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Women now allowed to serve on submarines

This post by RDML Barry Bruner, Commander, Submarine Group 10, originally appeared on the Commander, Submarine Group 10 blog.

USS Florida (SSGN 728), Ohio-class guided-missile submarine, arrives for a routine port visit to the island of Crete.
USS Florida (SSGN 728), Ohio-class guided-missile submarine, arrives for a routine port visit to the island of Crete.

There have been a number of comments to earlier blog entries [on the Commander, Submarine Group 10 blog] about women in submarines. I have not been ignoring them; rather our nation’s law requires that both houses of congress be in session for 30 days after notification before a change in manning policy such as this can go in effect. Yesterday marked the 30th day – so I can now discuss the plan and the reasons for it.

1. There is a need: The change in the policy to allow women to serve on submarines is applicable to both officer and enlisted – but, right now the plan is only focused on bringing officers onboard. There are a number of reasons for this, the most important being that selectivity demands we open the aperture for officer selection. In 2005 and in 2008 we did not quite meet our goals for officer accession in the submarine force. Over the past 40 years the percentage of men graduating with technical degrees has gone down from 75 to 49 percent with an increase in women earning technical degrees (an increase from 25 to 51 percent). Given this increasing need to open up the selectivity aperture – along with the fact that our SSBN and SSGN class of submarines allows for privacy and a viable career path for women, the logical step forward is to allow female officers into the submarine force. Based on the lessons we learn while implementing this plan I anticipate the Navy will then consider the way forward for enlisted women on submarines.

2. The plan: The plan in place assigns the first females to nuclear power training this July. Following completion of training (December 2011 or January 2012) we will assign two ensigns to each crew of four ships, two SSGNs and two SSBNs, one of each class in Kings Bay, Ga. and Bangor, Wash. Additionally we intend to assign a lieutenant or lieutenant commander female surface qualified supply officer to each of these crews as a mentor to the two ensigns. So – for the initial input of women that works out to 8 crews with three women each.

USS Florida (SSGN 728) (B) Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Bill Patterson discusses plans for submerging the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine with Jed Rauscher, a producer with Lone Wolf Documentary Group, while Lt. (j.g.) Reid Smythe mans the number two periscope.
USS Florida (SSGN 728) (B) Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Bill Patterson discusses plans for submerging the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine with Jed Rauscher, a producer with Lone Wolf Documentary Group, while Lt. j.g. Reid Smythe mans the number two periscope.

3. Women’s Health: Lastly, there have been a number of comments concerning women’s health and the health of a fetus (if one of the women should not realize she is pregnant until after the ship gets underway). A number of medical studies indicate there are no discernible medical issues that should preclude the assignment of women to submarines. Additionally, our Navy’s Bureau of Medicine has proposed three additional studies to further quantify and validate the low probability of any effects of a submarine’s environment on women’s health or fetal development.

I recently spoke with a number of our retired submariners who were vocal in their opposition to the integration of women on submarines. I appreciate their concern and as always, am very appreciative of their service to our Navy and country. Perspective is based on where you sit. We’ve looked hard at the impediments to successful implementation of the plan but given the need and the more open attitude of the current generation of submariners I continue to feel that this change to policy is needed to maintain the readiness of the most operationally active submarine service in the world.



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  1. “…this change to policy is needed to maintain the readiness…”

    Well, that’s a somewhat sobering statement.

    Women have served and continue to serve in various navies and armed services world-wide, to full satisfaction. The cultural change in the ‘silent service’ was long overdue.

  2. Thank you for the information, and the clarifications. It will likely not be an easy change, but it is a necessary one, and once fully implemented, it will be a good one for our Navy.

  3. Enlisted women integration?

  4. Taken For Action

    So there is not a need for female ETs? Or CTIs?
    Maybe being in the Pentagon has given me a disconnect. After all, I’m not nearly as brilliant as geniuses we call Flags.

  5. I have a hard time with this only because i think it will place more hardship to crews that dont need more. berthing, bathroom, privacy limits. dont know

  6. YNC(SW)(AW) Bernard Michael Burawski, USN (Ret.)

    Ok, I’ve blogged about this subject on several other websites but thought I would add my thoughts on this one as well. I think women deserve a change to serve aboard submarines but I don’t think the Navy is ready to make this transition. For one thing, the issue of how the physical changes needed to each submarine still needs to be addressed. What about the money needed to do this? Where is it? I don’t think the Navy has the financial resources available to enable something like this to happen yet. Submarine habitability refitting should have been something planned BEFORE the decision was made to allow women to be permanently assigned. Also, if the problems that the surface fleet is encountering regarding fraternization and harassment is any indication, the submarine community should be allowed a chance to have more an input in the timeline for integration in order to allow proper physical modifications on the boats. Otherwise, it’s a train wreck waiting to happen. I hope that it doesn’t happen that way.

