On the surface, the Navy’s leadership has sounded exuberant in speaking publicly about its recent decision to begin deploying female sailors in the cramped confines of combat submarines by next year.
But behind the scenes, the prospect of coed submarines is presenting medical and ship-construction challenges.
A specialist on undersea medicine is warning Congress that the air inside a submarine can be hazardous to fetal development.
“Atmosphere controls are different between ships and a submarine’s sealed environment,” retired Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, a former undersea medical officer, told The Washington Times. “There are all types of organic traces that off-gas into the air that have to be removed by mechanical means. You just can’t open a window and let them out.”
Adm. Scott said the Office of Naval Research contacted him about serving on a panel to study women and submarine issues, but he never heard back. A spokesman for the office said he had no immediate information on any submarine study.
The Navy is following the template it is using to allow gays in the military. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates voiced support for removing the ban on gays, then ordered a study to determine the impact on combat readiness and military families.
During congressional testimony this year, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, enthusiastically endorsed placing Navy women in subs.
But a comprehensive study apparently has not been conducted and now a working group is being formed to ease the integration.
“There was no study done that prompted leadership to change their minds,” said Lt. Justin Cole, a Navy spokesman. “It’s been an issue of career progression.”
Lt. Cole said the Navy is forming a “Women in Submarines Cross-Functional Working Group” to pave the way for mixed-sex subs once a 30-day deadline passes for Congress to oppose the move.
That does not seem to be an obstacle. When Mr. Mabus and Adm. Roughead testified, no lawmaker objected or asked questions about the impact.
“It is a good plan,” Adm. Roughead testified. “I can assure you of that and the submarine force is prepared to execute.”
Said Mr. Mabus: “One of the things that we’re going to do in this integration is to make sure that any questions are answered by the force, any questions are answered by the families, and that we are very open, transparent about exactly how we’re doing this. But we think this is a great idea and that it will be done very smoothly and very professionally and that it will enhance our war-fighting capabilities.”
Conservative groups worry about the sexual tension created when young men and women are confined to close quarters during long submerged deployments.
The Navy must figure out how to carve out special women’s berthing space in what are already the tightest living and working places in the fleet.