Navy to allow women on submarines

New Pentagon policy also bans undersea smoking

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post / May 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Imagine 150 fraternity brothers packed into a container the size of a three-bedroom house. Announce you are breaking hallowed traditions by taking away their cigarettes and admitting women. Then lock the doors and push the container deep into the sea, for months at a time.

That’s what the Navy, after decades of contemplation and controversy, has decided to do with its Submarine Force, an elite fraternity of 13,000 active-duty sailors that has been patrolling the oceans for 110 years.

As of Dec. 31, smoking aboard the entire submarine fleet will be banned — no small hardship for the estimated 35 to 40 percent of sailors who are nicotine addicts and can’t exactly step outside whenever they want a puff.

The Navy also announced last month that the first US women allowed to serve aboard submarines will be reporting for duty by 2012. The cramped quarters and scant privacy aboard submarines, combined with long tours of up to 90 days at sea, kept them off-limits to female sailors even after the Navy began allowing women to serve on its surface ships in 1994.

The new policy has drawn protests from active-duty and veteran members of the submarine service, as well as wives of sailors, since the military began planning it last fall. Defense Secretary Robert Gates notified Congress in mid-February that the Navy intended to lift the ban, and it received no objections from lawmakers. The deadline for Congress to intervene recently passed.

The military is also preparing to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the ranks.

The Silent Service, as the submarine force is known, “is right now very much a boys’ club,’’ said Joe Buff, a military commentator and the author of six pulp fiction thrillers involving submarine adventures. “They’re always bellyaching, and they always hate change,’’ Buff said. “But I think the men are going to be better at all these changes than they’re willing to let on.’’

One active-duty lieutenant said he personally supported the changes but worried about the effect on crews, who have long relied on tobacco and male banter to ease the boredom of serving in a confined space. “There’s very few avenues of stress relief,’’ he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to be seen as challenging official policy. “You can smoke, or you can hang around and get creative with the conversation.’’

Navy and Pentagon officials said the timing of the changes was coincidental but necessary. The Navy has been thinking about adding women to submarine crews since 1993. The military also has long expressed concern about the health risks of secondhand smoke on submarines, where the percentage of smokers is far higher than in the US adult population at large.

Submarine commanders have been trying to reassure their crews — as well as lawmakers — about the changes. The Navy announced the smoking ban April 8 and said it would offer programs to help sailors kick the habit by the end of the year.

After making noises last fall about letting women join the Submarine Force, the Defense Department formally notified Congress in February of its intentions. Congress has until June 1 to weigh in, but so far it appears the decision is a fait accompli.

As commander of Submarine Group 10, based at Kings Bay, Ga., Rear Admiral Barry L. Bruner said on his blog that integrating women into sub crews “is absolutely the right thing to do.’’