More Navy Women Joining the Silent Service

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Thirty Years Ago: Ensign Roberta McIntyre, the first female to qualify as a surface weapons officer, checking the main gauge board in the propulsion plant of the submarine tender USS Dixon, where she served as electrical officer.

The Navy has announced that women officers will start to be assigned to Virginia-class attack submarines as soon as next year. And that enlisted women would likely follow.

It also is assigning women to five more crews of the larger Trident-class submarines starting January 2013. There are currently 24 women assigned to submarines as of August 30. There are another 24 female officers in the submarine training pipeline, with 18 more waiting to enter after them.

The primary reason for this expansion is the lack of opportunity for advancement and increased responsibility. Naval leaders found in the early 1980s that restricting women to a limited type of ship (tenders, repair ships, and a training carrier) virtually prohibited them from serving in increasingly responsible billets up the chain of command that would eventually lead to command at sea.

Many female surface warfare officers left the Navy in the mid-1980s because there was no career path. By 1987 the “Combat Logistic Force” ships (ships that provided food, fuel and ammunition via underway replenishment) opened, and in 1994 women were being assigned to surface combatants. The Navy does not want to repeat the mistake of spending thousands of dollars in training prospective submarine officers, only to have them leave the submarine force for lack of submarines for them to serve aboard.

As then-Chief of Naval Personnel Admiral Ronald Zlatoper emphasized in May 1993, during testimony to Congress at the hearings to open combatant surface ships to women, changes to the assignment of women in ships is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

He said it is, “a logical progression after 50 years of service by Navy women…including 20 years in naval aviation and 15 years at sea.” Well, women have now been in naval aviation for 40 years and in ships for 35 years…it is certainly time for women to be assigned to submarines without the broo-ha-ha we are still seeing in letters to the editor of Navy Times because of a fraternization scandal involving a Naval Academy female midshipman and the chief of the boat — the top enlisted sailor — aboard the USS Nebraska, a ballistic-missile submarine.

Part of the problem is that it is a major personnel policy change, which always seems to throw men for a loop.

Naval tradition personified both the sea and ships as female, which provided both comfort and tragedy. Many naval traditions and folklore sprang from the relationship of women, the sea and ships, and women on board ships were actually considered to be good luck. There are also historical accounts of women leading their nations in war, on both land and sea. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy did not allow women as permanent members of ships’ crews until 1978, late in the 20th century.

This created an ethos of exclusion and male privilege that persists to this day.

I am frankly tired of hearing the same old whiny reasons why women should not serve on submarines: that there’s no value-added to having women aboard; it’s pushing a social agenda to the detriment of readiness; the lack of privacy and tight quarters guarantee some physical contact will occur [and?]; the wives won’t like it.

One compelling reason for allowing women to serve is a growing shortage of men willing to do so. Four years ago, the Naval Academy produced only 92 male officers for submarine duty, short of its 120-man requirement. Submariners must be volunteers, and satisfy strict physical, psychological and academic qualifications. Beyond that, more women — and fewer men — are getting technical degrees.

The bottom line is this: the Navy needs the women to maintain adequate personnel levels. And as always, the needs of the Navy take precedence over any individual point of view.

I close with a remark made by a Navy woman nearly 20 years ago to Navy Times:

I did not join the Navy to advance a social program, file subjective harassment suits, get pregnant, and accidentally carry out my assigned military mission in the process. I joined to serve my country.