A decision fraught with dangers

The Department of Defence has decided to change policy in order to allow women to serve on submarine crews. Unless stopped by legislation, it goes into effect in 30 days.

This is not, to my mind, a good idea. I served on a missile sub back in the 1970s, and I doubt that too many things have changed all that much. Most commentary on the issue has dealt with the close quarters and lack of privacy. I agree with those concerns – as a junior officer, I shared a stateroom with two other JOs. Most of the crew had only a curtain on their bunk to provide privacy. Those aren’t the only concerns, though, and I’d like to address some others.

Let’s start with health issues. The big one is, of course, pregnancy. Pregnant women may not serve in shipboard billets; they have to be assigned to shore duty. This causes resentment in men, because they end up serving longer tours at sea because shore billets are filled with pregnant women. It causes problems on shore, because up to 34% of the billets are filled with pregnant women who are unable to handle necessary duties.

Ship movements can be affected – women who become pregnant prior to a deployment must be replaced, and submarines aren’t assigned superfluous crew who can take over as last-minute replacements. When I injured my knee while we were tied up to the tender prior to a patrol, I was told by the doctor that if I weren’t on a submarine crew, he’d have put me into the hospital. He didn’t, because there was nobody to take my place on the patrol. The latest information I was able to find showed that in 2005, 14% of all women in the Navy were single mothers, and almost two-thirds of the pregnancies were unplanned. It seems obvious that single mothers aren’t easy to assign to sea duty, and single women aren’t easy to keep on sea duty.

Operational security can also be affected. Particularly with missile subs, the idea is to head out alone and hide as much as possible. Missiles are less effective as a deterrent if the sub that carries them can be found and sunk before it can launch them. Normally, it takes a severe medical emergency to get someone medevac’d from a missile sub. Would a woman whose pregnancy was discovered during a deployment be eligible for a medical evacuation?

This brings up legal issues related to health. The atmosphere on a submarine does not match the normal atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has a significant effect on blood chemistry; when I was on the sub, the CO2 scrubbers couldn’t keep the CO2 level anywhere near as low as it is in the general atmosphere. The excess CO2 went into solution in the bloodstream and formed carbolic acid, dropping blood pH like a rock. The Navy was just starting investigations of long-term health effects when I was serving, and I don’t know what, if anything, has been determined about them. I would not take odds against someone bringing suit against the Navy and citing these issues if her child was born with problems. Or claiming that exposure to radiation was the problem – everyone on a nuclear submarine is considered a radiation worker.

Women on submarines is an issue that’s come up before – this comment on a Metafilter thread brings up several issues. There are others that come to mind – in the Naval Aviation community, it’s generally considered that you can’t make flag rank without having served in a command billet at sea. One of the original reasons for women being assigned to sea duty was the difficulty in advancement to high rank without having served at sea. I’m unaware of any similar requirement to serve on a submarine, though, unless it’s to command a submarine group, so that shouldn’t be an issue here.

Even without considering submarine duty, women in the Navy recognize that there are problems with women in the Navy. Not with all women, but there are both good and bad performers of both sexes, and the accommodations that are made for women provide opportunities that some women will take advantage of to the detriment of others.

I think allowing women to serve on submarines is a bad idea, for several reasons. But what do I know? I’m a guy who felt that it was a mistake to let women into the Naval Academy. Just because at that time women weren’t allowed on sea duty at all (except on hospital ships) was surely no reason to prevent them from taking one of the limited slots available, was it?

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