  7. I appreciate that the Navy works so hard to ensure the fairness and equality of all it’s Sailors. But, I have to mention the all to frequently forgotten or ignored and very real issue of those gender differences that make us so wonderful. These differences are not imagined and they need to be very seriously considered when placing the two genders into very confined spaces, for prolonged periods of time, and then expecting them to act in accordance with military standards. It just seems that you are aksing for the individual Sailors’ failure.
    It is my goal and contention to help the individual to success on all levels. Especially since the Navy asks for all levels of a Sailor’s human existence to be focused on Naval mission, on and off duty.

  8. Would providing berthing space for women cut down on the amount of room needed for weapons systems?

  9. Many of us can easily devise less disruptive methods of assuring adequate manning of the submarine force. History does show that big changes driven by political maneuvering very often lead to nasty results.
    Good Luck to all those who must endure this most recent decision.

  10. Catherine Norton

    Having read the article and the comments that preclude mine, I have mixed thoughts about the new law which allows women to serve aboard submarines. I have heard the arguements stating this is a huge “win” for gender equality, and have heard the other side stating there are major impediments to such a action. In general, I support gender equality and am pleased to see that more and more women continue to prove their value in diverse workplace settings.

  11. Catherine Norton

    Having read the article and the comments that precede mine, I maintain mixed thoughts about the new law which allows women on submarines. In general, I support gender equality and happy to see that more and more, we women are proving the tremendous value that we bring to diverse workplace settings.

  12. Providing more space for women could cut down on the available space needed for weapons systems.

  13. Christian Marquardt

    Glad to see the Navy moving ahead on this. Arguments for and against are meaningless until there is realistic data on how the presence of females on subs affects the mission. And the only way to get that real information is to give it a try.

  14. I have a suggestion for applicable female officers, have a mandatory birth control pill be taken. Pregnant women do not belong on the battlefield unless in dire circumstances.

  15. The success of this initiative, like most other changes inpacting our ships, will be directly proportional to the amount of support from the commanding officers involved.

  16. Rodney E Galles

    First of ll, I am not qualified in Submarines. I was a CTI rider on submarines for three years, making 5 60 to 70 day trips. Each time, we brought an additional 18 to 24 riders aboard the boats in addition to their normal crew. As a result, we ended up sleeping in the torpedo rooms, even on extended hull SSN’s. There was absolutely no privacy, and on one boat the racks were all arranged on the starboard side of the boat on the upper torpedo skid. There were five racks in three rows with about an inch of room between each rack. Since we already had female CTI personnel in the 70’s, I cannot see any way that they could have been mingled with our personnel in a successful manner. We had personnel from PO3 to CPO sleeping in these quarters, including several who were qualified in subs. I am fully in favor of integrating the crews, but unless there are numerous ship modifications, the practicality of the deployments we made would have been impossible. I do hope you are able to make the change you desire, but I would think an inducement for people who are entering college would be an easier method to alleviate recruiting shortages.

  17. As I understand the women in submarines policy, they will only deploy on the SSBN and SSGN fleet. One issue that has to be addressed is feminine hygiene products and compacted trash. Trash on submarines is placed in a steel can by a crew member and disposed of using a tube called a Trash Disposal Unit (TDU). The steel can is placed in the TDU and discharged out of the submarine into the ocean. Trash disposal is nasty enough without adding feminine hygiene products. If the Navy is looking to put women on the SSN fleet in the future, something that has to be considered is the independent duty corpsman (IDC). What would happen when the submarine is deployed on mission and cannot come of station for 3 months? The IDC may have to perform some type of female medical checkup with minimal training, facilities and zero privacy.

  18. YNC(SW)(AW) Bernard Michael Burawski, USN (Ret.)

    There will be enormous pressure for ALL of those female academy and NROTC midshipmen selected for submarine duty to graduate from submarine school, even if the standards have to be lowered. That is a problem in my book. There should be no preference given in that regard. If the Navy wants to be truly equal they will give women and men equal consideration without playing favorites in an effort to obtain female quotas. The emphasis should be on graduating from submarine school only the best qualified and suitable, without lowering standards, for ANYONE.

  19. Roger C. Dunham

    I have previously e-mailed RDML Bruner about my recent editorial published this week by the Los Angeles Times on this subject, but I wanted to include a copy of the piece on this “official” blog. As a former reactor operator for several years in the Pacific (USS Halibut, SS(N) 587) and now as a physician, I have substantial concerns about this matter–at the very least, I would hope the Navy would answer the questions at the end of this editorial, and that Naval medical personnel would advise women contemplating submarine service about their unique risks.

