted, that was that. (The  Florida apparently has a rule that only three people can smoke at a time.  There is occasionally a line for smokes)  So by exempting submarines, the Navy was really allowing the COs of each boat to continue to make that decision for themselves and their crews.

No longer.  Starting at New Year Day 2011, all subs are smoke free, all the time.  One of the factors that went into this decision was a study done on non-smoking submariners in 2009.  They were testing for nicotine in their systems before deployment and after.  Very few had nicotine in their systems before their deployment, all had it in their systems after, despite the limited times and areas their fellow smokers were permitted to smoke.  The air scrubbers and filters that removed the smoke and cooking smells were not apparently removing the nicotine.  So on behalf of the nearly 60% of non-smoking submariners, the other 40% have been requested to comply with the Navy’s “no smoking below decks” rule, even if their deck is underwater for weeks at a time.  (The article I’m referencing and will link to at the end stresses that “smoker” in this case refers to people who smoke every day, as opposed to those who have the occasional cigar or smokeless tobacco)

The reason the ban does not go into effect for another eight months is to allow those sailors who need to quit time to do so and physically adjust.  Submarine sailors who have already quit have been enlisted as mentors to those who are trying, and Corpsmen anticipate stocking up on nicotine gum and patches.  Some COs are more severely limiting where and when smokers can light up in an effort to gradually wean their men off nicotine.

The other piece of news is that women, beginning in 2012, will be serving on submarines.  No one in Congress wanted to say anything for or against it during the waiting period, so it is now official.

Starting on the large Trident Missile Submarines (the largest of the submarines, the Ohio-class) three women will be assigned to each submarine together.  The reason is a junior officer’s cabin sleeps three, so all three women would share sleeping and changing space, helping with the privacy issues.  Those women would include a female senior officer as well as two juniors.  A reversible sign on the officer’s bathroom would help with the privacy issues in the head.  (For all you civilians, that means bathroom).

This still doesn’t solve issues with privacy and security in the enlisted men’s quarters, which will require physical alterations, and some careful thought on how to accomplish that.

This leaves the thorny issue the Navy and submariners have to deal with when it comes to harassment and potential health problems, particularly reproductive problems.  The Navy does not want to be responsible for the loss of reproductive capabilities of any personnel, and submariners are exposed to more things (recycled air, increased and constant pressure, lack of sunlight and the associated health benefits for long periods and radiation exposure (though that is a very minor issue)) than surface sailors.

Women have been on modern submarines before for days at a time: but usually civilian engineers or naval personnel aboard for a very specific and limited mission.  The long term effectiveness and problems will show themselves eventually.

Some of the foreseen problems might end up being overblown, while some serious problems might end up being a surprise.  Only time will tell how this will play out, but submariners have always taken pride in their professionalism.  That professionalism will hopefully smooth this new transition.

For more on the development of women in the military, you can read my previous post here.
For more on the Smoking Ban

More on how women will be transitioned onto submarines

A study the Navy did about the feasibility or the adjustments needed to have women on submarines

Newer :

Older :

Trackback URL for this entry