The Navy formally announced Thursday its plan to integrate female officers into submarines, ending one of the last men-only bastions that have floated beneath the water’s surface for 110 years.
But top Navy officials do not expect the change to be a difficult one for what’s known as the “silent service.”
Last fall, Navy leadership had announced its intention to put women on subs, officially notifying Congress of the plan earlier this year and giving lawmakers a period during which they could comment or attempt to stop the Navy’s plans. That 30-day period ended Wednesday.
The Navy is now beginning a recruiting and vetting process to find female officers who are willing and qualified to serve aboard subs. The first ones probably won’t appear aboard the boats until late 2011 or early 2012, said Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, a submariner who briefed reporters Thursday.
“The change to the culture on the submarines is going to be pretty minimal, to be honest with you,” he said.
According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, there had been very little resistance to integrating submarines, but the most vocal concern came from the retired community.
“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, probably overdue, integrating women into submarines,” Mr. Mabus told reporters in Washington earlier this month.
One reason the Navy is making the change now is because it has had trouble meeting some of its goals to recruit qualified officers to be submariners, according to a blog by Bruner.
The Navy plans to recruit and train about 19 female officers to begin phasing in women. But it wants enough women from the beginning so as not to have any of them feel isolated within the submariner community.
One crucial thing will be to find women qualified to lead aboard a submarine, where all sailors must be trained to handle the ultimate crisis – such as if an incident on the boat were to put the crew or the boat itself in danger.
The Navy is starting the integration process on the Ohio class submarine, which will require minimal reconfiguration to accommodate both men and women on the same boat.
The Navy will attempt to mitigate the negative impacts of integrating submarines. “Perfection is the goal. We don’t always meet perfection – we’re human – but that is the never-ending standard we shoot for,” Bruner said.
The service will decide later on about integrating the enlisted ranks with female submariners, Bruner said.
This is a period of change for the submariner community in other ways, too. The Navy also recently announced that it would ban smoking from subs after conducting a study that showed secondhand smoke poses a health risk to sailors, despite good ventilation systems.
As much as 40 percent of the submariner community smokes, Bruner said, although this may include a number of occasional cigar smokers. The percentage of the Navy’s roughly 20,000 submariners who smoke is probably closer to 15 or 20 percent, according to Bruner.
Submariners may see even more change in the next year or so if the Obama administration follows through with plans to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the law that bans openly gay or lesbian people from serving.