    Women, subs and nuclear radiation
    Women are due to start serving on nuclear subs in 2012. But have concerns about radiation exposure been adequately explored?
    Roger C. Dunham
    May 13, 2010
    Should women sailors be allowed on submarines? The United States is poised to repeal the ban, and the first women are scheduled to serve aboard subs by 2012. But we must ask some serious questions before changing the policy.

    During the Cold War, long before becoming a doctor, I served as a nuclear reactor operator aboard a fast-attack submarine. During that time, I often considered the thought of women as fellow crew members. There was never any question in my mind that women would be as capable as men. The issues of limited space and the need for separate quarters could be easily resolved by a visit to any of the unisex bathrooms found on our college campuses. Furthermore, U.S. submarines already have separate sleeping spaces for chief petty officers and for commissioned officers; partitioning another area for women would be easy. Finally, there is ample precedence for both sexes living together in prolonged isolation and close confinement — on the International Space Station, for example, and in Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica.

    So why would I see any problem with allowing women aboard submarines?

    It is the matter of exposure to radiation that is most unsettling to me. It is the genetically sensitive tissue in women that is intimately involved in the process of childbearing that needs to be addressed, researched and commented on by our Navy’s leaders before they change the policy.

    While sperm from men are frequently changing and thereby present a reduced vulnerability to radiation consequences, women have ovaries that contain radiation-sensitive tissue fixed for the life of the woman. Damage to the egg cells remains with the woman until that egg produces a baby. An even greater concern is that women who (by design or by accident) become pregnant would then possess the most radiation-sensitive tissue known: a developing fetus with a small number of cells that are rapidly dividing and thus vastly more sensitive to radiation.

    It is widely believed by many that advanced shielding systems can adequately protect personnel from radiation and minimize the risk to women. This may be the case, perhaps, for larger ships, where increased distance of personnel from reactors can be protective. But on submarines, the nuclear reactor is near the center of the vessel, and sailors need to pass by that radiation-emitting system to get to the engine room watch stations, often several times a day. If a female sailor must stand watch, she will have to pass near the reactor four to six times a day, resulting in exposing a potential fetus to increased neutron and gamma energy as many as 350 to 400 times during a two-month patrol.

    Of further significance is the kind of radiation the reactor is emitting; not just gamma energy, like chest X-rays or mammograms. A nuclear reactor generates gamma energy, slow neutron energy (creating five times more tissue damage than gamma energy) and fast neutron energy (creating 10 times more tissue damage), as well as other types of less consequence. My former engineering officer recently informed me that he had absorbed about 5,000 millirems during his time aboard our submarine.

    In civilian life, a pregnant woman must first don a lead shield to protect her unborn baby before she has a chest X-ray (delivering about 10 millirems of gamma energy) or for a mammogram (70 millirems of gamma energy). But lead shields on submarines do not entirely protect personnel from the far more damaging neutron energy. Although the neutron shield system used helps reduce exposure, it is impossible to eliminate all neutron energy from reaching crew members. If a female submariner became pregnant just before deployment, the first weeks at sea could expose a tiny, radiation-sensitive fetus to significant radiation during a time when the fetus is at highest risk and before the woman may even know she’s pregnant.

    How much radiation does it take to cause harm to fetal tissue? We really don’t know. Any radiation is harmful to dividing cells, but detectable damage is much harder to determine. We know that fetal doses between 1,000 millirems and 10,000 millirems create a “low” level of congenital malformations, mental retardation, uterine growth retardation or childhood cancer. Is “low” acceptable? Is “low” reassuring if a future baby is not perfect? Would “low” absolve the government and taxpayers from liability?

    I call on all those who are working to change this policy to publicly address these questions before introducing women into the nuclear submarine environment:

    •How much radiation would women be allowed to absorb before removing them from the nuclear environment?

    •How many back-up nuclear watch standers will need to be available to replace women who have received excessive radiation, and how will this action affect the mission in enemy territory?

    •What screening will be initiated on the day of departure to guarantee that the submarine is not heading out with a pregnant sailor aboard?

    •What plans need to be established to remove a female sailor from the submarine, should she become pregnant during the deployment?

    •What are the maximum levels of accumulated radiation acceptable to the ovaries of non-pregnant sailors who might be planning a family in the future, and at what point would a woman need to be removed if those levels were exceeded?

    The public deserves answers to these questions, and female sailors volunteering for service aboard a nuclear submarine must be better informed about their risk before it is too late for them, or for the children they hope to bear.

