- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, distracted members of Congress may be less than alert to lame-duck power grabs. Not so with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the vigilant Maryland Republican who is guarding the U.S. submarine force from ideological inroads by feminists in the Pentagon.

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a tax-funded group of mostly civilian women, is pushing hard to get women on submarines. The DACOWITS demands that the Navy start with female officers on larger Ohio-class (Trident) ballistic missile submarines, and then make plans for female sailors on much smaller Virginia-class attack subs, two of which are now under construction.

These are incremental demands, disingenuously designed to create inequities and career path problems that could only be "solved" by assigning both enlisted women and female officers to all classes of submarines. The current chief of naval operations, Adm. Jay Johnson, opposes such a move. DACOWITS could still achieve its goal by means of a lame-duck executive order.

Enter Mr. Bartlett, who has sponsored legislation to preserve the right (and responsibility) of Congress to have a say in the matter. The House Armed Services Committee passed his amendment to the 2001 defense authorization bill with a 31-21 bipartisan majority. If approved in the House-Senate conference and the full Congress, the Bartlett amendment would prevent the Pentagon from ordering or spending defense dollars to put women on submarines without sufficient time (120 session days) for congressional review.

Comparison of submarine living spaces to the fuselage of a 747 aircraft provides context for the debate. Submariners live in miniscule quarters that are slightly wider but only half as long as the airliner. Passengers spend only a few hours on a 747, but attack subs deploy for as long as six months at a time, with infrequent port calls. Larger Trident "boomers" stay submerged for as long as 77 days. Who wants to spend 77 days in a 747?

A submariner's undersea home is devoid of fresh air, sunshine and privacy. Cramped sleeping areas and sanitary facilities about one-half to one-third smaller than surface ships are below fleet habitability standards. Fifty enlisted submariners use each shower, as compared with 25 sailors on the surface.

Attack subs accommodate 130 people in spaces equivalent to a medium-size house. About 40 percent of the crew must "hot bunk," with three sailors sharing two bunks in rotating shifts. Junior crew members frequently lay down mattresses in noisy torpedo rooms. Setting aside as much as 50 percent of facilities for 10 percent of a coed crew would disrupt prerogatives of rank and degrade morale.

The alternative "Swedish way," as described by Navy Times, would allow men and women to change clothes, bunk and shower together. "Love relationships" in Sweden's 30-person coastal-patrol subs are met with wary acceptance. Such arrangements would be inconsistent with American culture and blue-water operational requirements. Additional stress on submarine families would worsen personnel shortages, instead of improving them.

Navy officials have informed the uninterested women of DACOWITS that alterations for crews would further reduce existing below-standard conditions (for both genders); or require the removal of operational equipment. In the extreme, it would be necessary to lengthen submarines. All this and more just to please feminists who seem unaware of the difference between a sub and a foot-long sandwich.

The Navy's minimum estimate of alteration costs is $5 million per attack boat, not counting redesign and required systems changes. That would be 78 times more per crew member than comparable alterations on carriers ($313,000 vs. $4,000). At a time when ships of the "Band-Aid Navy" are being denied critical maintenance overhauls, additional "opportunity" costs of taking subs off-line would be huge. Not a penny of the untold millions spent would improve operational readiness and morale in the overtaxed Silent Service.

A submarine is the ultimate stealth weapon patrolling undetected and alone, for periods much longer than the space shuttle, in an environment more hostile than space. The smallest emergency, such as a leak or electrical fire, poses an immediate threat to sailors who must fix the problem themselves. Replacing operational equipment with separate-gender facilities could detract from the ship's endurance and/or mission capability.

More importantly, current estimates of cost do not reflect health and safety problems that cannot be engineered out. According to Dr. Hugh Scott, a retired rear admiral and expert in undersea medicine, normally elevated concentrations of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the submarine's atmosphere, which are safe for adults, can be toxic for a female sailor's unborn child. Even a moderate increase in carbon monoxide during a shipboard fire could interfere with the transport of oxygen to the fetus, and cause birth defects in the early weeks of gestation.

An obstetrical emergency, such as uncontrollable hemorrhage caused by a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, is life threatening and beyond the capability of a medical corpsman (usually not a doctor) in a sub's closet-sized sick bay. Mandatory pre-deployment pregnancy tests would make sense (even though they are not always accurate), but feminists reject them as an infringement on women's rights.

When faced with a pregnant sailor who fears birth defects because of toxic elements always in the atmosphere, what is a submarine captain to do? Mid-ocean evacuations, accomplished by means of a basket dangling from a helicopter, would be extremely perilous for all concerned, particularly when the boat is operating in deep ocean or under polar ice.

Unplanned loss rates for female sailors on surface ships are more than 2* times the rate for men, most often because of pregnancy and other medical conditions. Proportional evacuations on small-crewed submarines combined with predictable losses associated with inappropriate sexual relationships would demoralize the crew and compromise covert missions. Replacements would be even more difficult to find and place than they are on surface ships, because personnel would have to match in terms of gender as well as qualifications. This is no way to operate the Silent Service.

During the House debate, Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat, criticized Mr. Bartlett for trying to "override" the DACOWITS. Fortunately, the Constitution assigns oversight responsibility for the armed forces to Congress not to a clueless feminist committee that has just made the most convincing case yet for its own demise.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, which specializes in military personnel issues.

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