The Navy recently announced that they intend to change the policy restricting women from serving on submarines. Naturally, people are pissed. Here’s a prelude of the arguments that will soon be made as to why women can’t serve on submarines:
- There is not enough berthing space onboard the boats to accommodate women.
- Women will ruin unit cohesion.
- Women are an unnecessary distraction.
- Sailors’ wives don’t want women serving on subs because they don’t trust their husbands to not fraternize.
- Women have too many health issues to allow them to serve on platforms with limited medical facilities.
The problem with most of these arguments is that they assume it’s fair to prevent women from serving on submarines because it will make things more difficult for the men. Name another organization outside of the military where it’s OK to exclude one group because it would adversely affect another. It’s like saying black guys can’t play football because it would create more competition for the white guys. Furthermore, advocates of these arguments ignore the fact that other countries have mixed gender crews and have somehow solved the insurmountable problem of figuring out how to put a picture of a woman on one of the heads. How is it that the Navy that built the first nuclear powered submarine can’t figure out how to turn a male head into a female one?
As for the whole unit cohesion / unnecessary distraction / fraternization issue, this is just another way of punishing women for the assumed shortcomings of men. Do opponents of mixed gender crews really think that the male sailors onboard submarines, the same sailors that the Navy lauds as the most mature and intelligent sailors in the world, can’t keep it in their pants? I’ve served on both types of submarines (fast attacks and boomers) as well as mixed gender surface ships (in the interest of total disclosure, both sub tours were only a month each, but submerged the entire time, and the surface tours were both full length). Is it difficult to spend months at sea and not start feeling attracted to the women you serve with? Of course! Hell, after just a few weeks at sea just about anything looks good. Why do you think sailors are issued so many socks? (Bonus! When women take ‘matters into their own hands’ there’s a lot less laundry thereby reducing the ship’s water consumption!) It takes a great deal of maturity and self control to refrain from fraternizing, but isn’t maturity and self control two things the military prides itself on? Are opponents really saying that their sailors, who routinely endure some of the most difficult conditions in the naval service, will be sufficiently unnerved by a semi-attractive woman in loose fitting coveralls that they will cause the boat to fall apart? Sounds more like a problem for the men than the women.
Don’t get me wrong, the same desire to rail anything that moves will affect the women also, but these are problems that can be controlled for both men and women through strong leadership (both male and female) as well as strict enforcement of the no fraternization policy. This brings us to the final, and in my mind, only semi-legitimate argument opponents have for restricting women from serving on subs: Medical issues. First off, name a condition that is more likely to happen to a woman, and that doesn’t have a male counterpart, that would require her to be medevaced off the boat other than pregnancy. Having a hard time coming up with one? It’s because for every condition that a woman could face (aside from pregnancy), there is a comparable male condition, both of which have the same likelihood of occuring and both of which have the same likelihood of requiring the person to be medevaced off. That brings us to pregnancy. If a woman does get pregnant either before or during the deployment, it will create problems for the crew. Submarine crews are small by necessity, and the loss of one will adversely affect the entire crew as well as the mission. This is something that needs to be taken seriously. I’ve served with highly professional women who would never dream of getting pregnant as a way of getting out of deployment, and I’ve served with women who did just that. The difference is professionalism and maturity. The surface force (where mixed gender crews and the accompanying problems are common) is not nearly as stringent in its hiring policies as the submarine force. The surface fleet will basically take anyone, not because they don’t want professional sailors, but because they have a lot more billets to fill and can’t afford to be as picky. It should come as no surprise then that you get a much lower average maturity level on the surface side than you do the sub side. That said, there is a key point to be made: The overall maturity levels of the crew is indirectly proportional to the size of the ship, which means that the bigger the ship, the less mature the crew. Whether it’s because it’s easier to get lost in the crowd or there are simply more bad apples, bigger ships have far more personnel problems in terms of fraternization and pregnancies than smaller ships. This is great news for the submarine force, since their crew sizes are amongst the smallest in the fleet. This means they can afford to be even pickier than they already are, and do everything humanly possible to ensure that the women they select fully understand the ramifications of their actions. You can also require women to undergo pregnancy tests as part of their pre-deployment medical screening, and while it may seem discriminatory, keep in mind that men undergo similiar screenings designed to detect problems that would render them inelegible for sea duty. Woman would have to undergo the same test, the only difference being they would have to select ‘Yes or No’ instead of ‘N/A’ on the pregnancy question. You can never fully predict how a person will change while on deployment, but through careful screening, proper training, firm discipline, and constant reinforcement by strong leadership, you can reduce the likelihood of fraternization and pregnancy to near zero.
In the end, just about every argument against women serving on submarines comes down to this: Men don’t want to deal with the added stresses of having women onboard. This is a narrow minded view that unfairly punishes women who want to serve. The introduction of women onto subs will undoubtedly result in some problems and there will be growing pains, but if the submarine force is really as mature and professional as its leaders claim, they will likely avoid the majority of problems that exist in the surface force, and in the end the submarine force will emerge even stronger than it is now.