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The following article
was published in the 18 July 2000 New London Day
It was copied and archived here for informational and educational purposes only.
IN CLOSE QUARTERS
by Elaine Donnelly
|Despite frequent denials that anything
is about to change, the Navy is conducting an informal test of female sailors
on submarines. A group of 144 female and 218 male ROTC midshipmen, participating
in 48-hour, two-night "career orientation and training" trips,
are going to sea this summer on five Trident nuclear submarines.
The women will sleep in a separate 9-man compartments in the enlisted berthing areas. Each ship captain will determine arrangements for their access to shower and lavatory facilities. A switch sign may be used for periodic access by both sexes, or one of the two heads--50% of the enlisted facilities--will be reserved for the womenís use. If the women enjoy the excursion and disaster does not occur, the experiment will be declared a "success."
Military and individual civilian women have gone on single-day or longer trips on submarines, usually berthed in separate officersí quarters. Overnight, two-day stays with substantial groups of female midshipmen are something new--and inexplicable.
For many compelling reasons, women have not been assigned to submarines in this country. Norway, Sweden, and soon Australia assign a few women to small submarine crews, but brief coastal deployments are nowhere near as demanding as American requirements. Nevertheless, in a June 3 speech before the Naval Submarine League, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said that the admirals in attendance should prepare to get in step with the rest of society, lest they be "left behind."
Secretary Danzig noted that women are gaining power in Congress, and the sub force might lose support if it remains a "white male bastion." He praised submariners for their "god-like" ability to patrol the oceans undetected.
But then he warned the silent service not to go the way of the mythological figure Narcissus, who was so enamored of himself he could not move.
Narcissus, a handsome young man, angered the gods by rejecting the love of the nymph, Echo. He fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, and eventually pined away and turned into a flower. The condescending analogy, combined with the epithetical "white male preserve" label, constitute an extraordinary affront to the submarine community.
Thus begins another cycle of sexual politics and "fem fear," a pattern of intimidation that is all-too common at the Pentagon. For civilians trying to force feminism on the military, submarines are a tempting "last frontier."
The community is vulnerable to political pressure, because of its distressing inability to keep the fleet above 50 boats. Pacific Submarine Force Commander Rear Adm. Albert H. Konetzni described the problem as "a national disaster."
Feminist-leaning members of the Senate Armed Services Committee include Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Senator Snowe chairs the Subcommittee on Seapower, which authorizes ship procurement budgets. Connect the dots, and the outline that emerges suggests potential capitulation. It would not be the first time that Navy leaders, at the behest of a civilian secretary, tried to curry favor with female politicians by compromising the interests of an entire service community. And the submariners didnít even have a sex scandal.
The 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, on which I served, heard many reasons why women should not be deployed on submarines. We visited two SSN attack submarines, and chronicled many of the comments heard from officers, crew members, and Vice Adm. H. G. Chiles, then-Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. More recent findings reinforce their concerns:
1. Close quarters in a submarine, which have been compared to the inside of a clock, magnify personnel stress and friction. In a letter to the presidential commission, Adm. Chiles explained that there is little privacy, and body contact is usually unavoidable during maintenance, training drills, and any emergency:
The 688 class [SSN attack] submarine is cramped, and so close to the allowable weight margin that additional internal changes could be prohibitive. Attack submarines routinely "hot bunk" about 40% of the crew, which means that a single berth is used by two or three men on a rotational basis. Sailors sometimes have to sleep in noisy torpedo rooms, and desirable bunks (away from passageways) are strictly assigned by rank and/or seniority. Setting aside preferred accommodations for the exclusive use of women would be a serious blow to crew morale.
