A recommendation by a Pentagon-sanctioned civilian defense panel that
the Navy begin placing women aboard its ballistic missile and attack
submarines has not been well received by high-ranking Navy officials and
congressional opponents, who say the “Silent Service” should remain
devoid of mixed-gender crews.
Last week, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services
said the Navy should begin by assigning women officers to Ohio-class
ballistic missile submarines, or “boomers,” which are deployed worldwide
as the third tier in the U.S. “triad” of nuclear defense. The subs are
hard to detect and were designed to shower nuclear missiles on enemies
from unknown locations.
Long term, the panel recommended that the Navy redesign its newest,
but smaller, attack subs, the Virginia-class, to accommodate coed crews.
The Virginia-class subs are expected to begin service in 2004.
“The submarine service is an elite, prestigious force that requires
the brightest and best-qualified work force,” the panel wrote in its
report to Adm. Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, and Navy
Secretary Richard Danzig, who is a supporter of placing women on
submarines. “Navy women are highly capable and competitive and would
volunteer for submarine duty.”
Since making its recommendation, the committee has come under fire
from congressional and Navy opponents, as well as defense readiness
experts who say the idea is misguided, risky and would ultimately prove
Defense experts say redesigning the Virginia-class subs would cost $4
million each. Opponents of the panel’s conclusions say some subs —
boomers especially — were designed to remain at sea long periods of
time and, most importantly, to remain there undetected.
If a female submariner had special problems, they say, the sub would
either have to surface to offload her, risking detection, or it would
have to leave its duty station to get her special care.
Consequently, critics said, the loss of any submariner — male or
female — would make the sub less able to perform its mission because of
a submarine’s 100 percent staffing requirement.
In light of the panel’s recommendations, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a
Maryland Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, will
propose an amendment today to HR 4025, the Defense Authorization Bill
for FY 2001, banning by law the stationing of women sailors and officers
aboard U.S. submarines without congressional oversight and approval.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md.
Bartlett said his measure will amend a 1994 law that first permitted
women to serve aboard most warships. While that law exempts submarines,
it does give the Navy the authority to make the change with a 30-day
notice to Congress, a provision Bartlett called “meaningless” because,
under pressure from the administration, Navy officials could make the
change while Congress was out of session.
“Without my amendment, the Clinton administration could impose this
counterproductive policy change while Congress is out of session as a
final sop to its radical feminist supporters,” Bartlett said last week.
His view is shared by Elaine Donnelly, president of the
Military Readiness, and a former member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
“A vote in Congress for Congressman Bartlett’s measure would be a vote of support for Adm. Jay Johnson, who also opposes the committee’s recommendation,” Donnelly said Tuesday. She called both Johnson’s and Bartlett’s view of prohibiting female submariners “a judgment that is eminently sound and easily defensible on national security grounds.”
However, a formidable member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, said Monday she would oppose any measure to ban women from submarines.
“I would oppose legislation banning the integration of women onto submarines, as it is unnecessary and inappropriate,” she said. “Changes to this policy should be made by the leaders of the Department of the Navy, based on the Navy’s total force strength and individual warfare community needs.”
Snowe’s disapproval of Bartlett’s measure carries more than just rhetoric. Two years ago, the House enacted an amendment ordering the military to revert to sex-separate recruit training. But the senator strongly opposed it, and the measure failed in the Senate.
In a statement released Monday, Snowe said she neither supported nor opposed the panel’s recommendations. But, she added, “The women in our military have proven they are an integral part of our war-fighting forces and continually demonstrate their capability in assignments previously restricted to men only.”
Last December, Snowe said she had visited with the admiral in charge of Atlantic fleet submarines and toured a Los Angeles-class sub, one of the service’s attack boats.
|The USS Jefferson City, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, in Guam.|
“We discussed the fact that our current submarine force has valid habitability and quality of life issues that need to be addressed,” she said. “These changes require future planning and substantial funding to find practical solutions that will not affect the accomplishments of the submarine force mission.”
While the defense panel only recommended putting women on ballistic missile subs, Donnelly said “incremental” proposals “could only be solved by gender integration of the entire submarine force.” The panel’s conclusions, she said, would “limit women to one class of submarines, which would ultimately create an unworkable career path.”
|“Ballistic missile submarine USS Maine conducting drills off the coast of Puerto Rico.”|
She said Navy officials told the panel during its two-year study of the issue of placing women in subs that “one of the principal tenets of submarine officer detailing is the general intention that officers serve on both types of submarines in order to broaden their experience in each.”
And, Donnelly said, cramped living accommodations on all classes of submarines already fail to meet the Chief of Naval Operation’s habitability standards for surface ships.
Finally, she said, simply redesigning the submarines may prove detrimental to their mission.
“Current estimates of cost do not reflect the operational hazards of degrading undersea performance characteristics and combat capabilities, which are vastly different from the surface fleet,” she said.
Navy officials concur. In summarizing its position, the Navy said: “Due to their very unique space limitations, equipment density, and design constraints in an extended mission requirements environment, submarines cannot provide the necessary privacy to properly accommodate mixed-gender crews.
“The Navy’s decision regarding the assignment of women to submarines has been reviewed [and it was] determined that no new information has become available from the Women at Sea program, which would provide a basis for changing the policy” currently prohibiting women from serving on subs.
A comprehensive report on the subject written for the Navy by
Science Applications International Corporation, a high-technology research and engineering company based in San Diego, says, “Consideration of mixed-gender crews must be undertaken in the context of the combat effectiveness of the submarine.”
“This standard alone should govern the discussion of having women serve on submarines,” Donnelly said.
Meanwhile, Danzig, while taking no official position on the stationing of women aboard submarines, has made controversial remarks about submarine service and its male domination.
“If the submarine force remains a white male bastion, it will wind up getting less and less support when it requires resources, when it has troubles — be they accidents or personnel issues or other kinds of things,” the Navy secretary said last June, sparking outrage among Pentagon allies in and out of Congress.
In its report to Danzig and Johnson, the advisory panel acknowledged the Navy’s concern about privacy and the cost of retrofitting submarines to accommodate female crew members.
“The Navy’s historical experience and commitment to the utilization of women on other (vessels) provides a model for change. Drawing on these experiences will better enable the Navy to overcome obstacles it perceives as prohibiting integration of women into the submarine service,” the panel said.
The year 2000 marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Navy’s submarine force, according to official Navy sources. Today’s attack submarine is one of the most lethal weapons in the nation’s arsenal, and the ballistic missile submarine constitutes a vital component of the country’s strategic deterrent. The original stealth weapon, the submarine cruises the world’s oceans unseen, carrying out a variety of missions.