    Roger C. Dunham, a doctor of internal medicine, is the author of “Spy Sub: A Top-Secret Mission to the Bottom of the Pacific.”
    Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

  20. Chad Baumgartner

    I am a submariner and also have concerns about the female products/trash issue especially when trash is held on board for a long duration due to operations. What about wake-ups. Since a submarine is on 18hour cycle vice a 24hr, if one officer is on watch in the engineroom, who will perform the wake up for the other? Will male messengers enter female bunkrooms for wake ups or vice versa? Will Damage Control responsibilities need to be altered from watch section to watch section to support things like carrying a submersible pump? (not being sexist..they are heavy) How will the day to day operations of the sub need to change for little things like that? I understand an individual will be removed due to pregnancy but, current policy has them TAD somewhere else up to and past the birth. The billet is usually not released to be filled. Works great for a 30 person division, causes hardship with a 4-6 person division. There are many more concerns that I have heard expressed but, everyone seems to be caught up with fraternization without exploring the day to day mechanics.

  21. RDML Barry Bruner

    I have read all the comments with great interest. I certainly appreciate all the comments and concerns. We will consider these concerns as we continue down this path of change.

    To address a few of the questions listed regarding the current plan of integrating female officers into submarines. Since the officers will only be assigned to SSBNs and SSGNs, there is not a need to modify the submarines and there is little cost associated to the preparation and arrival of the females. The new officers will be assigned to a 3-man officer stateroom designated as female berthing. A reversible sign that identifies female on one side and male on the other will be used for the officer’s head — when a man goes into the restroom he will place the sign on the door identifying it is for men only; when a woman goes into the restroom she will place the sign on the door identifying it is for women only. Also, on TRIDENT class submarines there is an additional “watchstander’s head” just around the corner and down the ladder from the wardroom/stateroom area that make it easier for both genders to use the head when one of the two is already in use. We have been using the sign method for a number of years when we have had female riders underway on submarines. The only other known dollar costs are female specific medications and locks on the stateroom and head doors.

    The SSBNs and SSGNs also have a sick bay with an examination table that provides privacy for men or women seeking medical assistance. Our highly skilled and professional Independent Duty Corpsmen will receive additional female specific medical training in the next year to prepare them for the arrival of the female officers. It is important to note that there are no discernable medical issues which would preclude assignment of women to submarine duty. Just like our Surface Navy, if a female serving aboard a submarine discovers she is pregnant while at sea, the Navy would transfer the pregnant officer to a shore based unit as soon as practical based on the ship’s operational schedule. The pregnancy would be dealt with it the same way that we deal with any significant health issues for men right now, such as an acute appendicitis, heart condition, debris in the eye or a broken bones. As always, the Commanding Officer will determine the risks associated with the situation and when he can operationally and safely conduct a transfer and then transfer that individual to shore. Our CO’s are faced with emergent medical issues routinely and they will treat any potential pregnancies in the same manner.

    While the plan is to integrate only females officers initially — it should be noted, that females officers are being integrated to increase the size of the talent pool for recruiting — to allow the best and most qualified persons (male or female) to serve in our elite force! The integration of female officers will inform the decision and process as whether or not to proceed with integration of female enlisted Sailors. I would also pass on to everyone that the Navy has 178 ships with mixed gender crews with 67 of those ships having only female officers and no female enlisted assigned (such as frigates and patrol crafts).

    There are a few important things to remember about the integration; 1) There is a need to open the aperture to allow the best and most qualified persons to serve as Submarine Officers; 2) We must treat the males and females equally (this is a lesson learned from the integration of women into the surface fleet in both 1978 and 1994); 3) this is a well-thought out, phased plan; and 4) by increasing the talent pool for officer accessions and subsequently the force’s overall readiness, we ensuring that the U.S. Submarine Force will remain the world’s most capable for the ensuing decades.

    Barry Bruner

  22. I was on the USS Saratoga when females first came aboard. It was a disaster. They got special privilages, special berthing, ate in the Officer Mess (as Enlisted) and caused great discontent on the deckplates. When we got back from cruise all the brass was parading their success. It was embarrassing. Then our shop had 8 people in it, 3 female, 2 get pregnate and go TAD- the ROCPOE didn’t replace them, we went on the next cruise short-staffed. Not saying women don’t serve as well as or better than men, just saying you need to take a look a better look at manning (like TAD or ‘female relaxation rooms’- which we have now for them to hide in) and make some decisions on how to get the job done when nature takes a Sailor from the fight…

  23. Patricia Ellen Thompson

    I believe women today can run the submarine just fine ..Yesterday women could do the same it just was
    not the day or time yet.. Women have been warriors and
    lovers since the beginning of time.. Personally, Before
    my Dad died, He said this, “Patty Ellen, I have been wrong a woman can do anything a man can do it all depends
    on where she wants to go and how far she wants to travel”. “We are one in the same yet we are different!”” I believe I got to tip my hat to them ladies and I hope them the best…” Go Navy!! Go Girls!! Operation Petticoat No Man..

  24. Interesting site i’m waiting for more updates
    Best Regards

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