Concerns arise about need for costly onboard changes
Life aboard a fast-attack submarine can be rough: Quarters are cramped, operations are hectic and privacy is just a memory, veteran submariners say.
But as the Navy prepares to assign women to fast-attack subs, one of its first female submariners is relishing the challenge of serving in the “dolphin brotherhood.”
Lt. j.g. Marquette Leveque, 25, said that serving with two other women and 150 men undersea for six months was basically a “nonevent.”
“The biggest change I think was [the men] just getting used to female voices around, and I mean that in a very positive way,” said Lt. Leveque, a native of Fort Collins, Colo.
Still, other big changes — and challenges — lie on the horizon.
The Navy, which decided to allow women to serve on guided- and ballistic-missile submarines in 2009, announced in January that female sailors would be permitted to deploy on fast-attack submarines, as the Pentagon lifted its ban on women in direct ground combat jobs.
Lt. Leveque is one of the first 24 female officers selected to train on guided- and ballistic-missile submarines, which generally avoid contact with other ships and are tasked with conducting nuclear counterattacks.
Fast-attack subs carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions; insert special operations forces into sensitive areas; lay mines; and attack enemy ships and ground targets. From 350 feet to 370 feet long and 33 feet to 40 feet wide, they are about 200 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than their missile-laden cousins and carry crews of 140 — about 20 fewer personnel than guided- and ballistic-missile subs.
‘No room to expand’
The Navy has four guided-missile and 14 ballistic-missile subs, and 54 fast-attack subs.
One reason for the Navy’s ban was the “prohibitive” cost of retrofitting sleeping and bathroom facilities on such small vessels. No retrofitting was needed for guided- and ballistic-missile subs, which provide staterooms that female officers share and bathrooms with changeable signs indicating which sex is inside. Enlisted female sailors, whose bunks provide little privacy, eventually will be assigned to fast-attack subs, officials say.
Facilities on fast-attack subs are less spacious, and there is “virtually no room to expand anything on these tightly packed boats,” said retired Rear Adm. Edward S. “Skip” McGinley II, who has served on the smaller, stealthier vessels. He said part of the subs’ bunk spaces probably would have to be cordoned off to accommodate enlisted women.
“That involves not just moving around [walls] and doors in quarters which are already extremely cramped, but also doing some significant plumbing rearrangements to establish separate sanitary facilities in a ship that is already a plumbing nightmare,” Adm. McGinley said. “This, in my humble opinion, may be the most expensive and difficult engineering problem to solve in this project.”
Rob Fisher, another veteran submariner, said: “Separate areas will be very difficult to do. Segregation of the area could be arranged, but travel-through areas for the opposite sex will be necessary.
“I believe that women can be great submariners, but the older subs were not built with privacy in mind.”
During a recent news conference, a senior Navy official speaking on background said that assigning women to fast-attack subs would incur costs, but he did not elaborate.
“Lots of plans are being discussed and [it’s] too early to tell,” said Cmdr. Monica Rousselow, a Navy spokeswoman.
Other concerns include fraternization and pregnancy, especially when a submarine might be unable to surface.
“The fraternization potential, in my opinion, would be very high. The fast-attack lifestyle is extremely cramped and would really need mature personnel and leadership to enable female members to serve successfully,” former submariner Brian Penders said, adding that fraternization on a fast-attack vessel probably would not exceed that on larger subs or surface ships.
The Navy said it does not track data on male-female fraternization.
According to a January report in Stars and Stripes, a recent Navy survey found that nearly three-quarters of sailor pregnancies are unplanned. Of those, only 31 percent were using birth control at the time of conception.
Traces of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other gases in a submarine could harm a developing child in the earliest weeks of pregnancy, when a sailor might not know she is pregnant, said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a staunch critic of women in combat roles.
Dr. Hugh Scott, a retired Navy rear admiral, said the levels of carbon dioxide in a submerged submarine are 10 times higher that those in the open atmosphere and could damage the brain of a fetus. He said he has called for Navy studies on the impact of prolonged exposure on women’s fertility, bone health and developing fetuses, but none has been conducted. Dr. Scott served in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations from 1992 to 1994 as director of the Medical Resources and Plans and Policy divisions.
Lt. Leveque, who is married to a fellow submariner, said fraternization will not be a problem.
“Honestly, it’s a very professional working environment, and that doesn’t change when we go [from port] to sea at all,” said Lt. Leveque, one of the first three women to earn the submarine warfare officer “dolphins” pin, after nearly two years of training and a deployment aboard the ballistic-missile sub USS Wyoming, based in Kings Bay, Ga.
She is backed by at least two other female Navy pioneers — retired Capt. Lory Manning, who was one of the first women to serve on a surface ship, and Capt. Joellen Oslund, one of the first six women accepted into Navy flight school in 1972 and the Navy’s first female helicopter pilot.
“I think [the military] threw up a lot of artificial barriers that have finally come down, and I expect the women will do fine in submarines,” Capt. Oslund said.
“It’s where every submariner wants to go,” Capt. Manning said. “The other [submarines] just sort of sit out there and wait for the balloon to go up. [A fast-attack sub is] where every submarine admiral has to spend time.”
Source – Washinigton Post