Navy to allow women to serve aboard submarines

A ban on female sailors aboard submarines is one of the last barriers preventing women from serving equally alongside men in the military. The Navy notified Congress on Monday of its intent to drop the ban.

Don S. Montgomery/U.S. Navy/Reuters/File
View of the fast attack submarine, USS Hartford. The United States Navy will soon allow women to serve on its fleet of submarines - currently a men-only appointment.

The Navy will soon permit female sailors to serve aboard submarines, removing one of the last barriers to women in the military serving equally alongside men.

The Pentagon Monday notified Congress of its intent to make the change, which would allow select sailors of the Navy’s nearly 50,000 women to enter the shadowy and tradition-bound submariner culture. After the 30-day notification period required by law, the Navy can start integrating crews for the service’s 70-odd submarines.

The integration is likely to be phased in, with the first women serving on some subs perhaps within a year or so. Women might serve first on some of the larger submarines that are easier to reconfigure to accommodate them. Before women are assigned to a submarine, they must receive nuclear training, which can take up to a year, say military officials. The Navy isn't speaking about the plan until it planners determine how it will be implemented.

Women's military roles have gradually expanded. Until the early 1990s, women could not fly combat aircraft or serve on combatant ships. They are still not allowed to serve in ground combat roles, technically speaking, but do take part in dangerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the nature of combat in an insurgency in which there are no distinct front lines. Lawmakers' efforts in recent years to limit women's roles were rebuffed by the Army, which told Congress it cannot afford to exclude women from serving in various capacities, say experts.

The move to co-ed submariner crews comes as the Pentagon is considering how to end the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. (Click here for Monitor coverage on this issue.)

President Obama has said lifting the ban remains a priority, and the Pentagon is studying the issue for the next several months. Integrating submarine crews will bolster arguments to lift the ban on allowing homosexuals to serve openly, says Larry Korb, a former personnel official at the Pentagon under President Reagan.

Unlike the push to integrate women fighter pilots in the early 1990s, Mr. Korb notes, this initiative came from the military itself, not Congress.

There is always a moral dimension to making such changes, but the change may be more practical than moral, Korb says. The military needs individuals with the right capabilities, and it can’t afford to make what may appear to be arbitrary judgments based on gender or sexual orientation.

Last fall, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, appearing on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," declared that the change on the subs was imminent. Mr. Stewart had noted that women weren’t allowed to serve on submarines. “They will soon,” Mr. Mabus said confidently.

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