Official: Women should be on subs

By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist

Women should be allowed to serve aboard America’s fleet of nuclear submarines, the nation’s top military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, quietly has told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If the Navy agrees to it, this would be a huge policy change and potentially a significant expansion of career opportunities for female officers and sailors.

Women have been barred by Navy policy from submarines, even as the sea service began 15 years ago to integrate females into other seagoing combat roles including aboard surface warships and in fighter jets.

Mullen, former chief of naval operations and a career surface warfare officer, made his position on submarines known in written responses to questions from the committee to prepare for Mullen’s confirmation hearing to serve a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“As an advocate for improving the diversity of our force, I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women. One policy I would like to see changed is the one barring their service aboard submarines,” Mullen told senators.

Opponents of lifting the ban have argued for decades that space is at a premium on submarines. To accommodate privacy needs of females, including separate berthing and “heads” or toilet/shower facilities, would be “prohibitively expensive,” the Navy has argued.

Watch duty, bunk management, extra supplies and incidents of fraternization and harassment would complicate submarine life, according to one study done for the Navy in 1994.

No senator actually raised the female submariner issue with Mullen during his Sept. 15 confirmation hearing. The focus was Afghanistan and Iraq. And Navy officials had no immediate comment on Mullen’s position.

Mullen’s spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said the chairman did tell Adm. Gary Roughead, current chief of naval operations, what position Mullen was going to take on women submariners in comments back to committee.

Mullen had focused some attention on this issue in the past, Kirby explained. While serving as CNO, Mullen had asked Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, and other submarine community leaders to “take a look” at ending the ban on women in the “silent service.” That review was still under way when Mullen stepped down in 2007 to become chairman and, as such, senior military adviser to the president.

Allowing women on submarines, Kirby said, “was something he always had in his mind and still believes in.”

But Mullen doesn’t intend to hold “meetings or discussions with the Navy on this,” Kirby added. “As a former CNO, he understands the Title 10 responsibilities that the CNO has. I don’t think he is keen to be too deeply involved in what is clearly the Navy’s responsibility to manage the force.”

As to why Mullen even raised the issue, Kirby said, “He was answering a question honestly about women in combat, and that’s how he really feels.”