Life aboard a fast-attack submarine can be rough: Quarters are cramped, operations are hectic and privacy is just a memory, veteran submariners say.
But as the Navy prepares to assign women to fast-attack subs, one of its first female submariners is relishing the challenge of serving in the “dolphin brotherhood.”
Lt. j.g. Marquette Leveque, 25, said that serving with two other women and 150 men undersea for six months was basically a “nonevent.”
“The biggest change I think was [the men] just getting used to female voices around, and I mean that in a very positive way,” said Lt. Leveque, a native of Fort Collins, Colo.
Still, other big changes — and challenges — lie on the horizon.
The Navy, which decided to allow women to serve on guided- and ballistic-missile submarines in 2009, announced in January that female sailors would be permitted to deploy on fast-attack submarines, as the Pentagon lifted its ban on women in direct ground combat jobs.
Lt. Leveque is one of the first 24 female officers selected to train on guided- and ballistic-missile submarines, which generally avoid contact with other ships and are tasked with conducting nuclear counterattacks.
Fast-attack subs carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions; insert special operations forces into sensitive areas; lay mines; and attack enemy ships and ground targets. From 350 feet to 370 feet long and 33 feet to 40 feet wide, they are about 200 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than their missile-laden cousins and carry crews of 140 — about 20 fewer personnel than guided- and ballistic-missile subs.
‘No room to expand’
The Navy has four guided-missile and 14 ballistic-missile subs, and 54 fast-attack subs.
One reason for the Navy’s ban was the “prohibitive” cost of retrofitting sleeping and bathroom facilities on such small vessels. No retrofitting was needed for guided- and ballistic-missile subs, which provide staterooms that female officers share and bathrooms with changeable signs indicating which sex is inside. Enlisted female sailors, whose bunks provide little privacy, eventually will be assigned to fast-attack subs, officials say.
Facilities on fast-attack subs are less spacious, and there is “virtually no room to expand anything on these tightly packed boats,” said retired Rear Adm. Edward S. “Skip” McGinley II, who has served on the smaller, stealthier vessels. He said part of the subs’ bunk spaces probably would have to be cordoned off to accommodate enlisted women.
“That involves not just moving around [walls] and doors in quarters which are already extremely cramped, but also doing some significant plumbing rearrangements to establish separate sanitary facilities in a ship that is already a plumbing nightmare,” Adm. McGinley said. “This, in my humble opinion, may be the most expensive and difficult engineering problem to solve in this project.”
Rob Fisher, another veteran submariner, said: “Separate areas will be very difficult to do. Segregation of the area could be arranged, but travel-through areas for the opposite sex will be necessary.
“I believe that women can be great submariners, but the older subs were not built with privacy in mind.”