2. Loneliness caused by limited communications makes submarine life especially difficult. There is no mail or electronic communication between port calls, except for one-way, 40-word "family-grams." Adm. Chiles warned that
"The 60-77 days spent submerged on routine SSBN patrols and SSN operations result in stresses that are exacerbated by [close quarters]....The inherent loneliness could lead to sexual problems aboard ship and marital problems at home....Stress is unavoidable on each sailor and his family. We should not impose more. In an eye-opening Navy Times article titled "Swedish subs serve as model to U.S. fleet," a Royal Swedish Navy officer was unconcerned about the lack of privacy on small, 30-person Swedish subs. Men and women change clothes, bunk and shower in the same spaces. "Love relationships" occurring while underway are conducted "professionally," and treated with wary acceptance. Swedish sailors of both sexes said "itís the natural way of doing it." In an editorial letter published in the same July 5 edition, an American female officer insisted that men and women on subs should be trusted to act "very maturely." "The opinion of wives," she said, "should not even count." Some sailors may agree, but most families will not.
3. Elitist policy makers play with fire when they throw ordinary human beings into an emotionally volatile, 100% oxygen environment, and then insist there be zero tolerance of sparks. When sexual misadventures occur while deployed under the sea, creating problems unique to women, the consequences are far more serious than they are on the surface.
Capt. Craig Quigley, a spokesman for Secretary Danzig, recently told the Baltimore Sun that airlift evacuations from surface ships are a "very unusual occurrence," and a woman could be removed from a submarine "the same way we airlift a man with appendicitis." Never mind that acute, life-threatening illness is rare in men, but pregnancy and other medical conditions requiring evacuation of women are very common indeed. During a recent deployment of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, for example, 45 of 300 women did not deploy or complete the cruise due to impending childbirth. Eleven of the 45 were flown off the ship while underway--probably in safe, carrier onboard delivery (COD) aircraft. COD aircraft do not operate on submarines. As Adm. Chiles pointed out, mid-ocean helicopter evacuations of female submariners would be extremely hazardous for all concerned. A 1998 study found that in 1996, 4 in 10 pregnancies among enlisted women on sea duty ended in miscarriage or abortion. Possible birth defects caused by early exposure to a subís nuclear reactor are a legitimate concern.
4. The unplanned loss of any sailor from a small-crewed submarine imposes considerable strain on fellow crewmembers, especially in technical areas, because replacements are usually not available. Women are capable sailors, but during Operation Desert Storm, enlisted women were almost four times as non-deployable as men, primarily due to pregnancy or child-care problems. The Center for Naval Analysis recently found that female sailorsí "unplanned loss" rate (23-25%) is more than two and a half times the rate for men (8-10%). If proportionate losses and evacuation rates are extended to covert submarines, the negative effects on morale, safety, and national security could be significant.
5. The presidential commission learned that many tasks assigned to junior crewmembers are strenuous. Predictable physical strength deficiencies among female submariners would impose greater burdens on others, especially in emergencies.
Some advocates suggest they might be satisfied if women were assigned to larger submarines only. But limiting female sailors to "boomers" alone would create an unworkable career path, and lead to demands for more incremental change. Others insist that deployments of women on combat ships have been totally successful. No one close to the situation would dare say otherwise. The pregnancy policy imposed by former Navy Secretary John Dalton forbids negative comments about its consequences. Nor does anyone talk about the harmful effect of unprecedented social experimentation on chronic recruiting and retention problems. Reconfiguration or building of new submarines to accommodate women would be expensive. But short-term construction costs pale in importance when compared to the price of avoidable problems, such as increased non-deployability and attrition rates.
The submarine force is a key element of strategic deterrence. Sexual politics is no excuse for compromising its safety and effectiveness. Radical change could happen overnight, however, because the law exempting women from combat ships was repealed in 1993. Unless Congress or the next president intervenes, "fem fear" will likely be used as an excuse to alter submarine culture. Will the Navy SEALS be the next community to be unfairly stigmatized as a white male bastion?"
Decisions about submarine assignments must be based on reality, not Greek mythology or utopian fantasies. The silent service should not be burdened with unsound policies that undermine efficiency, discipline, and family morale, while failing to improve readiness and deterrence in a still-dangerous world.